Only the return of Steve Nash could so drastically change the expectations in Laker Land that we would be upset at the Lakers' current state of affairs, namely their loss against Denver on the road. By all accounts, Denver is a much tougher squad than their record indicates, has been dealt a horrid hand by the NBA schedule makers, and from the beginning of the season, was slated as the type of the squad that an older Lakers team would struggle with. It doesn't excuse the Lakers' lackluster effort or nonexistent defensive rotations, but it highlights that losing to Denver on the road in a game in which the Lakers' franchise center went AWOL isn't anything to lose sleep over. Facing Denver on the road as the second game of back-to-back is something that this team has struggled with for years, especially given the respective squads' current construction.
While these may appear to be excuses, the fact that we are even venturing to call them as such points to how Nash has revised what this team's ceiling appears to be. Suddenly, the offense isn't just flowing, it's outright annihilating teams. Every time Mike D'Antoni said that Nash would dramatically change how the team played, he wasn't joking: everything the Lakers do out of Horns, something Drew has documented excellently for us, is insanely effective with Nash at the helm. It provides the fulcrum through which each of the Lakers' stars can shine, as Nash runs the pick-and-roll and sets Stockton-esque screens; Kobe spaces the floor and acts as a dynamic cutter; Gasol acts as the linchpin via his high post passing and newfound confidence in driving to the rim from that spot; and Dwight finishes everything. Essentially, D'Antoni has, at least for the moment, succeeded in the task Mike Brown miserably failed at in that he has found a way to incorporate the Lakers' four stars into a coherent whole.
Now, that rosy image belies a lot of cracks within the surface and the execution in a lot of these sequences isn't perfect, but they're still very, very good after only three games of the four stars playing under this system. The problem is getting consistent results on the other end outside of the fourth quarter, which mainly relies on a certain Dwight Howard demonstrating his DPOY credentials. Whether the lack of this is due to physical issues or waning effort, the Lakers rely on him to field a defense that perhaps might not be elite, but good enough to pass by while the offense keeps on humming. Past this, great play from the starters has obscured what has been declining play from the bench and a lack of wing defenders, something the team will have to start addressing internally or with trades. The upside is that with Nash in the fold, the Lakers can lean on what should turn out to be a dominant offense while they sort out the other issues on the roster.
- Steve Nash -- Perhaps as impressive as Nash's spectacular passes and effortless shooting ability is his ability to do all of the mundane things at a very high level. As mentioned, he sets excellent screens that grease the wheels of those Horns sets, he will almost never give up his dribble unnecessarily, and while his foot speed will always limit him on this end, he plays solid fundamental defense. As much as we (justifiably) praise Kobe for the amazingly high level his game is still at despite all the miles on his odometer, Nash deserves similar plaudits for doing all of the aforementioned things at his age, especially given that he is just returning from injury. He might not be the panacea to all of the ills the Lakers encountered when he was out and still are dealing with, but he does solve an awful lot of them. If anything, you almost wish he would call his number a bit more and flex his offensive muscle, but given the current state of the offense, you can't complain that much.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta finally came down to earth against Denver following a great offensive showing against New York, but his improved physique allowed him to still be effective in a manner that simply would have not been possible any other time he has been in a Lakers uniform. With his outside shot failing him, he followed the time-honored axiom and got to the rim, including an outrageous finish in transition that absolutely no one expected him to make. MWP's limitations at the four were exposed last night, however, as he doesn't offer a big presence on the defensive boards and his lack of hops and height especially hurts in this department. Given that Denver is the league's best offensive rebounding team, these problems were magnified, as opposed to say New York, which stands at the opposite site of the spectrum. MWP should continue to play the four regardless seeing that he maintains a lot of effectiveness there, but it would behoove D'Antoni to adjust his minutes there depending on the appropriate matchup.
- Pau Gasol -- Pau's emphatic drive and dunk to close out the Knicks seems to have galvanized him from that spot, as he drove quite a bit from the high post against Denver and with success. That adds an additional dimension to the Lakers' sets since a good portion of Horns relies on Pau's passing wizardry from the high post to make it work. The big has to be able to diagnose how the defense is reacting to the screens being set and the movement of the cutters and act accordingly. Needless to say, bigs with that kind of court vision don't grow on trees, so even though Pau is still finding his legs offensively in this system, he is racking up the dimes as he continuously finds the open man. If Pau can complete the trinity of being a threat to pass, drive, and shoot from that high post spot, any question of his utility in D'Antoni's offense would be besides the point, even if he doesn't get as many post touches as one would want. Ideally, that aspect should be incorporated into the offense, especially when Pau is at the five, as he should be able to punish mismatches such as the time he had Ronnie Brewer on him in the Knicks game.
