With the stunning hire of Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers have chosen to embrace the point guard-centric offense that provided Steve Nash with his greatest success, and by all appearances, they made a solid choice.
With the entire basketball universe expecting Phil Jackson to reunite with the Lakers and lead them to another championship, that the Lakers took a sudden about face and went with arguably the next best candidate in Mike D'Antoni is, needless to say, a massive surprise. As such, it behooves us to get the elephant in the room out of the way first in that Phil would have been a spectacular hire. The players believed in him, we thought that Phil and Steve Nash could have found a happy medium between the triangle offense and Nash's traditional domain, and he would have constructed a system that brought success to everyone involved. But make no mistake: D'Antoni is no slouch in this department either. After going through the paces in implementing an offense many feared would restrict Nash's talents, the Lakers are going with one that unambiguously uses them to their fullest capacity. Under D'Antoni's auspices, we can expect Nash to be Nash once more, and this was what excited the imaginations of Laker fans when we obtained him this past July.
And fitting with a player of Nash's awesome talents, everything begins and ends with the pick-and-roll, Nash's preferred method of destroying opposing defenses. The Lakers will run this to start off their offense. They will run it as an option when an attempted set goes sour. They will run it up ten, down twenty, or otherwise. They will run it all the time. And this works because not only is Nash one of the best pick-and-roll guards of all time, the Lakers have the game's best roll man in Dwight Howard, who has more or less proven so far this year that even with only a portion of his full physical prowess, he can be an overwhelming force in the interior. He sets bone crushing screens to open up space for the ballhandler, expects to convert basically any lob thrown even remotely around his airspace, and pairs wonderfully with a passing guard of Nash's caliber.
Beyond Nash and Howard, the Lakers have plenty of players that fit into this dynamic. Kobe Bryant is a solid pick-and-roll operator in his own right and no doubt will get plenty of opportunities to demonstrate this, both to attack defenses from different angles and to keep Nash fresh. Lest we forget, the fourth option on the team in Pau Gasol is, if anything, a more multifaceted partner in the pick-and-roll than Howard, as Pau pairs a soft touch around the rim with the ability to hit a jumper from twenty feet out. Although Pau's accuracy has dipped recently -- the last two games notwithstanding -- he still is a solid shooter from range and the Kobe/Pau pick-and-roll has been a staple of the Lakers, triangle or otherwise, in Los Angeles since Pau's arrival in 2008. If you want to know how all these pieces tie together, you need only refer to the 2-4-5 sequences the Lakers keep on running to give Dwight easy dunks around the rim, a small glimpse of what they will basically do all the time now.
That we are discussing a halfcourt set also brings us to the common misconception that the Lakers will be a "running" offense with D'Antoni at the helm. To an extent, this is true. If you have someone like Nash, it would be a waste of his talents not to push the ball at every opportunity and let him make optimal decisions in transition. Both of the Lakers' starting bigs in Howard and Gasol are adept at rim running, Kobe as to be viewed as a constant threat in transition, and basically anyone else who can get to the rim or free themselves for an open jumper benefits from Nash in this situation. Simply, if you attack before the defense is set up, you maximize your chances at getting an easier shot, and Nash is as good as anyone in the history of the league at aiding this process along.
But as is fairly obvious right now, pushing the ball is merely a tool the offense can use. The Lakers are going to blow our socks off in basically every respect; this isn't a team that needs easy transition buckets to buttress a poor halfcourt offense. For that matter, neither were D'Antoni's Suns teams. They were every bit as potent in the halfcourt as they were tearing up the court in transition, and even if the Lakers are lacking in athleticism, with the glaring exception of Howard, they certainly can still be effective in this regard. If you think that other teams will be able to use this tempo against an aging Lakers lineup, it only is relevant if they are not dragging the ball out of their own net, which will happen often in the Lakers' new high octane offense. Such opportunities will be even more hard to come by once this group of players gets used to playing with one another and the stream of turnovers we have been seeing lately is cut.
