In 6 games this year, the Lakers have played better defense than the Boston Celtics did last year. And they don't have Kevin Garnett. What gives? It's been all about the Strong Side Zone scheme by Phil Jackson this year. Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold offered some very elucidating thoughts as to the zone.
For starters, what exactly is the Strong Side Zone?
Forum Blue and Gold: To explain what it is in a simple way, let's try to create a little visual: Chris Paul gets the ball out on the wing, with Derek Fisher on him. Fisher is going to pressure the ball but also "shade" Paul and try to get him to drive a specific direction. Behind him, not only will Pau Gasol be near the paint defending David West in the high post, but Andrew Bynum will come over to the strong side and the two of them will zone that side of the floor. The goal is to get CP3 to try to drive to Bynum, where Fisher and Bynum will try to trap the ball handler, forcing him into a rushed shot or errant pass.
That's the simple answer. I did a post with more detail, but maybe the best breakdown is Kevin Pelton's over at Basketball Prospectus. The bottom line is that however much detail you care to know, understand this — it may be the most aggressive defensive scheme employed in the NBA in a decade.
Why is Phil Jackson employing it this year?
Why employ it is simple — to stop penetration. Hornet fans should remember that last year CP3 torched the Lakers because they couldn't stop the penetration. Now the Lakers are aggressive with bigs — two seven footers, plus 6-10 Lamar Odom and Vladimir Radmanovic — keeping people out of the paint.
What are the weaknesses of the SSZ and are the Hornets well-suited to exploit those?
There are two weaknesses we have seen so far (and can picture) in the defense — and the Hornets may be best suited to exploit both of them.
One is sort of obvious; if you overload the strong side you are vulnerable on the weakside. Teams with quick ball rotation should be able to find something, although the Lakers have rotated and closed out well so far. Most teams have tried to use a skip-pass, and that could work. Again, picture CP3 driving and the Lakers loading up on the strong side to stop him, when he whips a cross-court pass to Peja on the weak side, who has time to set his feet and shoot a three. That worries me as a Lakers fan.
The other situation is that if the ball handler is so quick that he blows by the "shading" wing defender and creates a one-on-one with the man playing the zone. Then backdoor and other options open up. Iverson was able to do a little of this to the Lakers, and Paul is certainly faster than Iverson (and a better passer).
I am curious to see how the Lakers handle this. Traditionally they have given Paul the "Steve Nash treatment" — let him shoot the ball, it is less dangerous than when he starts passing. It's not that Paul isn't a great scorer, but the Hornets are best when he distributes as much as he scores, so the Lakers tried to take everyone else away. However, this season the Lakers have been aggressive in stopping a team's top scorer and making the guys down the roster beat them. I am not sure what they are going to do tonight.
I saw a lot of the Houston-Lakers game, and the "quick ball handler" that can blow by the wing defender principle was certainly in effect, with Aaron Brooks. As though it weren't the case every night, Chris Paul will be a huge key to try and exploit that tomorrow. One thing that is promising: Kurt mentions how good ball rotation is one of the keys to beating the SSZ. As much as I slam our defensive rotation to passed balls on the perimeter, our offensive perimeter ball movement is awesome. Rasual Butler, Morris Peterson, and Peja have all done a terrific job swinging the ball around rapidly this year. The only guy I worry about, in terms of ball movement, is David West (who continues to show a reluctance to swing to open shooters, if he has his own avenue).
I am most curious to see how the SSZ impacts David West's isolation game. He's struggled so far this year and really needs a rebound game soon. If the Hornets can get him on the weakside of offensive plays and maybe get him some open jumpers, his isolation game will return. As good as Chris Paul is, we can't expect him to create every single shot on every possession.