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In this edition of The Playbook we'll take an in-depth look at Dwight Howard and Steve Nash operating in the pick and roll, what they've done well in it in the past and present, and where they can improve.
Steve Nash and Dwight Howard together in the pick and roll wearing Lakers uniforms. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven: like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Shrek and Donkey, or steak and eggs. They were set to complement one another with their strengths on the basketball court.
All through the use of a simple pick and roll.
It's the bread and butter of offense. A simple play-- player A sets a screen for player B, then dives to the rim. The space created from a well set pick gives player B space to operate and either get a clean look at the basket for their own shot, or a clean passing lane to reward the screener.
The Lakers thought they would be examining this very simple, yet effective, play in a near endless loop when they acquired both Howard and Nash in the same Summer. Even further, the Lakers jettisoned Mike Brown and brought in Mike D'Antoni in an attempt to maximize Nash as a pick and roll partner with Howard.
At 1.04 points per possessions the Lakers have the 7th ranked pick and roll offense. Currently, Dwight is 14th in the league at 1.22 points per possession as a pick and roll roll man. Last season, Howard accrued 1.36 PPP out of the pick and roll. This isn't a steep dive by any means, but the eyes tell us he hasn't been as effective in this role as expected, and Nash recently reaffirmed the sentiment when he stated that he expected the pick and roll with Dwight to be "a lot more potent".
So what has the Dwight/Nash pick and roll created for the Lakers, and why isn't it "as potent" as it should be? Let's take a look in this edition of The Playbook.
One of the problems evident is Dwight slipping his screens without creating space for Nash to work. Here, Dwight will slip the screen early and roll into the paint. The Bucks are in position to stop Dwight, with Ersan Ilyasova lurking and watching. The issue is, when Dwight does this Nash isn't able to handle the ball well enough with two players trying to disrupt him, and Dwight isn't moving fluidly enough to make this a worthwhile gamble.
From this point, Nash has two options:
A) He can try to handle the ball despite having two players hawking him. If he can get by Larry Sanders, he can likely find a lane to pass it to a rolling Howard, though the Bucks are prepared for it.
B) With the Bucks sagging off of Earl Clark (who has been a great set shooter from deep), Nash can go for the hockey assist and catch Kobe, who can then swing it over to Clark who will be completely alone while Ersan bodies up Howard.
Nash goes with choice A and finds himself in bad situation. With no space created off the screen Brandon Jennings is hot on his tail, while Nash's age shows itself as he's unable to get beyond Sanders.
Nash spills to the floor; the Lakers' cafeteria tray being smacked down by the bully Bucks, creating a turnover. With Nash being so far out there are no Lakers there to stop an easy transition bucket for Milwaukee. This is a two-way problem: Dwight needs to create some space before slipping his screen, and Nash needed to make the decision to pass when he was being hounded by two players.
Here's another example of Dwight setting a screen and slipping it too early, once again not creating space for Nash.
Operation Squash Nash complete. The Nuggets have both Dwight, and Nash wrapped up. Kenneth Faried was able to completely disregard Pau as he stood near the three point line, and can now commit fully to keeping a body near him with Nash trapped without a passing lane to Pau.
Result: A jumpball loss for Nash.
Enter my hot tub time machine as we go back to a time when Steve Nash was still a Phoenix Sun, and played next to Amar'e Stoudemire.
Notice: SPACE! Amar'e doesn't move out of the screen until he creates contact with Derek Fisher. Pau Gasol is there to greet Nash, but very shortly Amar'e is going to make his move to the rim. This is a successful pick in that it accomplishes two things: 1) It gives Nash space to operate and 2) It forces the opposing defense into making a bang-bang decision.
Both Kobe Bryant and Pau are there to halt Nash, but there's a pocket to pass in while Amar'e drives to the rim. This is where familiarity, and chemistry, is key. There's only a small window of opportunity here for Nash, but he knows Amar'e's rhythm. Pau will have to shift his feet quickly to stop Amar'e, but this play falls on Lamar Odom rotating in time to meet him at the rim.
Pau isn't able to move quick enough and Amar'e grabs the pass and lowers his shoulder, continuing his drive.
Odom doesn't rotate, and Amar'e is quick enough to get in for an easy two, and the foul.
A little space goes a long way for a point guard. Here, Gasol will set a screen for Nash.
