When the dust settled this offseason and the Lakers had landed two superstars in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, everyone began to ask, "Can these guys be stopped?" The mere thought of a Nash-Howard pick-and-roll is enough to get anyone excited. Arguably the best pick-and-roll point guard in history pairing up with the league’s best pick-and-roll big man almost doesn’t seem fair. Watch out Stockton and Malone, this duo has a strong chance at becoming the most potent pick-and-roll duo the league has ever seen. If that wasn’t a scary enough proposition, rotating to help means leaving the likes of Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol alone. Good luck.
The night the news was announced that Superman would be wearing purple and gold, I popped a bottle of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut and lit one of my Ashton Cabinet Vintage cigars to celebrate the work of the league’s best GM. As I sat there sipping and smoking, I started wondering if this could be the greatest offense the league has ever seen.
The next day, I began digging through the data to see what teams this Lakers squad would have to surpass to earn the title of greatest offense in history. The league has changed drastically over the years with the implementation of the shot clock, the addition of the three point line, changes in the rules around defense. In order to take these changes into account I decided to focus on offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and look at the difference between a team’s offensive rating and the league average that season. I produced a list of the teams that were far and away offensively superior to the rest of the league. Here are the top 5 teams:
Any casual fan of the Lakers will notice two teams on that list immediately: the Phoenix Suns of 2004-05 and 2009-10. Those two teams were led by none other than Steve Nash and both teams made it to the conference finals before being beaten by the eventual NBA champion. What a more knowledgeable fan will notice is that the two Dallas Mavericks teams on that list were also led by Steve Nash. Over almost a 40 year period, the top four offenses have been led by Steve Nash. No Showtime era Lakers. No Jordan Bulls. No Kobe-Shaq Lakers. No LeBron-Wade Heatles. The only other team to make the list was the aforementioned best pick-and-roll duo of Stockton and Malone. That means all five teams were built on a hall of fame pick-and-roll point guard paired with an all-star big man.
If holding down the top four spots wasn’t impressive enough, the fact that Nash did so with two different teams over a nine year span is. In fact, over that nine year span Nash led his team to the best offense in the association six times and finished with the second best offense the other three. It would appear that pairing Nash with an all-star big man always produces a top tier offense. It doesn’t matter if the big man is a player who rolls to basket and finishes with a dunk a la Amar'e Stoudemire, or flares out for the pick-and-pop a la Dirk Nowitzki; Nash makes it work. What makes this current roster so dangerous is that the Lakers have both types of big men. Dwight Howard is just as good as, if not better than, Stoudemire at rolling to the rim for the finish. Gasol is on par with the young Nowitzki at shooting the mid-range jumper. The Lakers' two big men are more talent than Nash has every played with, and we haven’t even discussed one Kobe Bean Bryant.
If there is one weakness with the Lakers offense it is three-point shooting. Nash has typically had supporting players who could spread the floor and create room and punish the defense for helping on the pick-and-roll. The Lakers on the other hand have not been a good three-point shooting team, finishing 26th in three-point shooting percentage last season. By comparison, the two Suns teams and 2002 Mavericks finished 1st twice and 4th once in three-point shooting percentage. It is safe to say the Lakers don’t have the personnel to replicate that type of shooting. The top team on that list, however, was not a juggernaut shooting the long ball. The 2003-04 Mavericks made a respectable 34.8% of their attempts, good for 11th in the league. This is the type of shooting performance the Lakers could very well reach.
In the 2010-11 season the Lakers, with virtually the same core roster, made 35.2% of their threes which placed them 17th in the league. Last season's abysmal performance was (I believe) due in part to the lockout preventing a good training camp and the condensed schedule preventing the players from getting the rest they needed. The Lakers' top three long ball shooters by attempts were Kobe Bryant (287), Metta World Peace (189), and Steve Blake (158). Bryant made only 30.3%, his lowest percentage in 10 years. World Peace hit on 29.6%, also the lowest percentage in 10 years. Finally Blake connected on 33.5% of his attempts, second lowest percentage in his nine year career. I would expect each of these players to bounce back closer their career averages this season.
The Lakers ought to see an improvement in three-point shooting because of who they brought in this year. Steve Nash (39.0%), Jodie Meeks (36.5%), and Antawn Jamison (34.1%) are capable (or in Nash’s case excellent) three point shooters. Regression back to the mean for the rest of the Lakers should have this roster hitting at least 35% of their threes, just like that Dallas team at the top of the list.
Speaking of that 2003-04 Dallas team, if they are the gold standard for offenses, then it would only be in our best interest to analyze what they did and didn’t do well and compare or contrast that with the Lakers. That Dallas team was dominant because they shot the ball well (third in eFG%), didn’t turn it over (first in TOV%), and hit the offensive glass (third in ORB%). Their one weakness was that they didn’t get to the line often, finishing 26th in free throws made per field goal attempt.
The Lakers match up pretty well with those statistics. Last year the Lakers were a respectable 13th in eFG%. Adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, who ranked 3rd and 4th in the league respectively, will certainly move the Lakers up the rankings. Add in some better three point shooting and the Lakers should be a top five team in this category.
