In track and field, there is an event called the decathlon. It is a combination of ten different sporting events, covering just about every aspect of track and field in one catch-all competition. Because of the depth and breadth of athletic talents required, it is nearly impossible for a decathlete to be strong in every field he competes in. Whether the decathlete is particularly strong as a sprinter, a distance runner, in strength or in jumping events, there will always, always be an event with which he struggles. The key, then, to a successful decathlete is to do the best he can in the events in which he struggles, and to be perfect in the events in which he is strong.
Basketball is not so complicated a competition. There are not ten disciplines to learn and master. There are two: Offense and defense. It is quite possible for a team to excel at both offense and defense. In fact, at least one team accomplishes the feat just about every year. The key to being a successful basketball team is very different to being a successful decathlete. Unless you are the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers.
In this upcoming season, the Lakers will not be a good defensive team. They have not been built to be a good defensive team. Of the ten players most likely to see the court on the active roster, only two of those players can be considered better at defense than they are at offense (Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson). And only one other player can even really be called serviceable as a defender (Steve Blake, who is feisty). Then there's Kobe Bryant, who could probably be a fantastic defender if he wanted to do so full time. However, based on the evidence of the past few seasons, Kobe's ability and willingness to be a two way player just isn't there. He might be one of the most capable defenders on the team, but in all likelihood, he will maintain his status as one of the team's worst. Combine all that with a head coach who is not known for his defensive acumen, and you have the recipe for a defensive disaster.
But defense is not the point of this preview; offense is. The defensive capabilities of the team have been highlighted only to illustrate just how good the offense will have to be in order for the Lakers to achieve any level of success. It is a tall order, but the Lakers do have the personnel to make such a feat theoretically possible. The roster is filled with offensively talented players, and those players' offensive strengths fit with each other fairly well. It is not a perfect roster for head coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system; there are not enough shooters to space the floor as he might like, and there are too many old and slow players to push the pace consistently. However, the players do fit their roles better this year than they did last year, and more importantly, there will be none of last year's drama regarding players who are being forced into roles which they don't want to play, nor will there be any players forced into roles they are incapable of playing.
A Tale of Two Units
Looking at the roster, it seems clear that the Lakers should be pursuing two entirely different offensive strategies depending on which personnel are on the court at the time. There is a version of the team that consists of mostly veteran players who are very old (by basketball standards, at least) and very slow. This unit is mainly highlighted by two of the three main big men likely to be in the 4-5 rotation: Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. It is possible to play at a fast pace with one of those two players on the court, because you don't really need the center to run a fast break, but if both are playing at the same time, fast break opportunities will be extremely limited indeed. Both are plodding big men that, at this stage in their career, will struggle to cross half court in seven seconds or less.
In addition to the big guys, there are question marks over whether the team's other more experienced players should be involved in an offense run at a fast pace. Steve Nash was the original architect of the Seven Seconds or Less era, but at 39 years of age, as much as it pains us to think about, Nash might no longer be best served by attempting to push the pace, no matter how wonderful his vision of the court might be. The same can be said of Kobe Bryant and (less so) Steve Blake, both well into their 30s, and with Kobe coming off of a severe injury, pace might not be his friend at all.
On the plus side, all of these players (with the possible exception of Blake) don't need to worry so much about getting easy points in transition, because all of them are fantastic half-court offense players. Steve Nash remains one of the best pick and roll point guards in the game, Chris Kaman is a consistent shooter from 15-20 feet and also has a decently effective back-to-the-basket game and Pau Gasol showed towards the end of last season that he might remain the single most efficient low post player in the league. As for Kobe, well, I wouldn't call his offensive game uber-efficient, simply because the shots he chooses to take aren't always the best. However, his offensive skill-set is the largest in the NBA, and possibly ever. There's nothing he's not capable of doing, or at least, there wasn't anything he wasn't capable of doing prior to his Achilles injury. Bottom line: Any unit sporting Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, three of the most offensively talented players in their respective positions in basketball EVER, will be just fine offensively as long as they find a degree of relative comfort with each other. And they have a year of finding that comfort already under their belts.
