Three seasons ago (the last one to end in defeat for the purple and gold), the Los Angeles Lakers had one of the best offenses in the NBA. They ranked 3rd in Offensive Ranking, behind only the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns. That 2007-2008 season marked the arrival of many things, both literal and figurative. It marked the arrival of the Lakers as a legitimate contender, the arrival of Andrew Bynum as a player who has more than just potential (as well as the unfortunate arrival of his inability to play full seasons), the arrival of Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza via highway robbery trades, and, most importantly as it pertains to this discourse on the Lakers' current offense, the arrival of the Bench Mob.
In lieu of recent struggles, it might be difficult to remember just how powerful a force the Bench Mob was. In sharp contrast to the methodical brilliance of the starters, the bench played a completely different, up-tempo style that teams struggled to cope with. The bench that season consisted of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton/Vlad Radmonivic, Ronny Turiaf, and Andrew Bynum. You might look at that list now and see Andrew Bynum and 4 scrubs, but not in '08. Back then, Farmar pushed the pace but remained under control, and if he was cut off, he could find Sasha and Vlad Rad at the 3 pt line, or Turiaf and Bynum on a secondary break. If the fast break didn't work, they ran a steady dose of pick and roll as Farmar found Bynum for alley oops or Sasha punished teams for going under screens. And the ball movement, oh sweet mercy, the Bench Mob's ball movement was spectacular. No sticky palms, no relentless dribbling, just a bunch of guys sharing the rock until somebody had a wide open shot.
08-09 saw the Bench Mob start the season with even more potency. Vlad Rad and Turiaf were gone, and Sasha regressed a little bit, but new addition Trevor Ariza gave Farmar someone to expertly fill the wing on the fast break. Lamar Odom replaced Turiaf (pretty massive upgrade there), and the 5th member of the Bench Mob was which ever starting big was in at the time. To begin the season, this lineup absolutely dominated opposing teams, and played a huge role in the Lakers' 21-3 start to the season.
So what happened? A combination of attrition and regression killed the Bench Mob's mojo. Trevor Ariza was moved to the starting lineup, as did Lamar Odom with Andrew Bynum's injury. Sasha's ability fell off the face of the earth. Suddenly, the offensive potency was gone, and with it severe attention was paid to the Bench Mob's less sterling defensive ability. However, the Lakers were still a great offensive team, because the starters were so ludicrously efficient that it didn't matter much what the bench did. Last year, because of Ron Artest's lack of comfort, and Derek Fisher's (and later, Kobe Bryant's) poor regular season play, the Lakers fell off dramatically on offense, falling to just above average in the league, and the bench's failings were much more pronounced because the starters weren't picking them up anymore.
Why spend so many words on the Lakers' bench of 2 and 3 years past? I think it is the key to understanding why last year's bench performed so poorly. Despite vast changes in personnel (and the effectiveness of other personnel), the Bench Mob never stopped trying to be the Bench Mob. They never adjusted their style of play (and believe me, the coaches were telling them to adjust) to accommodate the fact that they could no longer effectively play in that style. They continued to push the pace, despite a complete lack of effectiveness, and in the half-court, ball and player movement were replaced with Farmar and Brown taking turns over-dribbling and jacking up shots.
This off-season, the front office made the following edict abundantly clear: The Bench Mob is dead. Gone is Jordan Farmar, in many ways the ring-leader of both the good and bad versions of the Mob. Brought in are three veteran players, only one of which (Matt Barnes) could even come close to being considered "Bench Mob" personnel. Now, instead of young kids littering the 2nd unit, the Lakers go 10 deep with only one member of each unit under the age of 30. Maturity is the new rule. Is it a bit dangerous? Yes, because the Lakers are a bit short on the qualities (athleticism, speed) that youth brings to the table. But the message is clear; the expectation of this team is consistency. Not consistency in play (although that would be an added benefit), but consistency in ideology. Let's take a look at the personnel.
Would it be harsh of me to say that my favorite Derek Fisher season was 2000-2001? In that season, the 2nd championship of the Shaq/Kobe era, Fisher missed the first 62 games of the season with a messed up foot, played the last 20 games to get his legs, and then spend the entire postseason just destroying teams from the outside (over 50% 3pt shooting for the entire postseason, and 15-20 from 3 in the pivotal 4 game annihilation of the prime contender San Antonio Spurs). That team underperformed in the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason run since the introduction of the 16 team format, and Derek Fisher played a huge role in turning a very good team into a dominant one.
