The question surrounding the Lakers right now isn’t about whether or not Dwight Howard’s back will be okay or if the Lakers have the bench to complement the stars, but how will Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant coexist on the basketball court?
There was a moment during the Lakers’ Media Day that sent everybody into a laughing fit.
Kobe Bryant claimed he doesn’t like having the ball. (via SportsRadioInterviews.com)
“Here’s the thing: Some people are just very, very dumb. I keep hearing it from some people that I just want to score and that other stuff. Nobody has won more championships than me in my entire generation. I’ve got five of them. You can’t be selfish and win one championship, let alone five. That argument should be in the coffin by now. I don’t like having the ball.”
It’s that last sentence that really delivered the funny. Kobe Bryant, he is the seventh player with most field goal attempts ever and the fifth with most points of all time, claiming that he doesn’t like having the ball.
It sent Twitter into a mocking session and everybody seemed to just dismiss this as Kobe trying to play with the media and pundits that claim he might not be comfortable sharing the ball in the backcourt with Steve Nash.
While I don’t necessarily believe Kobe when he says he doesn’t like having the ball, I do believe what I’m assuming when I read those comments that he doesn’t like having to create everything for his team.
Kobe is not a dumb guy; he knows the more attention he draws from the defense, the harder it is for him to score. Doesn’t mean he can’t score, but he isn’t able to conserve as much energy for tight moments as he would like to do.
When he had horrendous teammates like Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown flanking him, Kobe decided to take matters into his own hands on most possessions. Nobody else could participate in consistently creating scoring opportunities for those Lakers teams; therefore they couldn’t be trusted with such tasks.
This left Kobe to fend for himself and his team at all times.
While he left us with dazzling numbers from those times, it left him with an early exit home.
Now that Kobe has one of the greatest floor generals the NBA has ever seen by his side, it’s going to allow him to be a scorer instead of a playmaker, and that’s where he’s at his most deadly. It’s not that he can’t be a playmaker. Even if you’re a “ball hog,” you don’t average 4.7 assists per game for a career without being a pretty special playmaker.
But with Nash running pick-and-rolls and helping spread the floor in the new Princeton-hybrid offense everybody in Los Angeles is talking about, this is going to allow Bryant to delegate responsibility in the offense without having to give up his importance in creating points.
Here’s how the Lakers can maximize Kobe’s offensive possessions with Nash controlling the decision-making process.
Is spot-up shooting going to be a part of Kobe’s repertoire with Nash at the helm? I’d assume he will implement this into his game a little bit more with Nash commanding so much attention off the pick-and-rolls and the two All-Star big men sucking the defense into the key.
The question is whether or not this will work for Kobe.
In the 2009-10 season, Kobe was pretty deadly spotting up on the floor. He ranked 59th in the NBA in points per possession on spot-ups, making 44.4 percent from the field and 40.3 percent of his spot-up three-pointers (this is including playoffs). Considering he was just a 32.9 percent three-point shooter in the regular season, it’s surprising his long-range percentage was so high.
Seeing that video and going through his spot-up three-pointers from that season, a lot of them seemed to be end of the shot or game clock attempts that he just happened to knock down repeatedly, especially in the playoffs. That’s not to say they were lucky, per se. But he did happen to make a high number of really difficult three-point shots.
The last two years he’s come back down to this planet. In the 2010-11 season, Bryant was ranked 185th in spot-up scoring, making just 37.4 percent of his shots and 32.7 percent of his three-pointers on these possessions. This past season, those spot-up percentages dropped to 36.5 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from downtown.
While getting better looks due to his new teammates could theoretically boost those numbers in spot-up situations, I think there are three better ways to exploit the defense with Kobe playing off the ball.
Cutting to the basket
Kobe measures out really well in scoring points per possession when he’s in isolation, pick-and-roll, and post-up plays, but those are all sets and possessions that start off with the ball in his hands. And while he struggles in spotting up like I mentioned above, he’s also very good playing off the ball when it comes to being more active.
Last season, Kobe ranked 64th in PPP when it came to cutting toward the basket. He scored an impressive 1.26 points per possession on cuts and made 54.2 percent of his baskets. Not only did he shoot the ball well on these plays, but he also got himself to the foul line. He drew a shooting foul on 17 percent of these plays. That was nearly double his second best mark of 8.6 percent from post-up plays.
The majority of Kobe’s buckets on cutting to the basket came from either this set or from Pau getting the ball in the high post, pretending to set up Kobe on the block and then delivering a lob pass when Bryant spun off his defender and toward the hoop.
While this play was a killer for Kobe and the Lakers this past season, it doesn’t really involve much of Steve Nash, other than him potentially setting a screen for Kobe.
Here are two types of plays though that you know Nash will excel running. Ramon Sessions is a fine playmaker for the most part. He can deliver a pass with pretty solid accuracy to get a guy in position to score. But Nash is still Nash.
Nash’s ability to deliver the ball with either hand off the bounce when Kobe is coming across the lane could lead to a lot more easy baskets for Bryant. Lakers loved setting screens for Kobe to come under the lane on the baseline or come across it. With Nash there to deliver it from any angle, all Kobe has to do is avoid a case of the Kwames and catch the ball.
