All season long, the Los Angeles Lakers have been a better offensive team than they have been a defensive team. As of today, the Lakers rank 8th in the league offensively, and just 19th defensively. Still, in interview after interview, Steve Nash has repeatedly hammered the point of how much the Lakers have to learn about each other, and how far they have to go in figuring out an offensive identity, and he makes a great point.
What kind of team are the Lakers? Should they be running primarily pick-and-roll sets offensively? Should they be doing lots of inside-out work with their post players? What do they want to force the opposition into doing defensively? To what extent does Kobe's injury change things going forward? In today's round table, we'll take a crack at what the Lakers offensive identity has become in their recent run of success, and describe what we think the future should hold for the Lakers offense, both this season and beyond.
The Lakers have certainly looked like an unidentifiable mass of purple and gold for the majority of the season. There's plenty of blame to throw around, from starting up the season loaded up on Princeton Offense 'roids, to injuries, to the coaching change in and of itself, which leads me to believe the "consistency" word is one to consider. Overall, the Lakers have been trying to bail water out of their boat while new leaks spring almost weekly. From Dwight Howard's back, to Pau Gasol being in and out, to most recently Kobe Bryant severely spraining his ankle (and this goes without mentioning the time the Lakers spent without both Steves and Jordan Hill) the Lakers have been fighting to even keep a consistent starting lineup on the floor.
However, since the All-Star break the Lakers have looked purposeful in their offense. They are definitely not an inside-out team in the traditional sense. They aren't dumping the ball down to Dwight to force double or triple teams so he can kick it out. The Lakers are utilizing high-screen sets with Howard, most often with Kobe as the ball-handler, and it's working to great success. Their inside field goal attempts are often created from dribble penetration by Bryant, who then kicks it out should the defense collapse. An abstract inside-out offense that would have been expected in full if it were, say, Nash creating with the ball as opposed to Kobe.
Is it working? Yes. Nash is a historically great shooter and as a spot-up shooter is currently ranked fifth in the league at 1.36 points per possession. When shooting the three-ball as a spot-up outlet, Nash is shooting the ball at an absurd 49.3 percent. With Howard setting strong screens, Kobe creating off the dribble, and Steve Cash pulling the lever on the slot machine, the Lakers offense has looked more bread and butter than cookies and cream ice cream and soy sauce, so to speak. If they expand on their high-screen sets and use them as a foundation for their offense the Lakers should find success, especially once Pau Gasol returns and can serve as an extra facilitator from the elbow in-between.
To say the Lakers have gone through a tumultuous season would be an understatement. They have gone through three different coaches, two systems, a plethora of rotations, all in the name of finding something that works for four future Hall of Fame players. It seems absurd to think it would be this difficult to construct a winning offense with the sheer talent this team possesses. That is why their recent success and the method they have used to obtain it seems so straight forward that in hindsight one can only look back and think perhaps the Lakers were over-thinking the game.
Their recent run of success has come from simply letting the stars do what they do best. They have spread the floor with capable shooters at four positions, put the ball in Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash's hands, asked Howard to set a screen, and then go to work from there. They are becoming a pick and roll heavy team which, given the players engaged in the play, should produce devastating results. Nash and Bryant are both deadly in these sets and with Howard's health improving he is beginning to set the type of screens that can wreak havoc on the defense. Having the other two positions occupied by shooters has created so much space that defensive rotations are difficult to make and when they do the Lakers are finding wide open threes. One wonders how much more efficient the Lakers would be if one of the wing positions were occupied with a pure three point shooter like a Kyle Korver or Ryan Anderson rather than Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, or Antawn Jamison. Perhaps the most intriguing change however has come from the role reversal of Nash and Bryant with Bryant taking on the majority of ball handling duties while Nash plays more off the ball.
The elephant in the room that no is talking about is how this identity will change with the return of Pau Gasol. Gasol's presence on the floor next to Howard provides the defense a player with which to help off of and clog the lane. Will the space and opportunities currently being enjoyed by Nash and Bryant suddenly vanish with another defender in the paint? Let me be clear, Gasol's return brings far more benefits than harmful effects. The masquerading of Earl Clark as a center will stop. The team will not fall apart any time Howard leaves the floor. However, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the Lakers best line-up over the last couple of weeks has been a four shooters and Howard line-up, a line-up that can't exist when Pau returns. What this means going forward is tough to tell. It will be yet another change the Lakers will have to adjust to in a season that has been all about adjustments.