Shouldn't that be the prevailing strategy for Fisher at this point? Hog tie him to the bench, break his finger if you have to, then get him just enough burn in the regular season to build a rhythm, and then commence with the annual postseason heroics? Last season, we weren't so lucky. We had to watch Fish take the full 82 game season to "find his legs." I'm not exactly complaining any more, though I certainly did as he was doing it, because his postseason once again confirmed that we are foolish to doubt him when it really matters. The problem is his play when it doesn't really matter. Maybe Fish has a bounceback year, maybe he doesn't. I suppose it doesn't really matter, but I'd just as soon not have to watch 82 games of bricked PUJITs and WALITs, you know?
Behind Derek Fisher, we have the newly arrived Steve Blake, who in many ways is like a 6 (thousand) years younger version of Mr. Intangibles himself. Blake will keep the offense organized, not try to do too much, and keep the defenses honest with a consistent outside stroke. Most importantly, he will bring offensive continuity to the team by ensuring the bench plays in the same style as starters, which will allow for much smoother hybrid (some starters, some bench) lineups.
Championship and Finals MVP notwithstanding, Kobe Bryant has had better seasons than last year's version on offense. Like, just about all of them since he went from super young bench player to contributor on a champion. Last year was Kobe's lowest PER since 1999-2000, his lowest shooting percentage (by far) since Mitch Kupchak found him some teammates, and only a percentage point higher than his lowest True Shooting % (incorporating the ability to get to the foul line) ever. Of course, there are tons of mitigating factors which explain this decline. Dude played with a broken finger for the last 2/3 of the season and playoffs, and added multiple other nicks and injuries along the way. At one point, I counted 4 different areas of his body that weren't right. In the playoffs, all it took was a drained knee to turn him back into Kobe for just long enough to get him ring #5. At his best, as he was for most of the postseason, he is the most complex, difficult to stop, offensive force in the game.
There are two problems with writing off Kobe's offensive struggles to those mitigating factors. The first problem is that a lot of those factors aren't going away. The knee problems he sustained last season seem to fall closer to "normal wear and tear of an older top tier athlete" than "something's broke, and we can fix it with medicine". The finger was a freak accident, but by playing with it last year, he developed an arthritic condition that won't go away, so he's just going to have to figure out how to deal with it. And, while there are no lingering effects from the myriad of other injuries he picked up last year, his susceptibility to picking up those types of injuries is definitely increasing. That leads to the other problem, which is that Kobe doesn't understand that mitigating factors, you know, mitigate. His response to a messed up body is essentially "Eff you, body, I'm just going to keep on doing like I do." It's admirable in many ways, a clear sign of his indomitable will. But what it isn't, is effective and/or healthy. If Kobe doesn't learn how to listen to his body soon, there won't be much Kobe left.
Behind Kobe, we have Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic. Sasha's supposed offensive skillset is what this team has been screaming for, but it's been a long, long time since that skillset has shown us any proof of life. Because of this, we're likely to see a lot more of Brown than Sasha, and Brown is a capable player on the offensive end, as long as he sticks to the system. He didn't far too often last year, but he should have a bit more help in that regard this year.
No one is confused about Ron Artest's offensive performance last season. He looked lost. He admitted it, Phil Jackson admitted it, everyone knows it. He came through with some massive offensive performances in the playoffs last season (Game 7, anyone?), but by and large he had the look of a guy trying to play the currently non-existent Square offense. Why is this a good thing? Well, Ron's confusion didn't prevent the Lakers from hosting another title parade, and even better, that confusion seems to be a thing of the past. It's real hard to derive meaning from meaningless preseason games, but one of the clearest pieces of evidence we've seen is that Artest knows what he is doing. He's launching shots without hesitation, finding his places within the offense, and finding far greater success than we saw on a regular basis last year. Along with an in-form Lamar Odom, Artest has been the Lakers best offensive player so far this preseason.
Behind Artest, Phil Jackson has some options, but the leader in the clubhouse has to be Matt Barnes. Luke Walton does a great job of playing his role in the Triangle, but I just don't see Walton making up on offense what Barnes has on him defensively, and besides, Luke's ability to even play basketball is unfortunately questionable right now. Barnes wouldn't be here if the Lakers had confidence in Walton's ability to give them 60 games, much less 82+playoffs. Ironically, Barnes fits the mold of the "triangle wing player" better than Artest does, because he is a more accomplished cutter than Ron-Ron. No matter who's on the court at the 3, you can bank on solid, but probably not spectacular play. Which is fine, considering this position should really be no better than 4th option most of the time.
[Added Bonus: Devin Ebanks won't see any time, but his offensive game is miles ahead of where I expected it to be. He looks like he's capable of a dependable outside shooting stroke, and can slash with the best of them.]
It is in the middle that we find what should be the Lakers 1st option, at least during the regular season. I'm sure that, if he's playing, Kobe Bryant will get his fill first, and that's fine, but for the 82 game grind, this offense should run through the middle as a 1st resort. That's because the Lakers employ the most gifted, skilled, and capable trio of bigs in the league (until the Celtics acquired Shaq, they were also the biggest). It is truly an embarrassment of riches that one of the three of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom have to be on the bench at all times.