Most of our discussion has been about the offense since that will be the most significant change in philosophy, but many cite Mike D'Antoni's supposed failure as a defensive coach in Phoenix as a mark against him. First, his Phoenix squads were average on that end, never terrible. See the string of defensive efficiency finishes since the '04-'05 season: 17th, 16th, 13th, and 16th. That was with a bunch of below average defenders and outright sieves regularly playing, Raja Bell and Shawn Marion being two particular exceptions. This past year in New York when D'Antoni had Tyson Chandler, who ultimately won Defensive Player of the Year, the Knicks had a top ten defense. No disrespect to Chandler, but we think that Howard cad exceed the impact on defense and then some. He dragged Orlando squads that featured a motley crew of defenders similar to Nash's Phoenix days to top five defensive finishes and we should expect that to be the case here. Even if the Lakers fall a bit short in this category, however, let us remember that with a gangbusters offensive attack, you don't need the defense to be super elite, although it certainly would help.
Going back to the offense, a particular concern is whether the Lakers will have sufficient spacing to make things operate smoothly. Nash was a freewheeling maestro in Phoenix, but he did it with shooters on all sides and no traditional center to clog up the middle until Steve Kerr made an ill-founded trade for Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe has displayed an affinity for the catch-and-shoot game that should help in this regard, but the Lakers' other perimeter shooters have not exactly inspired confidence. Jodie Meeks, who was recently freed from Mike Brown's bizarre rotations doghouse, should help, but the likes of Steve Blake, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, and others need to start shooting much better on the wide open jumpers they have been getting and will continue to get under this new system.
The spacing issue also brings up the question of where exactly Pau Gasol fits into the equation. We mentioned him above as an adept pick-and-roll partner -- more on the pick-and-pop side, although we digress -- but a good portion of the time, this offense is going to make him a much better version of Boris Diaw, a high post operator who makes slick passes, knocks down open shots from range, and gets a mismatch on the post once in a while. Naturally, it has been a dictum since Pau has arrived in the city that he is most effective in the post, but that domain not only increasingly belongs to Howard, it will be needed for the Lakers' pick-and-roll ballhandlers to have greater freedom to get to the rim.
This is especially relevant since a lot of the above is contingent on Nash being on the floor. Without him, you need someone to fill the gap and run the offense. To a certain extent, Kobe is capable of picking up some of the slack in this regard, as his handle appears to have improved from last year's injuries, and as been made very clear recently, he is a solid playmaker. Still, at least one of Steve Blake, Darius Morris, and Chris Duhon has to be able to rise to the occasion as a bona fide point guard who can run the offense and keep things afloat while Nash sits. Blake has done decent work as an assist man lately, although that partly might be his comfort under the Princeton; Morris has the athleticism to push the ball up the floor, but his court vision and general decision-making is suspect; and Duhon has experience with D'Antoni in New York, including an amazing 22 assist (!) game. Perhaps none will prove adequate, but D'Antoni's system has proven liberating for a lot of point guards -- see Raymond Felton -- so it would not be totally outlandish to believe that one of these three could ultimately direct the offense.
This noted, the spacing problems and possible backup point guard issues bring up a rather touchy issue we thought we had moved past: should Pau Gasol be traded? This isn't to propose any specific scenario, but to indicate that the talent base at the top of the roster has grown to the point that moving Pau, the Lakers' lone tradeable asset they would be willing to give up, for parts and pieces would not be an off-the-wall proposition. At a certain juncture, you only need your fourth option to do so much, and it is clear that Pau has moved down the team's overall pecking order. Having a souped up Boris Diaw is great and definitely can work within the context of the offense, but would getting a floor spacing four and a wing or two who can shoot a better way to envision the team? This certainly won't happen now since D'Antoni will get his fair shake to see if this group as is can work to expectations, but it is a possibility to be open to near the deadline.
So, we have discussed the offense, which despite some structural flaws, should be awesome and a defense that will be solid if Howard returns to form. Certainly also helps that D'Antoni has not only the utmost confidence of Nash, but also of Kobe, who idolized D'Antoni as a child in Italy. Their time on the Olympic team assuredly helped this relationship, as it likely did for Howard, who was able to share a similar experience in 2008. So at the bare minimum, the buy-in aspect that D'Antoni will enjoy among the players immediately gives him a huge advantage over Mike Brown, who was never able to get the team behind his vision. After all, the Princeton offense was not necessarily at fault, but rather Brown's inability to properly implement it. When it comes down to it, this is a tremendously talented starting group and they should ultimately be able to run just about any system. You need a coach to unify them and provide a vision they can accept and have faith that it will work out to the betterment of everyone involved. D'Antoni's track record essentially speaks for itself here, bringing this vision not just to the players, but also to management, who has to feel that he is the closest thing to Showtime in the modern NBA. With the talent of this roster and the best floor general directing the show since Magic unleashed, it should be a fun ride indeed.
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