How the calculus has changed. Last week, we were trying our utmost to devise scenarios to dump Pau Gasol, whether for help at point guard (Kyle Lowry), on the wing (Andre Iguodala), or in the frontcourt (Josh Smith). People were trotting out reasons why Gasol and Andrew Bynum were incompatible on offense, how salary concerns and the team's recent cost cutting moves meant that Gasol had to be dumped to save salary, and that the Lakers would possibly have to accept less than ideal value for Gasol. Steve Nash changes all of this. Suddenly, a frontcourt whose relationship had been awkward and not overly synergistic can mesh with one of the great offensive playmakers of all time providing the foundation from which their on court relationship can develop. For all the talent of Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe Bryant, it has been a common aphorism that that this Lakers squad has been much less than the sum of its parts, and now they are getting a player who has been renowned for being able to make a team much more than that.
So whether the painfully drawn out Dwight Howard saga ever results in him actually ending up in Los Angeles, the Lakers appear more than ready to proceed with Bynum still as the second prong of the offense and Gasol, as Dex nicely put it on Wednesday, as arguably one of the best fourth options on any team ever. The remainder of the rotation is still a minor concern, especially with an outstanding free agent in Jordan Hill the team would like to retain, but for the most part, the Lakers' frontcourt will be adjusting not necessarily to new personnel but to a reinvigorated offense. After the jump, we will review how Nash's arrival will change Gasol's and Bynum's roles, the other needs in the rotation, and whether any new additions are possibly forthcoming.
As I've noted in both of my previous posts [on the offseason changes at point guard and on the wings], pick-and-roll play will be a much more integral part of the Lakers' offense next season. It certainly will not to be the degree of say a Steve Nash or Chris Paul-run squad, but regularly enough to constitute a significant shift from the triangle, in which its use was much more limited. Moreover, this will also imply a greater emphasis on screen setting, both on and off the ball, to create opportunities to score; this again is a noted contrast, if not to the triangle, then to the heavy isolation and straight-up post diet that typified the Lakers' offense last season.
I make no claims to prescience for mentioning both Nash and Paul as examples here, but either way, it tells you of the kind of paradigm shift the Lakers are going to undertake with Nash at the helm of the offense. Last offseason, there was an assumption that the David Robinson and Tim Duncan Spurs-era offense Brown was incorporating would have enough triangle principles that the Lakers could get by with Kobe and Lamar Odom as the primary ballhandlers. Now, there is no ambiguity: the pick-and-roll will be the Lakers' offense. First, to not put it at the forefront would be a terrible waste of Nash's talents, as he is unarguably one of the best pick-and-roll operators to ever step on a basketball court, combining a lethal scoring ability from all spots on the court with superb court vision and pinpoint passing. Whatever derivation of the pick-and-roll you can devise, Nash can definitely run it.
This is important since a big portion of the aforementioned Spurs offense was the pick-and-roll, as it allowed Gregg Popovich to efficiently combine the talents of his bigs while they were on the floor. The most common way this will likely happen, as the invaluable Sebastian Pruiti noted at NBA Playbook last year, is that whenever one big (Gasol) sets the high screen for Nash, the other big (Bynum) will flash to the rim and immediately try to claim deep post position. This leaves Nash with a huge amount of options off the pick: since the bigs are pulling the defense, he can go to the rim, pull up for a jumper, swing the ball to Gasol for an 18 footer, throw the ball down to Bynum deep in the paint, hit Metta World Peace in the corner for a three, and of course, find Kobe either on the wing or as he moves off the ball from there. Simply, whenever you give a point guard such as Nash this many opportunities, it only enhances his overall utility, and trusting Nash to make the appropriate decision in this case is almost always going to be the right call.
In terms of how the bigs will fit with Nash as a pick-and-roll operator, Pau will definitely have the easiest transition due to his ability to both roll and pop off the pick. It is no accident that the Kobe/Gasol pick-and-roll has been a staple of the Lakers' endgame offense the past few years, and Nash will make it a consistent part of the Lakers' attack. Bynum shouldn't be discounted as a roll man here, however. Although he certainly does not have the explosiveness of an Amar'e Stoudemire, who could catch the ball off the pick and take two steps towards the rim to thunder home a dunk in his Phoenix days, Bynum is a massive target on the move and proved last year that he is generally very good at catching practically anything that comes within his airspace. Mind you, these were lobs thrown by the likes of Steve Blake, who was almost guaranteed to throw a comically bad lob pass every game; Nash will get him the ball on target while the move practically every single time. Naturally, you can substitute Howard for Bynum here and have practically the same relationship with more effectiveness, as Howard is a devastating finisher as a roll man.