As for everybody else on the roster that matters , they are all (relatively) young, (relatively) athletic, and would probably thrive in an up tempo, fast paced offense. Jordan Farmar stands to benefit the most of anybody on the roster from an up-tempo offense. Nick Young is rather known as an unwilling passer, and therefore is more efficient the sooner he shoots the ball upon receiving it. Jodie Meeks is best served taking catch and shoot three pointers, and is assisted by pace because transition defense collapses to the paint until it has time to recover. And Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson are big, athletic dudes who should both excel filling the lane on the fast break.
This leaves the Lakers with a fairly clear line of demarcation in terms of each player's best fit within the offense:
These two five man groups don't work perfectly as isolated five man units; a Steve Nash, Steve Blake Kobe Bryant perimeter, for example, wouldn't be my preferred arrangement as a permanent starting unit, and a Wesley Johnson-Jordan Hill front court might be a little too small to work. Instead, what the two groups do is fairly clearly establish what kind of offensive basketball the Lakers should be playing depending on which group of players is the majority on the court. The starting lineup, for example, will definitely have Kobe (when healthy), Nash and Gasol on the court at the same time. Therefore, the starting lineup should be seeking to play uber-efficient brand of slow-down, half-court basketball. Once the subs start hitting the floor, the breakdown of players should lean more towards a running unit. If Jordan Farmar is on the court with, say, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill, that's an athletic bunch of dudes who would do very well to try and get easy transition baskets.
Not only is the two offense system a good way to utilize the varying strengths of the players on the roster, it can also be doubly effective because teams often struggle to adapt defensively when your offense runs at two entirely different tempos. A good change-of-pace second unit could be capable of quick hitting runs that can give the Lakers a significant advantage to work with before their opponent even knows what hit them. Then, the Lakers come back with the efficient half-court sets of the starters and shorten the game by slowing down the pace, making it difficult for teams to erase the advantage. Executing this plan to perfection is easily the Lakers' best chance at winning a majority of their games.
However, if the Lakers are to pursue a two-pronged approach, the player rotations will have to be spot on in order to avoid poor combinations. Certain players should never really see the court with certain other players. For example, there is no reason whatsoever for Jordan Farmar to play with a combined front court of Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol. Farmar's effectiveness in the half-court is limited, and Kaman and Gasol are far too slow together to play at a high pace. In fact, the general question of how Farmar will fit into the rotation with two other solid point guards is an interesting one, but assuming he does find a place, that place should be utilized with at least four of the five players on the court with him being ready and willing to push pace. Using him with a majority of the experienced starting lineup would be a waste of his limited talents.
In the positive combination category, it would make a great deal of sense for the vast majority of Chris Kaman's minutes to come while Steve Nash is also on the court. Kaman, on account of his size, is probably the single best screener on the team, and one of the things Nash struggled with the most last season was the inability to create space off the screen, because the Lakers did not have very good screeners (and because the one good (and by good, I mean legendary) screener they did have wasn't particularly interested in setting good screens. Thanks, Dwight!). Kaman isn't a particularly strong finisher as part of the pick and roll, but he is an excellent shooter as part of the pick and pop, and getting Nash the space to make someone else on the defense react to him might be the most important factor in allowing him to succeed offensively. Getting two defenders both focused on Nash is the name of the game.
Throw it all together, and you have a really intriguing and entertaining offensive team. This roster is the perfect canvas for Mike D'Antoni to prove his reputation as one of the game's strongest offensive minds. He will need to get the team to succeed in a variety of ways, not just from game to game but within each game itself, utilizing different parts of his preferred offensive system at different times. He will need to juggle his rotations perfectly so that each five man unit that sees the court together can focus properly on one form of the offense or the other. And most importantly, he will need to do it all with zero margin for error. The defense will be so bad that even offensive perfection may not be enough to win games on some nights. On all the others, a well-oiled offensive machine for the full 48 minutes will still be required to get the job done. Anything less, and the Lakers could be in for an extremely difficult season. No pressure, Mike.