On the offensive glass the Lakers were 6th last year and have now added one of the league’s best rebounders. Furthermore, last year’s late acquisition, Jordan Hill, has posted an offensive rebound rate in each of his three seasons in the league that were higher than all but one of Dwight Howard’s. He is a beast on the offensive glass and when healthy will surely contribute here.
Turnovers were one of the Achilles heels for the Lakers last year as they finished 20th in the league. Adding Nash should help reduce turnovers as other players won’t be forced to create shots for themselves as often. Howard too is an upgrade as he can better handle double teams, whereas Andrew Bynum was prone to turn it over if an aggressive double came. Those upgrades will help, but the chances are the Lakers won’t become a top-ranked team at holding on to the ball like those Mavericks, which means they will have to outperform the Mavs in the final category to have a chance at claiming the title of best offense in history.
The good news for the Lakers is that they are very good at the last metric, free throws made per field goal attempt. The Lakers were 8th last year, much better than the 26th ranked Mavericks. Adding Nash and Meeks who made roughly 90% of their attempts last season will only improve this statistic. The biggest gain will come from Dwight Howard though. Yes, his free throw percentage is poor, but he gets to the line a lot. Throughout his career he has been a 60% free throw shooter. Shooting 60% from the line means an expectation of 1.2 points per possession where he gets fouled. That would be the most efficient offense in history, so clearly sending Howard to the line is not a negative. Additionally, the quicker he draws fouls the sooner the Lakers will be in the bonus which will likely lead to more free throws for the better shooters like Bryant and Gasol. The Lakers should be a top five team in this category as well.
Comparing the potential of this Lakers team to that Mavericks team in the "four factors" is not the only area of similarity. A while back I did some digging to see if any team had ever had four players with PERs in the 20’s. I went through many of the great teams of the past and while I found plenty of "Big 3" teams, I could not find a single team with four players to reach that threshold. The Lakers came close two seasons ago as Lamar Odom’s SMOTY campaign fell just shy (19.4). I thought this new Lakers squad would have a chance to be the first as all four of the Lakers stars have consistently exceeded that mark. Unfortunately I was wrong. That 2003-04 Mavericks team had four players with PERs in the 20’s.
Two of the four names are surely surprising: Antawn Jamison and Marquis Daniels. It is often forgotten that Antawn Jamison played one year in Dallas with Steve Nash. Can you guess in which season he posted the highest PER of his career? Daniels too posted a career high in PER that season as a rookie off the bench. It too was his only season playing with Nash. In addition to the four players with PERs above 20, the Mavs had another five players with above average (15.0) PERs. To go nine deep with above average players is virtually unheard of. It should be quite clear how that team was special offensively and why they were far and away the best offense the league has seen.
How do the Lakers compare? The Lakers will almost certainly have four players with PERs over 20, but it isn’t difficult to see the Lakers' core as being even better than Dallas’. With all due respect to Jamison and Daniels, there is no comparison between them and any of the four future Hall of Famers the Lakers have (yes Gasol will be in the Hall of Fame). The Lakers are certainly the more top-heavy team, but what about depth? The Lakers' recent acquisitions suggest they have a chance at posting eight players with PERs above average. The four other players would likely be Jordan Hill (15.8 last season), Antawn Jamison (16.1), Metta World Peace (11.0), and Jodie Meeks (11.2). Hill (if healthy) and Jamison are almost locks to do it. World Peace and Meeks have both done it in the past but not last season. World Peace looks much better this year after dropping 30 pounds. Improved athleticism with a dose of Steve Nash setting him up for open shots should see a much more efficient World Peace. Meeks posted a PER of 15.8 when he was first traded to Philadelphia. His PER increased as he made 38% of his threes while upping his assist rate. Given the talent surrounding him this season, he should be able to do both again. Of course, World Peace and Meeks may fall short, but the Lakers can go at least eight players deep with quality talent.
So what does all this mean? The best offense in history was built around Steve Nash and an all-star pick-and-roll partner. The team was elite in three of the four offensive factors, posted four players with PERs above 20 and had a bench filled with quality depth. The current Lakers are built around the same Steve Nash orchestrating the offense and he has two all-star caliber pick-and-roll partners now. The Lakers will likely be elite in three of the four offensive factors as well. They should finish with four players with PERs above 20, and too have some solid bench players. It would appear that this Lakers team has the potential to give the Mavericks team a run for the title of best offense in history.
The biggest downside for the Mavericks was that as good as they were on offense they were nearly as bad on defense. That roster featured Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison, and Antoine Walker. The defensive stopper of last resort? Dirk Nowitzki. Not even Tom Thibodeau could have designed a scheme for that team to get defensive stops. The Mavs were the 5th worst defensive team in the association and it eventually was their downfall. In fact, defense has always been the issue with Steve Nash’s teams. Three of the four teams were ranked in the mid-twenties defensively. The lone team ranked as average was the 2005 Suns (17th) who were one Joe Johnson injury away from a title.
When the offense is that unstoppable, the defense only needs to be mediocre in order to have title aspirations. Take that same type offense and pair it with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, another Defensive Player of the Year winner, and a 12-time All-Defensive team selection and what do you get? A good reason to pop a bottle of champagne, light a cigar, and celebrate. October 30th can't seem to come fast enough as I am eager to see what could be history in the making.