It is hard to tell ourselves from time to time that the Lakers are going gangbusters on offense against a bunch of bad defensive teams, mainly because they look so impressive while doing so. The ball is moving well, turnovers have gone down, and suddenly, the players have confidence in their shooting once more. For the most part, everyone is playing within their role and things are going swimmingly. Oh, and the Lakers are doing this without one of the best pick-and-roll guards and shooters who has ever played the game? The guy who was supposed to supercharge the Lakers' offense? Well, seeing as it already looks good, one shudders to think of the heights it could reach with Nash running the show. Part of it has been the fact that a particular Kobe Bryant has embraced the Nash role so-to-speak in a fashion that yours truly thought he would do so last year before his handle got shot.
It also has been due to the fact that the other Laker role players simply appear more comfortable under the aegis of Mike D'Antoni's offense. When the goal of every possession is simply to seek the best shot whenever it is available and the individual players feel no pressure to perform within the confines of a structured system, lo and behold, you see better results. We've talked about the impact the change of systems has had before, but it really bears mentioning again because of the reality that the Lakers look infinitely better right now in terms of their offensive flow than they did to begin the year. It's not just a few players doing well to carry the bad, but more than almost everyone looks good and a few are simply exceptional.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe is chief among those exceptional individuals, as he put on a virtuoso performance that ended in a pretty sweet triple double. And this wasn't a "hunting your stats" one, with the exception of a few hilarious attempts to by Kobe to get his last few rebounds, as he was ridiculously dominant in the first quarter with a stupendous 11 point, seven rebound, and five assist line. His control over the offense is borderline masterful right now, coming off the high pick-and-roll time and time again and probing the defense in a very Nash-esque fashion; his handle really is night and day in comparison to the woeful state of his dribble last season. He has been excellent at getting the ball to players on the roll or pop, and his willingness to attack the rim has further increased the threat of his dribble penetration. His jumper cooled off a bit as the game went on, but so long as he persists in getting to the line and attacking aggressively, his efficiency is always going to be solid.
- Dwight Howard -- Number two on that list is Dwight, who more or less obliterated Omer Asik, an excellent defensive center, figuratively and literally -- seeing as he kind of broke his face at one point -- in the post. It really is testament to how ridiculous of a physical specimen Dwight is that his rate of recovery has been this astounding from an issue that would have sidelined most other centers for a much longer period, or at the very least, diminished their play much more significantly. Dwight simply couldn't be stopped on the interior, hitting jump hooks with either hand at will and imposing his will on the boards on both ends. His disruption of the pick-and-roll also gains more and more impact with every passing game, as the Lakers slowed down what is a very, very good pick-and-roll tandem in Jeremy Lin and James Harden. Really, the notion that this is only 80% Dwight is truly amazing in and of itself; what other center in the league does what he did in biting on Cole Aldrich's fake, blocking his shot anyways, and then sprinting down the floor for a thunderous transition dunk?
- Darius Morris -- Of course, the player who fed Dwight for that dunk was Morris, who, like Howard, appears to get better game after game. We said that he would benefit greatly from reps in real game experience and lo and behold, big improvement on his part. His comfort working within the pick-and-roll is getting better, as is his court vision in finding the open man after penetrating into the paint -- if you want to know why the four man being able to hit from outside in this offense is valuable, this is it right here. Morris also has started to display a post game on the block, something he showed flashes of in previous contests and is a smart development from a guy who will have a significant size advantage over his point guard counterpart on most nights. Morris hasn't yet equaled his performance on defense in the Spurs game with Tony Parker, but he did solid work against Lin, fighting through screens and keeping with him well on penetration. Also, Morris might be the team's best perimeter defender in terms of a guy who will run like mad at open shooters to try to disrupt their attempt -- looking at you Kobe.
- Jordan Hill -- Other than his failed attempt to act as a facilitator on the break, Hill put in what has been a fairly customary night for him: aggressive attacking of the offensive boards, nice post moves on the block, hitting from midrange, and solid pick-and-roll defense. There really isn't much more to say about Hill at this juncture; that this kind of effort is standard for him is testament to the fact that he's really, really good right now. His PER ranks third on the team at the moment, and save for the fact that there are two other really, really good players ahead of him in the frontcourt rotation, he honestly should be deserving of more minutes.
- Pau Gasol -- At some juncture, that might become a reality to give Pau some more rest as the season goes on, but his mastery at being a high post operator is something really indispensable for this offense. Dwight benefits tremendously from it because Pau is the primary intermediary between the ballhandlers on the perimeter and Dwight in the post, giving him the ball where he needs it in the deep post for easier post-ups, cuts, or lobs. Every perimeter player who penetrates into the paint -- read: Kobe and Morris right now and Nash when he returns -- gets a boon from Pau being there since he's almost always open from twenty feet or so as a release valve and you can count on him making the correct subsequent read to keep the offense flowing, whether it is another pass to a shooter or cutter or he himself taking the shot from that distance. On that note, Pau's accuracy from range has gotten better from his slump earlier in the season, although he could stand to take a hard dribble or two for a shorter fifteen footer in some cases.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta has quietly turned around what was previously a disastrous start to the year with a set of solid performances, hitting his threes and not doing anything too crazy with the ball when he gets it. In fact, most of those times were positive last night, as he was able to drive to the rim against James Harden with some success and even took the ball coast to coast at one point, with the entire Rockets team likely too shocked at the proceedings to do anything. It helps that, as we expected at the start of the year, MWP is consistently so absurdly open on the perimeter that teams are doing everything aside from putting a giant neon sign on the court telling him to shoot and he's punishing them for it. His defense is a far cry from where it was at during his arrival at L.A. due to his declining foot speed, as Harden was able to get into the paint on some occasions with ease since it was hard for Metta to navigate the screen. That noted, he still has the best hands on the team and any isolation against him is more likely to end with Metta poking the ball out, so he still retains a good deal of value on the defensive end.
- Chris Duhon -- It really is a sign of how well the Lakers are doing when nearly everyone ends up in the "Beast" section, but we digress. As for Duhon, a lot of the discussion about him has been dominated by what he can't do -- play defense at least to what his reputation says he can, dribble for an extended period of time without turning it over -- but the list of positives in his game has been growing as of late. His accuracy from behind the arc has been appreciated, especially when Kobe is in the game, and for the most part, he ends the game with a few dimes to his credit since he isn't turning the ball over that much if you don't ask him to create for others. Good job for him to increase his trade value, as Mitch is probably itching for the opportunity to excise another Dukie from the squad.
- Honorable mention goes to Antawn Jamison, as his involvement with the offense grows by the day and in a positive manner. The Lakers have had basically no choice but to play him at the three given Devin Ebanks being a knucklehead and Hill's great play at the four, but the team is gradually figuring out how to use him. For one, the jump in his post-ups is a welcome development, as it allows us to see more of his bizarre yet very effective set of scoop and flip shots around the rim and it is often being done against a smaller man at the three. Jamison also has been more willing to let loose from behind the arc and while we have consistently noted that he isn't an ideal floor spacer, taking those shots in rhythm has ultimately been a good thing for the team as a whole.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks is mostly a victim of circumstance, as there are basically two consistent ballhandlers on the team now in Kobe and Morris and more often than not, Meeks is matched up with Duhon. This means that Meeks is forced to handle the ball, a role he has not taken to well to say the least. Nevertheless, you can see evidence of a very heady player who can work off others well and will likely do so when Nash comes back; Meeks' great cut to the rim off a pass from Dwight -- and on which he was probably fouled -- was one instance of this. In this regard, Meeks is almost the opposite of Sasha Vujacic, who had a decent handle and okay court vision but was prone to doing less than intelligent decisions on the court; hopefully he can return to form with Nash in the fold.
- Defense -- The defense was much better last night than against Phoenix, although both Lin and Harden missed an awful lot of open shots. Howard getting better has helped, but in general, the duration of time during which the Lakers have jacked up the defensive intensity went up last night. The greater attention paid to getting the ball loose is one welcome development given the team's utter inability to force turnovers last year and especially so since it feeds into the offense. A lot of easy buckets last night were had off intercepted passes or Dwight spiking a shot attempt into the court. Knowing this Laker squad, asking them to play tough-nosed defense when they can coast on the laurels of their offense is a tough call, but as we saw against San Antonio, the defensive effort can be summoned when needed.