[Editor's Note: It is with great pleasure that we introduce the newest member of the Silver Screen and Roll writing staff, Rohit Ghosh. Rohit has been plying his trade at Metta Chronicles and has also written for Accuscore, a statistical modeling site which predicts both individual and team results. He jumps right in the mix with this fantastic look at the Lakers' point guards in the upcoming season. Please give him a warm SSR welcome. - C.A. Clark]
In Jazz music, the bass player often has the most significant role in the group, acting as the link between tempo and melody. The audience might think solo-heavy roles like the saxophonist or lead guitarist garner all the attention, but everyone within the group actually relies on the bassist's lead. A mistake by a saxophonist will most likely go unnoticed, whereas a mistake by a bassist has the potential to throw the entire sound out of proportion. And while a Jazz band is often referred to as a democracy in microcosm, it still requires an individual to bring it all together and keep the group focused.
Just like a bassist keeps a Jazz band's ship on path, the Lakers' point guards will have a similar responsibility on the court this season. The three-pronged attack of Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake will act primarily as accompanists to the Lakers' band, providing a steady beat that allow the others to be featured in coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. If these three can stay healthy and play within their designated roles, the Lakers just might have the right combination of point guards to compete at a position in which they've struggled mightily.
Two-time MVP Steve Nash will start at the point guard slot on opening night. He'll be backed up by dependable reserves Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake, both of whom are expected to make key contributions. Both Blake and Farmar anticipate seeing some time at the shooting guard spot, as well. Given the health and age concerns with Nash, having speed and youth in Farmar, and dependability in Blake gives D'Antoni's offense exactly what it needs: plenty of options.
Steve Nash enters in the 2013-2014 NBA season as the league's oldest player. The 39-year-old point guard is finally healthy after a myriad of injuries sidelined him for 32 games last season. Age and health aside, Nash performed fairly well when his body let him in 2012-2013, becoming the fifth player in NBA history to reach the 10,000-assist mark for his career.
In the 50 games he played last season, Nash averaged 12.7 points on 49.7 percent shooting from the field (43.8 percent from beyond the arc, 92.2 percent from the free throw line) and 6.7 assists. He averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 assists on 53.2 percent shooting from the field, 39 percent from the three and 89.4 percent from the free-throw line in his last season in Phoenix. His turnover average was the lowest it has been since 2002-2003 when he started and played all 82 games of the regular season for the Dallas Mavericks.
What stood out the most in a season filled with doubt and uncertainty was Nash's willingness to adapt from a ball-dominant point guard to a spot-up shooter. He went from averaging 9.2 assists per game in his first 16 games back after sustaining a fractured leg to scoring in double digits in 27 or 31 games following a player's only meeting on Jan. 23, 2013. As the offense ran through Kobe Bryant, Nash's main responsibility became spreading the floor. My Synergy Sports indicates that 17.8 percent of his shot opportunities came in spot-up situations, the highest percentage for Nash since the stat started being recorded. What stayed the same, however, were Nash's tendencies as far as the types of shots he took. 82Games.com indicates that 85 percent of Nash's shots last year were jumpers (anything beyond close-range), and the other 15 percent were categorized as close shots (any kind of field goal attempt from short range). His final two seasons in Phoenix had a similar split, 86-14.
Even though Nash's outside shooting did in fact space the floor for stretches of last season, there is no doubt that he is most valuable to this team's offense when the ball is in his hands. With Bryant expected to miss some portion of the first half of the regular season, Nash will be able to set the tone for a roster filled with youth and inexperience. Ideally, the Lakers will focus on having a certain level of intensity on defense to get Nash in the open court going back the other way. Dwight Howard's departure and Bryant's injury result in a good chunk of last year's offense that needs to be replaced. The roster has athleticism, speed, and shooting on the wings in guys like Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, and Jodie Meeks - let Nash do what he does best and give him the proper opportunities to find these weapons.
"We may not be as talented at the top like last year, but I think we got younger, more athletic, with more shooters who can space the floor," Nash said. "I think it looks as though we've gone from a favorite to being a non-contender, but we've still got the opportunity to build a really great team."
