The Nash-Bryant Role Reversal

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In a season filled with system changes and players' roles being redefined, it is Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant who have undergone the biggest change. Over the last couple months, they have essentially swapped roles and the Lakers have thrived.

Tonight the Los Angeles Lakers will take on a tough Indiana Pacers team, and to make earning a victory even more difficult, they will be without their starting shooting point guard. No, Steve Nash is not injured. Kobe Bryant is. An interesting development has occurred over the last two dozen games; two Hall of Fame former MVPs decided to completely switch the roles they have played for the last 17 years. The irony of it all, it was working. The Lakers were winners of 17 of their last 24 games since the Lakers star-studded backcourt completed the role reversal.

Here are Nash's and Bryant’s stats from games in which they both played. The first table depicts the first 18 games they played together when they occupied their more traditional roles.

Nash-bryant-early

The second table depicts the last 24 games when the "Pass Mamba" emerged and their roles were subsequently reversed.

Nash-bryant-late

The before and after snapshots are striking. To begin the season Kobe was a more typical score first shooting guard but since making the transition he has reduced his field goal attempts significantly (particularly threes) while doubling his assists. His scoring has declined markedly despite the recent back-to-back 40 point games. Meanwhile Nash has seen his field goal attempts creep up, and his scoring has increased, but his assist rate has fallen as he spent more time playing off the ball than initiating the offense. Taking a dive into some of the other metrics reveals why this positional swap has worked.

Let’s start with Nash. It seems blasphemous to say one of the best point guards in league history may be better playing off the ball. Pundits who did not like Mike Brown’s Princeton offense (or the idea of Phil Jackson’s Triangle system, for that matter) often cited the idea of taking the ball out of Nash’s hands as the biggest fault. Ironically, Nash has been more effective this year playing off the ball. According to Synergy Sports, Nash has generated 0.86 points per play as the ball handler in a pick and roll; on spot-up jumpers, though, he has produced a super-efficient 1.36 points per play, good for 5th best in the league. Nash is considered by many to be the greatest shooter in the history of the game. The exclusive 50/40/90 club (50% from the field, 40% from three, and 90% from the line) features a very small group of the association’s best shooters. Players like Mark Price, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, and Dirk Nowitzki made the club once. The legendary Larry Bird even reached this pinnacle of efficiency twice. Nash? He is on pace to make this season the fifth time he has joined this illustrious group. In fact, over the last dozen seasons Nash has averaged 50/43/91.

Kobe Bryant, by comparison is not the epitome of shooting efficiency. Even this year, which has been one of his most efficient shooting seasons, he is producing 0.94 points per spot-up attempt. It’s a far cry from Nash’s 1.36 which is why Kobe ranks 169th in the league relative to Nash’s top 5. Kobe has always been a scorer, but not an elite shooter. If given the choice of who should be playing off the ball with a hefty majority of attempts coming via spot-up jumpers, it should be evident that Nash fills that role better than Bryant. The more interesting question is whether or not Bryant is a better point guard than Nash.

Lakers_pgs

While Nash may be one the best spot up shooters in the league, it certainly isn’t like he’s chopped liver at the point guard position. His 0.86 points per play ranked him 29th in the league at the pick and roll as a ball handler. He has generated a very respectable assist rate of 31.7% with a reasonable turnover rate for a point guard at 20.0%. Bryant, however, surpasses Nash in most of these metrics. In the pick and roll, Bryant edges Nash with 0.89 points per play which ranks him 19th. As the ball handler in the pick and roll, Bryant is less turnover prone as well. In fact, Kobe generates nearly the same assist rate as Nash but with a turnover rate roughly one-third less and better than any other Lakers point guard (see table to the right). When one compares Bryant’s assist rate and turnover rates with other point guards around the association, he measures nearly identical to Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Steph Curry.

Bryant has always been able to facilitate and create opportunities for teammates, but it typically revolved around him operating in the post via the triangle. Playing out of the post leveraged one of Kobe biggest strengths which is his post-up game (Kobe ranks 8th in the league in scoring efficient on post ups this season). The triangle offense, however, saw the duties of creating shots shared amongst other post players (mainly Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum). Kobe has not played the traditional point guard role with heavy doses of pick and roll like he has this year. With Howard’s renewed discovery of his ability to set devastating picks, Bryant is being given plenty of room to attack the defense and the combination of his athleticism--which is remarkable for a 17-year veteran--and size allows him to make passes out of traffic. Nash, by contrast, lacks the athleticism or height which makes it a more daunting task to beat the defense. This is one reason he has been more turnover prone. Teams with athleticism have aggressively trapped Nash on pick and rolls and he has somewhat struggled in these instances. Bryant on the other hand can easily pass over the top of a hard double to provide the Lakers with a four-on-three advantage.

It’s a testament to the extreme talents of both players that they can essentially switch duties and still perform at an elite level. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that they can switch roles at any time depending on the situation and match-up. The Lakers are in essence playing with two all-star caliber point guards and shooting guards. With Kobe Bryant now out indefinitely due to an injury from a dirty questionable play, Nash will once again resume the more defined role of full-time point guard and lead the Lakers attack. It’s a good thing he has a few years of experience in such a role. The Lakers will need Nash to play at an elite level and keep the ship headed in the right direction until Kobe can return to the helm.

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