Kyle Kuzma was going to have to guard Utah Jazz forward Joe Johnson on Tuesday night, a man entering his 16th season in the NBA, who’d earned the nickname “Iso Joe” for his tendency to gravitate toward isolation plays.
What started as a pejorative nickname is now a compliment, and Johnson would be a problematic assignment for the rookie.
Luckily, Kuzma had some help. Not on the court, but off it. He had a veteran who could help him face this challenge, one who has spent more than a decade in the NBA learning the minutia of players’ tendencies.
“If he faces you up, you know he’s going to take two slow dribbles,” Corey Brewer told Kuzma. “So you have to kind of play with him, you have to try to jump at him and get him off his rhythm. Because if he gets into his rhythm and he makes the hang dribble, he’s going to shoot the jumper, he’s not going to miss it. That’s why he’s called ‘Iso Joe.’ ”
Brewer advised Kuzma before the game. He reinforced it during the game.
“One time he posted up, and I told him, ‘You can’t just back off him because if he goes to your body first, you’re dead,’” Brewer said. “You have to go to him first and try to get him off balance, I guess you could say. Lot of little things people don’t understand about basketball.”
Brewer’s tutelage is in the hope of fixing the Lakers’ most consistent and troubling problem over the last several seasons. In the last four, the Lakers have ranked last in defensive rating twice, 29th once and 28th once. Most of the Lakers roster has never played on a competent defensive team, and it’s a problem that predates coach Luke Walton, who took over the team after being on the coaching staff of the Golden State Warriors, one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
“It’s not only building the habits and identity and creating the culture that we want in place, but to do that you have to break old habits and old ways of thinking,” Walton said. “There is definitely a part of you, anything in life, if that is what you know and part of what you experienced in life, it kind of becomes how you accept it and we have to break that mind-set and create this new one and that takes time.”
Fixing the problem takes the whole village. It takes constant and repetitive drill work. Individual attention from the assistant coaches. And it takes veterans willing to mentor young players, to teach them how to play defense in the NBA.
Brewer has helped young players. So has Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, signed during the summer in part for his ability on defense.
Caldwell-Pope said those skills started when he was in college at Georgia, where a coach urged him to think more about defense.
“I started guarding all the teams’ best players and just made that one focus of mine and it carried over to the league,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It just gets me going. I like to pressure guys. Turn the ball over, get a steal or make them throw a bad pass.”
A low point for the Lakers this preseason came in their third game. Facing the Denver Nuggets, they gave up 41 points in the first quarter and 74 by halftime. Walton lamented the lack of effort and spoke to the team the next day to make clear that what he saw was unacceptable.
Since then, the Lakers have been better. Their preseason defensive rating is about middle of the pack. They beat the Sacramento Kings 75-69 in Las Vegas. Against the Jazz, they gave up 105 points, but there were signs of progress.
Some of the players’ mind-sets are changing. Walton said Jordan Clarkson seems to care more about defense this season. Caldwell-Pope said he sees the potential for a great defender in Brandon Ingram. He also likes what he sees from guards Vander Blue and Josh Hart.
Brewer believes the group can change things.
“I am 100% sure that we are going to be better than last year,” Brewer said. “We are not going to be 30th, come on now. That’s horrible. …
“When I was in Houston, when we were in the locker room, we could see the standings, where you were offensively and defensively. And we wanted to be the No. 1 team offensively and be a top 10 defensively. I feel like over here, we should be a top-five offensive team and a top-10 defensive team.”
A long road lies between the Lakers currently and that lofty goal. But reaching for it might help the Lakers crawl from a basement that has become so comfortable.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli