Did you know Steve Nash is a Laker?
It's been five and a half months since he stunned the hoops world and signed with his once-upon-a-time rival Lakers. It's been almost two months since Portland point guard Damian Lillard assassinated his fibula with a perfectly placed knee. After all the anticipation, Steve Nash will finally return to the court, presumably on Christmas day against the New York Knicks. Though he's played in eight preseason contests, the point guard has started a scant two games this season, totaling 50 minutes and resulting in zero wins. Steve Nash has been a Laker since July, but he's appeared so little on the court in a Lakers uniform, it's still shocking to see him in purple and gold. He's only missed 24 games, but it feels so much longer than that. Since Nash has been out, the Lakers are on their third coach, have played under-.500 ball and of course, started three different players at point guard.
Nash's three understudies have been the punctuation mark on the roaring sentiment that a competent starting point guard is needed to run Mike D'Antoni's system. Lakers fans have gotten far more time than expected to observe and dissect the Lakers back-up point guards, and the grades are in: none of them are particularly gifted. Overall, anyway.
Between Darius Morris, Chris Duhon and Steve Blake, the two-time MVP's fallback men seem to have some redeeming qualities, but are on the whole flawed players with discernible weaknesses. In other words, most of them seem to be one- or, best case scenario, two-dimensional. If there was a way to cobble them together to make a Voltron-like super back-up, the Lakers would have the perfect bench guard; an excellent ball handler, capable of a deep three-point jumper and near elite one-on-one defensive game. Instead, we live in the real world where Voltron is only the figment of the finest Japanese imaginations and Darius Morris can't finish a three-on-one fast break.
Chris Duhon's holes are glaring. Not only is he a Dukie that's always raised my ire, but he's also a weak one-on-one defender and a mediocre help defender. He doesn't move very well laterally, which shouldn't improve as he moves into his early thirties. Out of all the back-ups he's probably the best passer, though his lack of quickness and ability to penetrate nullifies how imaginative he can be in the half court off the dribble or on the break. However, Duhon's true contribution for the Lakers this year has been his shooting. Thus far, the former Blue Devil has thrown down an unreal 41.7% mark from distance. The stat becomes even more impressive upon seeing that 60 of his 81 shots have been three pointers. However, even that nugget of information isn't the most interesting facet of Duhon's game. Check out his shot chart courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
Duhon has been an absolute gunner this year, nailing 10 shots 27 feet and out. As we saw in Drew Garrison's fantastic examination of Pau's offensive game in the half court set yesterday, Duhon isn't just haphazardly taking shots 3 or 4 feet beyond the arc--he intentionally puts himself into the deep outfield hardwood! Of course, nothing is as impressive without a contrast to bring the examination into focus. So, let's take a look at the shot chart of Kevin Durant, the owner of arguably the best range in the league.
Durant has taken only two of the 27 footers that Duhon hoists up seemingly regularly, a real indication of just how much confidence the latter has in his long game.
Darius Morris has had his ups and downs this season, but one thing's for sure--do not hand this man the basketball around the hoop. The second year man is an atrocious finisher at the rim, shooting just 47% for the entire year. A majority of these attempts have been on fast breaks, which has led to calamitous results. Morris regularly fumbles the pass to the trailer or tries to take the shot himself. He often simply flings the ball in the area of the rim, thinking that the iron will rise up and consume the rock like an extremely hungry hippo. Just for comparison's sake, Mario Chalmers--who in my mind is the very definition of a legitimate but very average NBA point guard--is shooting 59.5% at the rim season on just five fewer shots (42 to 37). For a strong, athletic guard like Morris, he has to improve his handle if he wants to become a starter once Steve Nash retires, or even strives to garner more minutes off the bench. His inability to control the ball in transition has been 2011-2012 Metta World Peace-level excruciating. His three-point shooting has been more than serviceable, though inconsistent. Overall, Morris is putting them in at a 43% clip, but only manages to take 1.7 per game. A bit too small of a sample size to determine whether or not he's reliable from long.
However, Morris, like Duhon, has one standout redeeming skill: he's an elite defensive guard. Listed at 6'4", 190 lbs with a long wingspan, Darius focused on his defense in the offseason according to the LA Times. He's the only guard on the entire Lakers squad that has the requisite quickness and strength to effectively body opposing points and also not allow them to take him off the dribble. Morris is the salve for which the Lakers have suffered so much defensively the past...seventeen years, being torched by everyone from the likes of Tony Parker and Mike Bibby down to J.J. Barea and D.J. Augustin.
None of this was more apparent than Tuesday night, when Kemba Walker got any shot he wanted in the first half. He scored 15 of his 25 by simply blowing past Chris Duhon and Jodie Meeks with his quickness and incredible handle. The Bobcats got all the way up to an 18-point lead shortly into the third, thanks in no small part to Walker. At that point, Morris helped turn the tide for the Lakers, stifling the UConn graduate and holding him to just 10 second half points after a scorching start.
Steve Blake is the last part of the bench triumvirate, and with only seven games under his belt this year, it's hard to examine the numbers. He's had an incredibly underwhelming Lakers career so far, shooting a miserable 36% from the field over three seasons, missing over thirty games because of various maladies. This season, it's a torn abdominal muscle that will keep him out of action for at least another four to six weeks.
Unlike the other two point guards that have gotten major playing time this year, I'm not sure what Blake's standout skill is. He's not a great defender, partially due his poor lateral movement, but he's tall and strong for his position and won't let a scorer go by on the baseline. Blake isn't a great shooter either, with a very average 36% from the three-point arc and an almost non-existent mid-range game. His court vision isn't spectacular, as he hasn't been particularly known for his creativity, which isn't helped by the fact that he's not a crisp passer. However, he's a solid leader on the fast break, making good decisions in either taking it himself or leaving the finish to the trailer. Overall, Blake is simply serviceable in every area--not terrible, but not great. His greatest skill might be that he plays incredibly hard, scrapping on the floor for every single loose ball, competing (though occasionally failing) on defense and never being afraid to take a big shot in the game. It's no surprise that in this way, Kobe often backs Blake regardless of how he's played in-game.
Steve Nash's absence has given us a far better picture of just how (in?)capable the second unit's point guards are. A much better picture, and more than any of us wanted perhaps.The question remains: now that we've seen more than we bargained for out of Morris, Duhon and Blake, what roles will they have with a returning Nash taking 30 minutes of playing time? If there's any silver lining to his All-Star guard's absence, it's that Mike D'Antoni knows exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of his back-up guards are.
Blake is out until at least mid-January (possibly longer), and it's hard to envision any coach inserting him into his rotation if the Lakers are winning, especially with Morris and Duhon shooting so well. Luckily for the third year Lakers guard, MDA is in charge and he values Blake's handle on the fast break. D'Antoni has always had a short rotation, but the injury limitations of Blake and Nash might necessitate the need for a third guard to sop up the extra minutes. While Morris is obviously the stronger defensive player, Duhon is the more competent of the two offensively. Knowing this, I'd predict the latter to get far more burn in a modified Seven Seconds or Less scheme. Morris is the most likely to be phased out of the rotation, but his already developed skill set defensively solidifies his potential. His ball-handling skills are his greatest weakness, which will most likely improve as he gains confidence and experience in the league.
Even in their one-dimensionality, the Lakers' back-up point guards still provide enough value that in small doses they'll be effective. D'Antoni is only asking for 18 minutes a night from one or two back-ups, and in that time frame these three players have enough juice to keep the second unit afloat.