Getting Nash should also improve the Lakers' overall tempo, which was stymied by the shortened season, continual confusion on offense, and the general chaos caused by lack of practices. Ideally, the moment the Lakers switch to offense after a missed shot, the bigs should be sprinting to claim deep post position on the other end (rim running), and as such, the offense can be initiated before the defense is able to fully set up (early offense). Although we are likely more to remember the plodding pace the Lakers maintained for most of the year and the sheer difficulty in initiating anything in the first ten seconds of the shot clock on any given possession, the team did make a concerted effort to rim run early in the year. The general problem was that even when the bigs did get early position, the Lakers were consistently poor at throwing the ball into the post, a problem that Nash should end basically by his lonesome. This is not to say that the Lakers will be a fast breaking team in the mold of Nash's Phoenix squads, but more analogous to the '08-'09 Lakers, who consistently attacked the clock in this manner and finished fifth in the league in pace.
Of course, this does not mean that straight-up post play will disappear from the Lakers' repertoire. Whether via basic triangle setup or a cross screen by a guard to free up the big, the Lakers' post players are invariably going to be thrown the ball on the block because just as with Nash and having him run the pick-and-roll to maximize his efficacy, it would be wasteful not to utilize them in such a fashion. Nash, however, does help this in two basic regards: he spaces the floor as the the perfect guy to receive a kickout out of a post double team and he gives the Lakers a consistent entry passer, a mundane but unappreciated function since the Lakers were bad at doing so last year and especially poor against fronting defenses. Other plays the Lakers ran between the bigs, such as the 4-5 pick-and-roll that invariably resulted in a lob pass from Gasol to Bynum and a nice dunk, are things that the Lakers will also likely be able to run with more success due to Nash spacing the floor. Another possibility is more double block sets with each big on an opposite block when one receives a post entry pass, a part of the Duncan-Robinson offense that Pruiti comments on, as it puts both Bynum and Gasol close to the basket and allows them to play off each other and beat double coverage with pinpoint interior passing, all of which is again, only made possible with Nash providing the spacing that the Lakers lacked last year.
As such, how the Lakers run their offense without Nash on the floor is a concern, especially since it depends on the Lakers choosing between Steve Blake (remarkably poor as a backup after the Sessions trade), Darius Morris (high upside and great court vision in college but very untested and raw), or Andrew Goudelock (not really a point guard, largely just a floor spacer). Internal improvement from Morris and/or Goudelock going into their second years might rectify this problem, but it wouldn't be surprising to see some of the more straight-up isolation and post sets the Lakers have been running for the past two years. A wrinkle here might come from the possible hiring of Eddie Jordan, something reported by Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears yesterday. Jordan, the recipient of one of Chick Hearn's best nicknames while playing for the Showtime Lakers ("The Thief of Baghdad") as well as a former head coach of the Wizards and Sixers, is a devotee of the Princeton offense, which emphasizes motion off the ball, a lot of back door cutting, and continual passing. It is not necessarily a great fit with Nash, who will run largely a straight-up pick-and-roll game, but with the bench unit and Pau Gasol, an excellent big for Princeton sets because of his adept high post passing, it would be a nice structure they could fall back onto.
Altogether, the Lakers look very solid in the frontcourt with or without Howard coming in due to Nash's addition. The issue is largely maintaining sufficient quality depth, especially if the bigs are going to be doing more running up and down the court. Good depth is good depth with Bynum and Gasol taking up the lion's share of the playing time, but it would be beneficial for the Lakers to have an energy/garbage man who can roll to the basket, defend decently, and attack the boards (i.e. Jordan Hill), as well as a stretch four who can complement either Gasol or Bynum while they occupy the low block as well as Nash as part of the pick-and-pop.
How the Lakers address this depends greatly on whether they can re-sign Jordan Hill, who has attracted a good deal of interest from other teams around the league. While Hill and his agent have sounded all the right notes about being grateful to the Lakers for the opportunity last season, there is a real danger that Hill could leave because the Lakers are limited in what they can offer since Houston declined his option, limiting what the Lakers can offer in the first year of any potential deal to around $3.6 million. Other teams, meanwhile, are free to offer Hill the full midlevel exception, which starts at $5 million. That Hill still has not made a decision likely indicates the difficulty in choosing between the allure of chasing championships in L.A. and a bigger payday elsewhere.
Regardless, should Hill decide to return, he would almost certainly retain his former spot as the first big off the bench. His relentless rebounding, signified by his very impressive 19.5 rebound rate last season, good for tenth in the league, will always earn him minutes, and with a full training camp, one wonders whether Brown can harness his solid athleticism and lateral quickness into some adept pick-and-roll defense, as Hill showed flashes of being very good in that area. One aspect of his game Hill might show more next season is his jumper, as he shot 42.1% from 10-15 feet and 36.0% from 16-23 while in Houston and never really displayed that kind of range in L.A. Doing so would allow him to greatly expand his overall offensive utility and make him another good partner on the pick-and-roll for Nash and whomever comes out of the fray as his primary backup.