We'll start with Pau, who is only the most skilled and accomplished post player in the league. His repertoire of post moves is so big, The Dream called him for lessons instead of the other way around. I'm kidding, of course, but Pau can do it all. Hooks with either hand, fade aways to either shoulder, spin moves, the whole 9 yards. If only he could add dunk to the list. He's also an accomplished passer, and has range up to 15-20 feet. Put it this way, 8-10 is not an uncommon box score for Mr. Gasol.
It can also be a common box score for Andrew Bynum, at times. Drew has nowhere near Pau's consistency, but he does have a very polished back to the basket game, and he has both the wingspan and the hops to make the difference between a cute finessed layup and a powerful throwdown. Unfortunately, Drew has been robbed of some of that athleticism, and it usually takes him a while to get back in rhythm when returning from injury. Therefore, it may be well into February or later before we see Drew really play the role of dominant offensive force.
Lamar Odom is an altogether different kind of animal. Lamar doesn't play much with his back to the basket (though he's usually effective enough when he does that you wonder why), but he certainly brings enough to the table to more than make up for it. He's not a great shooter, but Lamar does three things better than just about anybody else in this league at his position: handle the ball, pass the ball, and make cuts to the basket. Lamar is basically a point guard in a power forward's body, minus a consistent outside shot. And when he and Pau get the interior passing going, it's a joy to watch.
The remaining bigs are a bit of a struggle on the offensive end, as Caracter still has much to learn, and Theo Ratliff was never intended to be the guy who is counted on for scoring.
Break out your protractors folks, because the 2010-2011 Lakers are going to All Triangle, all the time. In years past, for better or worse, the Lakers have always had two styles of play: the triangle-predominant methodical approach of the starters, and the helter-skelter up-tempo approach of the bench. Now, for the first time in Phil Jackson's 2nd go round with this team, he has a roster built specifically with his offense of choice in mind. Every player on the team fits the bill as a Triangle player, so there is no need for adaptation of personnel to playing style, or vice versa.
I won't spend much time talking about the Triangle, as this sucker is long enough already, but I will say that the offense is predicated on two key factors: spacing and ball movement. The Lakers struggled with both of these factors last year, and while the bench were the main culprits, the starters certainly had problems of their own. Spacing is a function of being in the right place and knocking down shots when presented with them. The Lakers do just fine with the first bit, but that 2nd part they struggled with. Bryant, Artest, and Fisher all shot below their career average from distance last year, and there is hope of a bounceback with all three. If they all outperform last year's debacle, this team's offensive potency increases tenfold.
Ball movement is another matter entirely, because ball movement is almost entirely a function of proper thinking. No matter how good the Lakers spacing is, they still have to actually knock down open shots to preserve it, but with ball movement, the execution of a pass is a far smaller portion of the overall equation, with the willingness to move the ball being the vast majority of the issue. We've already discussed the bench ad nauseum, but the starters had their fair share of issues as well. The ball tended to stick in the hands of Ron Artest (because he didn't know right away where to go next), Kobe Bryant (because he's Kobe), and Derek Fisher (because he wanted to dig the hole even deeper so his postseason emergence from the hole would look even more heroic). For those of you not paying attention, that's the whole perimeter, which often deprived our prize bigs from touching the ball as often as they should. Repeat preseason disclaimers, but so far it is abundantly clear that ball movement has been addressed by the coaching staff. The passing has been sloppy, but the effort has been there all preseason. As I've said before, so far, overpassing, and not underpassing, has been the norm.
Best Offensive Lineup
Blake - Bryant - Artest - Odom - Gasol
Odom and Gasol are the two bigs who work the best together on offense, as Odom does a tremendous job of finding lanes to cut to the basket, and Gasol has the vision to spot him on those cuts. This lineup also works very well because both Gasol and Odom are capable of operating outside, which allows Kobe to post up from 10-15 feet, a position in which he's extremely effective. Barnes fits the Triangle mold better than Artest, but Artest is a more consistent outside shooter, and has looked extremely comfortable within the offense as compared to last year's version. Blake is included over Fisher simply because he's a more consistent outside threat. The postseason lineup obviously has Fisher as a member.
The offseason changes made by the front office had offense in mind much more so than defense, and rightfully so. Considering their talent, the offense (in the regular season at least) was just short of embarassing. There is no way a team as good as the Lakers should have been just above average in the league. Now, with both the personnel and (apparently) the mentality to perform better, the offense should be much improved. A lot of the Lakers potential on offense hinges on return of outside shooting touch for the starting perimeter players. If the team can re-discover the outside touch (they ranked 24th overall last season), it will provide them the necessary space to make the Triangle lethal again.