Defensively, after 17 seasons in the league, we know what to expect from Nash and unfortunately, it's not a whole lot. It's easier said than done in when you're almost 40 years old in a league dominated by quick and athletic guards in their 20s. With no one with Dwight Howard's length and athleticism waiting in the paint to erase defensive mistakes on the perimeter, hiding Nash's deficiencies on that end of the floor will be a team effort. In pick-and-roll situations, when Nash went under the screen last season, his man got open looks because Howard or Pau Gasol stayed by the basket in an effort to protect the paint. In Phoenix, however, Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez, and Channing Frye all made the concerted effort to hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, giving Nash time to recover properly. Simply asking Farmar, Blake, or even Kobe to guard Nash's man won't come close to fixing this issue on defense. The team has to schematically make sure to protect Nash on defense, just as Phoenix did from 2005-2010. The Suns, by no means, were dominant defensively, but did enough to limit Nash's man from being a difference-maker in the game.
Unlike last year, D'Antoni and Nash now get a full training camp together to help foster an "identity that [they] never really found last year." To keep Nash healthy, D'Antoni has to find a way to limit his playing time - no more than 30 minutes per game, preferably closer to 25, and think long and hard about sitting Nash on certain back-to-back situations. Now that D'Antoni has a younger, more agile point guard in Farmar to bring off the bench, the goal of having Nash healthy all season is much more feasible than it was last year.
"We're not expecting 35 minutes a game from Steve," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "He's 39 years old, and you can't play a guy like that 35, 40 minutes a game. I don't know what the number is. I don't know if it's 25, 30, 31, but I think we have some players that we can go to and give him a rest."
The most significant move in the offseason, minus the departure of Dwight Howard, was the return of Jordan Farmar. Having been a key component of the Lakers championship run in 2009 and 2010, Farmar now returns to a much different team as a much-improved player. And while Lakers fans, for the most part, were happy with Farmar's game a few years back, his skillset in 2013 proves to be a much better fit for the up-tempo style of play these Lakers hope to play.
Since leaving the Lakers in 2010, Farmar spent a season and half with the New Jersey Nets followed by overseas stints in both Israel and Turkey. After one year with Macabi Tel Aviv , Farmar signed a three-year deal to play for Anadolu Efes Istanbul. A year into his deal, however, Farmar negotiated a buy-out with the team to ultimately take less money to play back home in Los Angeles. In 29 games played last year for Anadolu Efes Istabul in Euroleague, Farmar averaged 13.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting from the field (39.7 percent from three-point range) and nearly 4 assists and a steal per game.
Farmar's responsibilities on the team will be similar to what they were a few years back; his playing time, on the other hand, will without a doubt see an increase. Partly due to the concern with Nash's health and age, and partly due to Farmar's style of play being a perfect fit to D'Antoni's system, we can expect to see Farmar get some run at both guard spots. Farmar's repertoire of moves will allow him to be effective with and without the ball. As Drew Garrison pointed out, Farmar is now a notch above Nash when it comes to getting a shot at the rim, and is nearly three times as effective at getting to the rim than Blake. When Nash or Blake attack the basket, the defense knows it comes with a mindset of trying to get a teammate open; with Farmar, however, defenses will be on their heels knowing he can both finish and dish. Farmar is quick off the dribble and has a 42-inch vertical to go with it, adding a dimension to this team that only Kobe brought last season. Compared to Nash's 85-15 split of close shots versus jump shots, Farmar has a 74-24 split, with the final percentage of shots coming from dunk attempts.
Farmar's most crucial of contributions will come in pick-and-roll situations, both offensively and defensively. When he's the primary ball-handler, the abundance of high screens in D'Antoni's offense will give him the structure and spacing on the floor to get to the paint with little resistance. Offensively, the Lakers had very little dribble-drive penetration last year that consistently forced the defense to collapse. With more shooters on the roster now, having the ball in an attack-first point guard's hands will lead to a fair share of easy buckets. Keep in mind that Farmar shot 44 percent overall from three-point range when he last suited up in the NBA - if the defense wants to sag off to limit the dribble-drive, he has no problem putting it up from beyond the arc. Farmar's potential to be just as effective off the ball as a spot-up shooter (nearly 42 percent from three-point range as spot-up shooter in final season with Nets) gives D'Antoni options to play Farmar at the 1 or 2 spot, if needed.
