Kevin C. Cox
As the Lakers split the difference on their back-to-back, they must find a way to ensure that their newfound chemistry isn't compromised by Kobe Bryant's absence in the near future.
Kobe Bryant has worn numerous masks this season, whether that of a scorer, playmaker, or simply a dominant player who elevates those around him and it is probably his ability to switch between those manifold roles that has helped bring the Lakers' season back from the brink. It would be remiss to refer to Kobe as a crutch the team leans upon to make up for its lack of execution and chemistry, but it paints a good picture of how the team will have to perform without him. If you look at the bench unit, for instance, they acquire their effectiveness through sheer execution, whether it is making the right swing pass, slipping screens well, and other methodical means to get the best shot instead of breaking down the defense in isolation or in the post. A similar philosophy should suffuse the rest of the team, as they'll have to really buy into Mike D'Antoni's system in order to find their success and Kobe's absence might be conducive to that notion.
Sans Kobe, the impetus is now almost entirely on Steve Nash to be the team's primary playmaker and you can expect a pick-and-roll between him and Dwight Howard to become the norm in the Lakers' offense, if it wasn't already. Considering the alternatives -- straight-up Howard post-ups, which should continue mind you so long as Dwight continues to run his rear off to claim deep post position all the time; Metta World Peace isolations or post-ups, something we need less of for the sake of our collective sanity; and just flipping the ball around on the perimeter -- this is undoubtedly the best option, as Dwight has been fantastic in clearing out space for Nash to operate and it's allowed Nash, bereft of the burst that has allowed him to escape the hard hedges and blitzes he's having trouble with now, to be rather effective.
But the ones who have to step up are the Lakers' role players and Nash should help in that regard, seeing as it's been his modus operandi for the entirety of his career. Jodie Meeks, the most likely option to replace Kobe in the starting lineup, needs to be a deadeye marksman, Antawn Jamison has to recover from his three-point shooting slump, and Darius Morris, the most likely culprit to rejoin the rotation, needs to not be terrible. If there's a consistent theme here, it's mostly that the team has to improve their shooting from behind the arc, as a lot of their stuff is going to come off kickouts. There is no guy on the team other than Kobe who is going to break down his man and get straight to the rim to create opportunities, so again, execution is critical. If Nash gets into the lane off a Howard pick and passes it out to Meeks, he better be able to diagnose instantly whether he has an open shot or whether a quick swing pass will open one up. At its heart, this is what D'Antoni's offense is about in seeking the best shot and the Lakers will have to do an awful lot of it to be effective against a fantastic defensive team in Indiana.
-From The Playbook
- Dwight Howard -- He's still a bit away from that utterly dominating player we are accustomed to seeing, but he's making such a significant impact now that it is almost impossible to deny he's on the right track. There's been only one game this month in which he hasn't collected at least fifteen rebounds and he's back to solid pick-and-roll coverage when he jumps out on the ballhandler and stays with them through their drives. It's a testament to his play on this end that most of our critiques are for the guys behind Dwight who are letting him down through bad help defense. Dwight's foul trouble has been a bit of a problem lately, especially in Pau Gasol's absence, but there are so many breakdowns on the perimeter game to game that it's hard to blame him and he's done a good job playing with foul trouble when Mike D'Antoni (correctly) permits him to stay on the floor. On offense, he probably won't return to form until he gains the full breadth of his elevation and quickness back, but as indicated above, his effort level in getting post position has been really good and the team should try to reward him for it.
- Steve Blake -- Blake's 5-1 assist to turnover ratio for the month of March tells you all you need to know about how good he's been as a distributor for the bench unit and with Kobe gone, expect a lot of the Nash/Blake backcourt that D'Antoni has grown very fond of. And this is for good reason, as aside from a sudden proclivity for jumpers off the dribble, he simply makes good decisions with the ball. In Kobe's absence, Blake will have to step up a bit as a spot-up shooter on the wing, as his shooting accuracy has been a bit wanting lately, although when we discuss the paradigm in D'Antoni's offense, Blake is one of the guys you can probably trust to take the open shot or find the next guy who does have that opportunity along the perimeter.
- Antawn Jamison -- The fourth quarter in Orlando was a perfect showcase of Jamison's game, as he and Blake combined to tear apart Orlando's lax coverage on his slip screens. A more disciplined team will do a better job of shutting it down, but you wish this was run more consistently with Jamison on the floor, especially with the bench unit. He's the guy who is going to finish a lot of their plays at the rim or on the perimeter, so bandying around the ball waiting for a defensive breakdown rather than engineering one usually isn't the best course of action. Jamison's efficiency might suffer a bit with Kobe removing one of the primary creators on the team, although as noted, his cutting should continue to be a key offensive option.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta's currently on his way to a career low in assist ratio and it's a bizarre development from someone who was usually a fairly willing passer. It feels like he needs to make a point whenever he has the ball that he can still break someone down in isolation and weirdly enough, a lot of those attempts were successful against Atlanta, seeing that he went 7-10 from inside the arc. The bigger problem, however, is his inability to hit consistently from behind the arc considering how many open looks he gets every game. Defenses are loading up on the Lakers' ballhandlers and post players because they don't feel any threat from leaving MWP open on the perimeter, especially when he's not going to give up the rock when he gets the ball. Metta's defensive activity has gotten a bit better now that he's settled into the role as a smallball four a bit better, although this will hopefully end with Pau coming back in the near future.
- Honorable mention to Earl Clark, whose star has more or less fallen at this juncture. A lot of it is probably a loss of confidence and being asked to man a position he's not suited for and he'll have to split the difference between losing Kobe's playmaking and Pau coming back to relieve him of ever having to be a center again. Hopefully Pau's passing allows him to operate as the spot-up shooter -- you would think a guy with a rather consistent stroke like him when open would act more as a release valve in the offense like Pau does, although he is getting better at doing this -- and a cutter as he's supposed to, as his value has been mostly limited to a handful of shots and respectable defense.
- Kobe Bryant -- Tiredness was at play for Kobe in both games no doubt, but worse than that was how he let it affect his game. Too often was Kobe settling for shots instead of getting to the rim or using the threat of penetration to open up his midrange game. Time and time again, it would be the familiar isolation routine in which he would do little more than stare down his opponent and launch a shot over them. A big part this of this year has been Kobe's greater adherence to efficiency by getting to the rim and generally trying to get better shots than he's normally accustomed to, but that mostly went out the window for most of the past back-to-back. In a departure from his normal play, Kobe did try a bit harder on defense, navigating through screens fairly well for a guy that usually doesn't bother, although we had plenty of times in which Kobe would tell someone to cover his guy rather than making the effort to move his feet. Hopefully the rest does Kobe some good akin to how his injury in 2010 turned out to be an underrated catalyst for his run in the playoffs that year.
- Steve Nash -- Nash is going to get into shooting slumps from time to time, but it's jarring to see it in action and especially so when he's wide open on most of these attempts. He had a lot of opportunities to break the game open in Atlanta, including two wide open layups that a 70% shooter at the rim somehow botched. The tiredness excuse is probably more acceptable for Nash than any other member of the team on a back-to-back, but he has to stay effective regardless. The Atlanta game also saw the return of some lackluster defense from Nash, as he was frequently getting burned by the likes of Shelvin Mack repeatably when he wasn't able to stay with them on the perimeter.
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