If Hill leaves, however, we should not sleep on Josh McRoberts, who had a decent start to the season before falling out of the rotation due to an injury and eventually general ineffectiveness. McBobs' athleticism, passing, and ballhandling ability all make him another good counterpart to Nash off the pick-and-roll, and while he does not show Hill's upside, he very well could turn into the decent rotation player he was in Indiana with Nash in the fold. Like Hill, McBobs demonstrated a lot more range in his previous stop than he did in L.A., and given the bigs ahead of him in the rotation, it would behoove him to rediscover his stroke for next season. Altogether, McBobs' skill set lends itself far more to being a complimentary player in the offense, and the more he can play off the other guys on the floor, the better he can be, so acquiring Nash will likely be a huge boon for him.
The last big currently on the roster is Robert Sacre, who the Lakers picked with the last pick in this summer's draft. Naturally, Sacre still has to make the team and show that he has real NBA chops, which means performing well in summer league and training camp. Sacre's initial value is likely to come on defense, as he was a solid and smart pick-and-roll defender in college, and while not an athletic shot blocker, he used his length well in straight-up post defense as well. This lack of athleticism means that he definitely isn't going to be a consistent roll man in the league and his mediocre rebounding and mechanical post game will limit his overall offensive effectiveness. He does have the makings of a very solid midrange game, however, as a good pick-and-pop partner, and a legitimate seven footer who can play defense and hit jumpers is the prototypical guy who has a decade long career in the league as a backup. It is too early to prognosticate on whether Sacre will make the team, but if he can show two NBA skills with his shooting and defending, it would not be surprising to see him do so.
As a final note, the Lakers could always benefit by mining their excellent D-League affiliate, as there are two players who meet the profiles mentioned above for what the Lakers are looking for in their frontcourt backups. First is Brandon Costner, a 6'9'' forward who averaged 20.3 points per game while shooting 39.8% from three. Costner's lack of athleticism hurts him, but being able to score fairly efficiently while being a legitimate three-point threat is something that has a lot of value in the league. More interesting is his teammate Malcolm Thomas, who went undrafted last year and was an invite to the Lakers' training camp before going to the D-Fenders and averaging 13.8 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Thomas is a solid athlete with a very good wingspan (7'2'') for a four, and he brings the rebounding and shot blocking you want out of a backup big. Briefly called up by the Spurs, an organization with a fairly sterling record with evaluating prospects, he is a guy who is basically a jumper and some additional weight away from a consistent spot in the league.
With Rashard Lewis off the market, there are very few targets the Lakers could conceivably pursue in free agency, as there is a clear divide between the top of the pile likely outside of the Lakers' price range with the mini midlevel exception and those at the bottom who aren't better options than the available ones on the roster. Naturally, if possible, the Lakers would no doubt love to attract the likes of Antawn Jamison or Carl Landry, but both are likely chasing better paydays and bigger roles. Their defensive issues aside, both would constitute great depth in the frontcourt and instantly become the first big off the bench. Mike Brown did coach Jamison for about a third of a season in Cleveland, but it is highly unlikely whether that means anything in terms of convincing him to take a paycut to come to the Lakers. J.J. Hickson is someone who has much more experience with Brown in Cleveland, and still has a fair bit of upside, but that likely will lead him to a spot with more playing time available.
Past the aforementioned options, the Lakers could possibly be interested in Anthony Randolph, who has immense upside due to his athleticism and length but has never put things together, or Anthony Tolliver, a stretch four who hustles on defense and doesn't turn the ball over. Still, both are poorer options than the ones available on the Lakers' roster and especially so if they can retain Jordan Hill. This largely holds true for the remainder of the market as well.
Dwight Howard: makes the defense much better, would be an amazing roll man with Nash, and is probably one of the top five players in the game today. How he would improve the roster has been repeated ad nauseam for the past few years, and we don't really need to go into more detail on that.
For that matter, the impetus for trades in the frontcourt outside of Howard has been greatly deflated by the Nash signing, as it only behooves the team to see what the Gasol/Bynum pairing can accomplish with Nash running the show. Getting Josh Smith to enhance the defense and add some overall athleticism would be an interesting wrinkle, but it is questionable whether he openly makes the team better than Pau does, especially since it is very likely that Pau and Nash are going to strike quite the rapport on offense. Now, this is not saying that the Lakers should not entertain offers for Pau and be mindful of an opportunity to improve the team in that regard, but there simply is no immediate need to do so. The Lakers are understandably very comfortable with what they have going forward, and messing with a good thing should only be done for something that is clearly an overall upgrade the team could benefit from.
Altogether, getting Nash has hugely changed the team's perspective going forward, as the Lakers have shifted practically overnight from a merely above average squad with a huge payroll and a lack of flexibility to a bona fide championship contender. Their top four is better than any other in basketball and is more akin to the stacked Lakers and Celtics squads of the 1980s than most modern teams. The difference is depth, and while the Lakers do not have this problem in the frontcourt at the moment, they likely will in the rest of the roster, and how the Lakers address it will have a significant impact on their championship prospects. Still, for a team that was deciding what marginal upgrade they could pursue with Pau Gasol at the start of the offseason, this current situation of being in the thick of the title hunt is certainly one that Laker fans are far more comfortable and familiar with.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.