How well the second unit plays on defense will be determined in large part by Farmar's ability to defend the pick-and-roll. If we were to assume that Jordan Hill gets the starting spot next to Pau Gasol, Farmar will then most likely see a portion of his minutes alongside Chris Kaman. As of last season, My Synergy Sports ranked Kaman 110th in the league in points per possession against pick-and-rolls. The opposition will attack the Lakers second unit with pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop options targeting Kaman's man. Schematically, any five-man unit with Kaman has to consistently force the ball handler away from Kaman's man in pick-and-roll situations. Farmar isn't the fastest player in the league by any means, and it's not fair to expect him to stop the likes of Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, or even Stephen Curry. But his presence and tenacity on defense will not only give Nash a little extra rest, but also limit some of those buckets that have been absolute gifts in the past.
The Lakers were 28th in the league last year in regards to bench scoring, averaging just 25.8 points per game. Only the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers were worse in that department. Even though bench-scoring average is no indicator to the overall success of the team, it does give some insight to how much the starting unit is relied upon to produce on a nightly basis. With father time knocking on the doors of Nash, Kobe, and Pau Gasol, Farmar's production off the bench has never been in higher demand by the purple and gold.
If we look to Nash to run the offense and to Farmar to guide the second unit, it will then be up to Steve Blake to bring a contagious resolute mentality to the roster. Even if his playing time takes a slight dip, Blake will contribute with his dependable outside shooting and gritty mentality on defense.
Offensively, there will be very little that depends on Blake's production. The starting unit will have Nash pulling the reigns, while Farmar takes control of the situation when Nash sits out. Even if D'Antoni were to play Blake and Farmer as a backcourt duo, it'll still be Farmar who acts as the primary ball handler. As a result, Blake will be relied upon primarily as a spot-up shooter - in 45 games played last year, 13 of which he started, Blake averaged 7.3 points per game while shooting over 42 percent from three-point range. In an offense that predicates itself on screens and spacing, having efficient and experienced spot-up shooters like Blake, Farmar, or even Nash is an absolute must. Defensively, Blake has very little athletic advantage. At 33, he's coming off of a season where he played just 45 games due to a torn abdominal muscle - whoever is matched up across from Blake will most likely be faster and more athletic. Whether he's playing the 1 or 2 spot, Blake's napoleon complex will, at the very least, keep him competing on every play. And sometimes that extra effort is more valuable than any sort of measurable athleticism.
More than his feistiness and shooting ability, what highlights Blake's value on the team is how he steps up his production when needed to do so. When Nash missed the final eight games of the season, Blake upped his averages to 12.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steals. In Kobe's absence, Blake averaged 18.8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.5 steals in the final two regular season games and two playoff appearances. No one expects to see these types of numbers for a full season, but having someone reliable and tough like Blake is a sigh of relief for the coaching staff.
A familiar name to Lakers fans, 6'2" guard Darius Johnson-Odom was invited to training camp in the last week of September. Johnson-Odom was the 55th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and was acquired by Los Angeles on draft-day. Before being waived a few months into last season, Johnson-Odom showed a lot of promise in his 13 games for the L.A. D-Fenders averaging 21.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists in nearly 40 minutes of action.
While there is no guarantee for Johnson-Odom to make the regular season roster, his athleticism, size and build offer insurance in case Nash, Farmar, or Blake sustain an injury. He's strong, has a polished mid-range game, and has the talent to finish around the rim. For someone signed to a non-guaranteed deal of just under $800,000, Johnson-Odom is more than serviceable for a fourth-string point guard.
Darius Johnson-Odom, who just hit a 3, has a MUCH BETTER shot from last preseason. He's worked on his balance, extended his range.— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) October 7, 2013