- Kobe Bryant -- Even with Kobe's massively irritating decision to forgo defense this year entirely, his outrageously efficient nights deserve their plaudits. Getting 40 points on a 69.3 TS% simply shouldn't be possible for someone of his age, as he has adapted into the Lakers' new offensive framework. Horns offers a good way of viewing this, as Kobe is getting a lot of points on baseline cuts, cuts coming across the elbow after running off a screen, and even switches forced by what should be a big part of the Lakers' offense in the 1-2 pick-and-roll with Nash. If we recall, the same sequence with Ramon Sessions almost always forced a switch or an open shot for the point guard, and this dilemma is only heightened with Nash present. Arguably the most justifiable moment for a Kobe isolation is against a smaller defender following a switch and in this case, his aggressiveness is put towards good use. Also in the mold of greater synergy with Nash, Kobe has almost completely ceded the endgame setup responsibilities and surprise, surprise, the Lakers' clutch offensive possessions actually resemble real basketball. Nash might be one of the few point guards Kobe would actually do this for, but the mere fact that he has warrants praise.
- Honorable mention to Jordan Hill, who holds the distinction of being the team's best rebounder. Normally if asked that question, you would say Dwight and you would be correct, but the team's leader in rebound rate is Hill, who has a 20.1 rebound rate, good for eighth in the league. Even more impressive? His offensive rebound rate is 21.2, which is not only best in the league, it is 4.4% better than the second place mark by Andre Drummond. Let that process for a second and realize how incredible of a statistic that is. Hill not only is the league's best offensive rebounder, he is the best by a massive margin. Granted, this is a rate statistic and Hill gets a bit of help because he doesn't play a lot of minutes, but it confirms that he is a dominant force in that regard. Hill might not be the best fit for D'Antoni's offense, but he does enough things well -- especially in the post, where he is a bit underrated; he has quite a few moves there and can take advantage of a lot of backup bigs -- that you have to wonder that culling a few minutes away from Metta might be in the works to get Hill on the floor more.
- Dwight Howard -- Barring a clear inability to move, which is not out of the question given his conditioning and injury recovery issues, Dwight's lackadaisical defense against Denver was unacceptable. As noted, Hill holds the distinction as the Lakers' best rebounder only because Dwight is not performing up to standards on that end, as his 20.9 career rebound rate would easily put him ahead. More alarming is that Dwight has fallen from a career 29.3 defensive rebound rate to a measly 24.3, which is still very good mind you, but not among the league's best. Especially against a team like Denver, Dwight has to be a black hole on the defensive boards, something he normally is because of an absurd ability to cover huge amounts of ground. Whether his teammates are in proper help position or not, owning the defensive glass doesn't require him to do much more than apply maximum effort and this was missing in spades against Denver. Even if he isn't receiving an optimal amount of touches offensively -- and even if one says that this will be worked out eventually, the offense working out as well as it is kills a lot of the weight behind that argument -- he still needs to put in the work defensively, something we thought was a description that applied more to Andrew Bynum than to him, notably with regards to knocking dudes down on the way to shameful ejections.
- Chris Duhon -- As we have seen this year, when Duhon isn't "on" so to speak on the offensive end, he is really, really bad, as there are few other redeeming things he does on the court. It is pretty comparable to the complete zero that Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have provided on the court in the last few years, as their nonexistent offensive production combined with some awful defense creates a real drag on the rest of the team. When it comes down to it, playing 4-on-5 on both ends puts too much impetus on everyone else to compensate. The fact that Duhon only sees the floor when Nash sits further compounds the problem and indicates the need for a real backup point guard to maintain some semblance of offensive flow when Nash sits. Perhaps Blake can fill this role if he meets the high praise D'Antoni has been lavishing on him -- hey, all of what D'Antoni said would happen when we got Nash back was true -- but his history points against it. On a squad that needs their offense to be rolling at all times, not having a point guard who can keep the engine humming hurts a lot.
- Jodie Meeks -- Perhaps we should stop thinking that Kobe's influence on his backup is altogether positive since they tend to a lot of stupid things without having the talent to back it up. From Sasha Vujacic's one-man full court press to Shannon Brown's long two barrage, we now have Meeks being totally convinced that he is an all-around two guard who can put the ball on the floor and go to the rim as well as he can shoot from outside. Apparently, no one has disabused him of the notion since he continues to go to the rim and get predictably stripped of the ball on his way there. About the only good thing he does in the paint is his smart baseline cuts when the defense is shifted away from him and even that doesn't save him from what has been a comedy of errors on his part. If he wants to take a cue from Kobe, take one hard dribble to evade a defender flying at him to bother a trey attempt and take the long two instead.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Darius Morris, who failed miserably to be a backup two guard in D'Antoni's newfound experiment. On one hand, this is a smart move since it allows Morris to do the two things he can has done well this year in spot shooting and defense without having the pressure of handling the ball and directing the offense. With the starters, these strengths are valuable and can be put to good use as the Lakers' stars do their work with Morris as a subsidiary player. The problem is that Morris thinks that he has to create opportunities on the floor despite being surrounded by four future Hall of Fame players and as with Meeks, this invariably leads to a rash of turnovers. It is unfortunate since the team really needs a three-and-D player to fill up the wing and cut down on Kobe's minute workload and Morris is proving quite inadequate for this role.