The other play will be those quick hitter plays that aren’t quite transition but they’re early enough in the set that Kobe can take advantage of any defensive lapses. Nash’s ability to push the ball and get easy scores could cause confusion with the opposing defense. If someone is late or confused picking up Kobe, he’ll slash to the bucket for an easy score.
Here’s what it looks like when Nash is creating scores for his teammates off cuts. You see a lot of dribble penetration from Nash that appears to be headed nowhere. He gets cut off and just stops. But there is always a player wheeling around the perimeter, waiting to cut into the lane.
Then there’s the second play in which they set a cross screen around the perimeter for Dudley and once he has a step on his man and the helping defender, Nash delivers a perfect bounce pass to the cutter.
It’s simple plays like this that Nash just shreds your defense with. Now imagine him feeding Kobe on these cuts instead of Jared Dudley. No disrespect to Dudley but Kobe is a better finisher with contact and better at drawing fouls on these plays.
Coming Off Screens
The other thing the Lakers did a lot last season was run Kobe off of screens. He got a lot of jumpers out of this, and most of them were fairly open. But they mainly had to rely on Pau Gasol setting Kobe up before Ramon Sessions got there.
Kobe excelled in these possessions coming off of screens, ranking 26th in PPP and making 46.2 percent of his baskets.
Once Sessions came aboard, Kobe was able to get a rhythm catching the ball from the perimeter and squaring up for a jumper. In the first play, you can see how balanced his shot was on this type of set. His ability to square up because of where the pass was coming from was probably a big help.
In the second play, he’s coming off of the screen tightly, utilizing the mass of Andrew Bynum setting the pick. That will be replaced with the mass of Dwight Howard this year and the precision of Steve Nash passing. Much like when he’s cutting to the basket, Bryant can expect precision passes from his new point guard on these plays.
This should allow him to keep his high efficiency on these possessions and even boost it quite a bit. Undoubtedly, he’ll have plenty of plays taking three-pointers coming off of screens, but Nash will probably try to get him better shots on these possessions.
These are all basic plays a lot of point guards can make, but watch the video and look closely to where Nash is delivering the ball. Everything is to the waist or chest of his teammates, allowing them to be in rhythm and get into their shooting motion quickly.
That’s one of the most underrated things about Nash’s passing ability is that he really cuts down on any potential for wasted motion by his teammates going up for the shot. They catch it and they’re immediately in shooting position.
Now you take the ball out of Kobe’s hands, put it in Nash and allow Kobe to have fewer shots in which he has to work hard or harder than normal to get the shot off? That’s pretty murderous for a scorer like Kobe.
Here is a scoring situation in which Kobe was better than just about everybody in the league last year. When he got the ball coming off of hand-off plays, he was ranked eighth in the NBA in points per possession. He made 50 percent of his shots on these plays.
The problem though is the Lakers didn’t do this all that often. He ran a play in which he got a hand-off and ended up taking a shot, a free throw, or turning the ball over just 3.1 percent of the time.
And when he did get a hand-off, it usually came from a big man. It rarely happened with him and the point guard playing off of each other. A big reason for this could be design of the offense, and another reason could be nobody is going to care if Steve Blake, Derek Fisher, or Ramon Sessions are penetrating to set up Kobe for a hand-off.
The opposing defense won’t suck into the interior and leave Kobe wide-open.
This was literally the only play of the season (including playoffs) in which Kobe received a hand-off from a point guard on his team. At least, that was it from what I could find.
While it doesn’t seem like a big part of the offense, it’s something they can really exploit with Nash initiating the offense.
As you can see from the video, Nash’s ability to dribble into defenders, drop-off the pass to a teammate circling around him and take out his teammate’s defender is pretty deadly.
The biggest reason is Nash is such a threat from anywhere on the floor, and he’s usually the best shooter on the floor, that you have no choice but to pay attention to him when he gets into the teeth of the defense. And since he’s so unselfish with the ball, he’s usually just using himself as a decoy to create space for a teammate.
This isn’t something that will get Kobe close shots to the basket, but it allows him to set his feet and get balanced on his jumper.
On the last play in that montage, you saw it create a mismatch for Grant Hill. If Nash can force switches on these possessions and get a point guard defending Kobe, it gives Bryant even a greater advantage than he already has. At that point you either have to concede the shot to Kobe or double hard on him and hope he doesn’t find a big man inside or Nash waiting to be a sniper on the perimeter.
In fact, the hand-off play between Kobe and Nash could be one of the most impossible plays to stop in the NBA this year. Because the big men off the ball are so good at moving to the basket, doubling on these plays gives the Lakers a handful of options.
Maybe you just hope they end up passing the ball to the bruiser formerly known as Ron Artest, but these guys are too smart to just do that over and over. They’ll find an advantage on these plays and pick apart the defense with great passing and deadly shooting.
There will be other added benefits for Kobe, like receiving great post-entry passes and easy scoring chances in transition (where Kobe struggled a bit last season). But mostly, Nash will find ways to get him easier shots on the perimeter.
We laughed at Kobe saying he didn’t want the ball on Media Day, but he’s going to get the ball in better positions to score than he’s ever had. He may not be as good as he used to be, but with Nash by his side, he probably won’t have to be.
That’s not a thought anybody else in the league is going to laugh at this season.