Pau sets his feet and absorbs the contact, creating a cushion for Nash to work with. Nikola Pekovic lurks in the paint, but Nash can now breathe and make a decision.
Gasol sets a secondary screen for Nash, once again creating separation. Pekovic is still in the paint playing a game of of "QB spy". Waiting patiently like a wolf prepared to strike it's prey.
Nash, the old coyote from the desert, strikes first though. With the space provided from not one but, but two well set screens he pulls up for an easy two from the elbow. He is one of the greatest shooters of all time, after all.
It isn't all bad, though, and Nash and Howard have made good things happen when they are on the same page.
Dwight doesn't slip out of the screen early and gives Nash the canvas necessary to paint in the pick and roll.
Dwight now rolls to the basket in sync with Nash, which actually works, since there's actually space for Steve to work with without being trapped.
With a small pocket to squeeze the ball in to Dwight, Nash still manages to make an accurate pass.
The results: Dwight Howard gliding two-handed SMASH.
Please, step back into time with me one more time. Dwight Howard, four players out, and the Miami Heat. The paint, presently, is unoccupied.
Joel Anthony hedges hard here as Dwight slips the screen and Jameer Nelson zips a pass to Ryan Anderson. Chris Bosh is in front of Howard, but he must rotate over to Anderson. A small wrinkle, but J.J. Redick is going to move towards Anderson, keeping LeBron as honest as possible and pulling him just a few steps away from the paint.
The Dwight Howard "HIT ME" special. LeBron shifted enough to be out of position, and Dwyane Wade tries to help but is going to be way behind the play. Also worth noting: Joel Anthony was left in the dust of a pre-back surgery Dwight.
BOOM goes the Dwight-a-mite.
So, what does Dwight do to Miami now in a very similar setup as a Laker?
Screen slipped, but as per the usual, no space created and Mario Chalmers is in Nash's personal space while Joel Anthony is also in position to trap Nash. Ray Allen is beginning to cheat into the paint.
There it is! "HIT ME"! Unfortunately, Nash has almost no way of seeing Dwight as he attempts to save the possession. Now Ray has established himself deep in the paint, leaving Antawn Jamison completely alone in the corner. A sound decision as Nash is contained yet again.
The Heat trap Nash on the baseline and create a turnover. Nash is somewhere in that purple box-- a fitting coffin for the possession. The ball bounces off into Miami's hands.
This play isn't all Dwight's fault, as spacing and positioning is incredibly important to create a clean look for Dwight. In the play from the Magic we looked at the action wasn't entirely initiated from the point guard, as Ryan Anderson made the extra pass. Sending Dwight into the paint from a pick and roll beginning at the top of the key is fruitless without giving the defense either A) reason to not collapse on him because of perimeter shooting or B) space for Nash to create. Neither was present in this set. A failed possession.
When setting up for pick and rolls positioning is an important piece. Here, Dwight and Nash set a pick with Kobe isolated on the same wing where the action is taking place.
Dwight sets a good screen, making contact with Goran Dragic. All of the Suns' defenders are linked to their man on the perimeter, leaving the paint clear for Dwight to make a move on the roll.
Dwight moves because there was just enough space created off the pick, Nash is given another tiny window to make the play. Jermaine O'Neal hedges, leaving Dwight a lane to catch the pass.
Luis Scola's help comes far too late, O'Neal is left tracking, and Michael Beasley is left to try and rotate in front of Dwight who has nothing but open court in front of him. P.J. Tucker is the nearest defender, but what's he going to do? Leave Kobe Bryant completely alone?
Easy bucket here for the Lakers. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Suns weren't prepared for this play, and they are one of the worst defenses in the league.
There's still plenty of work to be had for the Nash/Dwight pick and roll combination. As simple as the play may be, defenses are better than ever at scheming to stop it. With Steve Nash's deteriorated ability to dribble penetrate and ball handle as he once did, it's important for the Lakers to set up not just any ole pick and roll, but one that's going to free up both players.
Dwight Howard needs space to roll, get to the rim, and create highlights like he has done so often in his career. Steve Nash needs space to create a pocket to pass out of, take his own shot with the space made, or keep the ball moving. This is one of the "fixable" issues on the court that the Lakers can tweak without signing a free agent or making a trade. It will take a concerted effort from both players, especially Dwight who moves out of screens often without making contact with the opposing defender, but as seen above it's not impossible by any means.
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