In his long-awaited debut, Dwight Howard showed the Lakers every bit of the tremendous impact he will have on each side of the floor, and in extended stretches, the Lakers' offense looked absolutely unstoppable. Mind you, this is in the very first real game he has played in months, not to mention the first time the Lakers fabled starting five finally shared a court together in such a contest, and they gave a hellacious show with only a portion of the entire offense actually installed. That last item is the most important thing to keep in mind when considering the Lakers as they are right now. Quite simply, this is a process. The Lakers we see on opening night will not be playing at the same level as they will in January, nor will they be remotely close to the unit that finishes the season. Oftentimes, this factoid will be difficult to digest because we expect the sheer talent on the roster to work well together, seeing as the stars' respective skill sets mesh very well with one another.
To a point, this is true, and when the Lakers open the season against the Dallas Mavericks, it is completely understandable if we happen to see the Lakers blow away a team that sans Dirk Nowitzki has no business being on the same court as them. This noted, as Actuarially Sound wrote the other day, this team does not just have the ability to be great on offense, but historically great. The Lakers have in their starting five one of the best pick-and-roll point guards of all time (Steve Nash), one of the best scorers ever to play the game (Kobe Bryant), a rejuvenated defensive bull regaining his offensive touch (Metta World Peace), a hyper-skilled big man with fantastic passing instincts (Pau Gasol), and the game's best finisher off the pick-and-roll and an athletic marvel (Dwight Howard). Almost no amount of hyperbole is unjustified in prognosticating the heights this team could reach.
All of these players, however, at some point or another, have been the fulcrum of their respective team's offenses. Each has played in a system that was built to maximize their strengths and had a roster with players picked to best complement their individual skills. Their teams worked best when these stars could express their talents to their fullest. On this Lakers team, everyone, to some degree, will have to sacrifice their own identity such that the team as a whole benefits and all of the stars fit into a role that enables the entire offense to work best. This balance is what the Princeton offense seeks to get at, and while it has caused some consternation recently as the Lakers work out the kinks, the end result should be something truly impressive to behold.
To illustrate this, let us move back to the piece yours truly originally wrote concerning the implementation of the Princeton and the hiring of Eddie Jordan:
Now, for everyone who watched the Lakers' appalling lack of movement on offense last season, they will take heart in that this is the very thing the Princeton offense seeks to counteract. In the classic Princeton, four players stand on the perimeter, two at the top of the key and two on the wing, while the primary big moves to the high post, which opens up significant swaths of space near the basket for the offense's chief method of attack: back door cuts. Players are constantly screening for one another, the ball is reversed from the perimeter into the post and back, and in general, the participants need to be able to read the defense, make pinpoint passes, and be a threat to shoot and give everyone adequate spacing with which to work. The individual players are meant to be interchangeable, and it rewards multifaceted guards who can post and bigs able to stretch the floor, both of which should sound very familiar to Lakers fans. At the same time, the entire offense is predicated on execution and exploiting the defense's mistakes, and it allowed Princeton teams that were not always the most talented squads to defeat much more decorated programs, the most famous of which was Princeton's upset of UCLA in 1996.
This is as I note above, the classic Princeton, which certainly will not be the core of what the Lakers are running all the time. The biggest reason is the presence of a certain Steve Nash, whose skills would understandably be wasted if asked to simply be another guard in the offense rather than the pick-and-roll maestro he was in Phoenix for so many years. We also have brought up the concern that Dwight Howard would not necessarily be ideal for handling the ball in the high post seeing as he should theoretically be by the basket most of the time. These issues are relevant because Nash and Howard are the two players you expect to be the proverbial fish out of water in this system. Well, these concerns have -- for the most part -- been unfounded over the course of the preseason.
First, Mike Brown has gone out of his way to state that Nash has the choice every play when bringing the ball up whether to transition directly into a straight-up pick-and-roll set or start initiating the Princeton. Even when he does the former, however, and is moving off the ball, the offense is creating opportunities for him. Nash isn't spotting up in the corner as he would in the triangle after handling the off: he is setting a screen for the wing and then running off other screens. This movement has created an awful lot of wide open midrange shots for Nash, who is incredibly accurate from that distance. If the result of Nash moving off the ball from time to time is to give one of the best shooters in NBA history wide open looks, we will take that result every day of the week.
Nash is also the final release valve of the offense. If the clock is running down and the Princeton has failed to produce an ideal shot, the last resort is to just hand the ball off to Nash and ask him to run the pick-and-roll and create. Compared to last year's offense that essentially gave the ball to Kobe for an isolation as the last option, this is a far better solution. Granted, in regards to all the above concerning the balance of Nash with the ball and without, there still are sequences in which Nash ends up simply spotting up on the perimeter waiting for the ball, but you have to imagine that most of those get ironed out as the team implements more of the offense. When it comes down to it, Nash will be well-utilized and it behooves us to believe that that will be the case.
As for Howard, he displayed a surprising competence at running the offense out of the high post. The very first play of the Kings game was Howard catching the ball there and dishing to Kobe at the wing for a wide open three. Howard also works well from that position because he sets bone-crushing screens that more often that not takes the defender completely out of the play. Nash and Kobe had a handful of wide open jumpers because their defender wasn't even in the same zip code as them. Howard, of course, is also the designated finisher for everything around the rim, as the team displayed with gusto by trying to set him up with lobs at every conceivable opportunity. Essentially any time he spirals away from his defender, he is immediately a threat to score around the rim, and as more of the offense becomes implemented and everyone gets comfortable with the reads, we will see an awful lot of plays ended with a lob to Howard.
Howard's mere presence has also given a boost to the offense because he affects the defense merely by being on the court. The Kings' defenders absolutely refused to leave him even as other players were getting into the lane since doing so immediately opens up a lob opportunity. When your guards are two great passers in Nash and Bryant, this only compounds that problem. Moreover, Howard's presence is visible in transition as he runs the floor, which creates a giant sucking sound as the defense moves into to contain him and avoid a pass for an easy finish. Quite a few times the wings found themselves wide open on the perimeter for an easy pass since Howard had taken the entire defense with him into the paint. Once the Lakers' defense improves, something already occurring because Howard is a dominant force on that end, we will see a lot happening in transition and semi-transition as the Lakers get the ball down the floor, especially with Nash at the helm.
In the halfcourt, we are already seeing the Princeton benefit Kobe, who has drawn free throws by the bucketload since covering him on cuts and drives to the rim with all the other threats around him is a terrifying concept for opposing defenses. The bigs can't exactly leave Howard (lob) or Gasol (midrange) to cover Kobe, nor can one shade off Nash (outside shooting). As such, the greater effect of all the stars on the floor is that defenses often are forced to foul simply because they don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter. Nearly everyone is going to end up with single coverage a good portion of the time, a death knell to most teams that simply don't have the personnel to cover this kind of talent all the time, and the Princeton is designed to open up opportunities when the doubles arrive, as befits a read and react offense.
This bespeaks the best thing the Princeton has created in the offense, which is floor balance. Both Nash and Kobe can run the pick-and-roll with two awesome bigs very adept at it, and on the subject of those bigs, we can see the two operating in either the high or low post. This is the type of interchangeability the Princeton thrives on since it allows the Lakers to flow into their sets much better, something we are seeing as the team is getting into the offense much faster in the shot clock than last year. The improved spacing from Nash and a much more fit MWP has created the spacing for the Lakers' post-up players and cutters to operate well on the interior as well. In sum, the effect of the Princeton is to reward a group of players all of whom have very versatile skill sets by putting them in positions to succeed, which is an obvious facet of any offense, but it is important here due to the need of finding a way for four bona fide stars to find a way to work together.
The above has all left out any mention of the bench, primarily since we should treat the bench not as a standalone unit, but as a toolkit of sorts to mix and match with the starters. Except in blowouts or cases of foul trouble, the bench is rarely ever going to play without one or two of the starters on the floor. So when we consider the struggles of Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison, for instance, let us recall that they aren't going to be asked to be the go-to guys when they are on the floor and create offense. Meeks is simply an additional option to create spacing for the stars, especially Nash and Howard. Jamison has his greatest success in cuts and drives around the rim that will be more prevalent when the defense is not as honed in on him with a unit that includes say Kobe or Gasol.
How Mike Brown will treat these rotations is important because the team's offensive identity could drastically switch depending which of stars is on the floor. The most important factor here is Nash. If he is not playing, the offense is going to look much more like the classic Princeton, especially if Gasol is on the floor to run things from the high post. With him, the Lakers might even resemble the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns every once in a while if he is the only star or has only Howard or Gasol with him. This hearkens back to the previous point about the stars needing to subsume their identity for the sake of the team as we introduce a caveat: it is only relevant if all or most of them are on the floor at the same time. Should there be only one or two present, it is incumbent on them actually to dominate the action and take control such that the complementary players do not have to perform outside their roles.
All four stars thus have an important balancing act to perform over the course of next season. Essentially, they must figure out when and where is the appropriate time to play as they have traditionally done so as primary options, as well as the time to take a step back and let the system produce ideal results for everyone on the floor. There is no easy answer as to how this will work except to say that it is something that will come with time, practice, and everyone getting used to playing with one another. It certainly will be easier for some (Gasol) than others (Kobe), but at the moment, everyone is saying the right things about making this work. If the shot distribution against the Kings is any indication, seeing as it was quite equitable, the Lakers have quite the bright future ahead of them on the offensive end of the floor.
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