Although the path to get there has been rough, I think the team and Mike D'Antoni have become comfortable with a mostly pick-and-roll heavy approach that is starting to resemble his system that we are most familiar with. Before now, we have had borderline triangle sets, straightforward four-out, one-in play, and Kobe initiating everything from the mid-post area, but currently, the team seems content to put multiple shooters on the floor and run the high pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard. Both Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash use the pick-and-roll to create space for both playmaking and shot creation and it works consistently since Dwight is clearing large amounts of space when he screens the ballhandler's defender out of the play and then sucks in the rest of the defense on the roll. More or less everything runs off this basis, although D'Antoni has thrown a few wrinkles into the mix such as Dwight setting a screen for the wing instead of rolling as he did in the Chicago game. There are a lot of derivations of high pick-and-roll play you can implement once you have practice time, a consistent rotation to run with, and two ballhandlers as skilled as Kobe and Nash.
The biggest such quirk is using Horns, in which both bigs come up to set a high pick, but that's fallen by the wayside ever since Pau Gasol got injured. The advantage is you get a big with the ball in the high post, namely Pau, while the other big rolls to the rim and the ballhandler sets a screen for the corner wing to come up for an open shot. Sans a big who can operate in the high post, you get fewer options in this regard and if all you want is to open space for the ballhandler, your typical high pick-and-roll is more effective. But with Pau, you want to involve him in a play that maximizes his passing ability when there are multiple things happening off the ball. You also get things like the 4-5 pick-and-roll and double block sets, both of which should work better now that Dwight more closely resembles his previously dominant self. There's also Pau himself as the primary screener, as then you get a consistent pick-and-pop partner that the team previously hasn't had and Pau's passing ability also comes into play there as well.
This all noted, if the Lakers were a clear pick-and-roll team, Nash wouldn't be giving answers like he has that the team doesn't necessarily have a clear identity yet. We still have a lot of Kobe isolations, for instance, but that's a part of D'Antoni's system that gets swept under the rug. When you have the floor spaced, it maximizes the effectiveness of a guy who can break down his man off the dribble and force the defense to leave a perimeter shooter to stop him. We remember Phoenix for their high octane pick-and-roll play, but they had a lot of isolations because they worked in that context. A similar logic follows whenever the ball gets dumped into Dwight on the block since it (sort of) resembles the four-out, one-in system he operated under in Orlando.
So per all the above, the Lakers have to find a way to integrate multiple philosophies, which is where we get Nash's response. Honestly, what the Lakers run any given possession depends on who is on the floor since the dynamics shift dramatically when any one of Kobe, Dwight, Pau, or Nash leave the floor. What the bench unit that starts fourth quarters (Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark or Metta World Peace, and Dwight Howard) runs is very different from what the starters will do or a lineup that has Kobe but no Nash. The pick-and-roll should ultimately emerge as the base play that unifies all of these approaches, whether it's the pick-and-roll with Dwight, pick-and-pop with Pau, or slip screen with Jamison, but the derivations of such depend on personnel. It's the downside of not having a training camp and a healthy rotation, although Pau's return should help the Lakers' overall execution rather than adding another headache. The Lakers need another guy who can pass the rock and set up shooters and cutters and especially one from the high post, and given the team's current momentum, it should work out nicely.
I don't think the Lakers will establish a specific offensive identity this season, defined as an offensive philosophy that is overly dominant in their approach to the game. I think in the past 1.5 months, and especially since the All Star break, what the Lakers have done is pivot to a strong "Do whatever it takes" approach, which is why the offense has been chameleonic. One game, you have Steve Nash running the show with 1-5 Screen Rolls, the next game you have Kobe operating out of the mid post alone and drawing double teams, the next game it's Kobe and Dwight running the Screen Roll actions. I think the Lakers spent portions of the beginning of the season trying to establish a singular identity, but for a variety of reasons (injuries, attitudes, etc.) that attempt was doing more harm than good. Now, the Lakers seem to be willing to make the most out of the excessive talents of their stars, and everybody is getting just enough of the action to be satisfied. There's just too much ground to make up (even now, with the Lakers looking good for the playoffs) for the Lakers to waste any time not doing what is best for them in that exact moment. Foresight is a luxury that you no longer get to have when your back is against the wall.
I don't expect that approach to change this season, especially with Pau Gasol returning right smack in the middle of a pretty strong run for LA. If the Lakers are to turn this decent run into a stunning turnaround, Gasol has to be as heavily involved as any of the other three superstars (which means that Pau needs to return to his A game as well). Pau was excellent just before he went down with his injury, and if the Lakers can get him back to that come playoff time without losing the gains made in the play of Howard, they have a decent shot at making some noise.