The Lakers are a team with plenty of offensive options; the number and calibre of which allow them to explore different avenues for success. However, despite the various forms of implementation currently open to Los Angeles, one reality must remain constant—the ball must be kept in Steve Nash's hands.
Though the Lakers have one of the game's premiere isolation scorers in Kobe Bryant and are attempting to master the art of the Princeton offense—which relies on big men to do a majority of the passing from inside the post—Nash must be the team's instinctive end-all.
Because as easy as the Princeton offense is to understand, Los Angeles is complicating it out of necessity. With so many weapons, so many capable scorers in one vicinity, the Lakers cannot simply rely on one generalized offensive scheme.
Instead, the team must play up to the strengths of each individual player at different points, which calls for them to establish a balance of both new and old tactics.
And according to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, that's exactly what they intend to do:
Right there on the Lakers' practice court, the old and the new were blended together like some sort of strange brew stirred by invisible hands from above. On one court, assistant coach Steve Clifford ran a group of players through some set plays culled from the team’s 2011-12 offense. On another, new offensive assistant Eddie Jordan ran the drills incorporating concepts from his trusty Princeton offense.
It is a mixture the Lakers must get right, or what is intended to be a soothing elixir for this reloaded roster will taste more like a rancid brew. Too much old, too little new, or any other combination that doesn’t heat the porridge just right will turn the Lakers— championship contenders again—into center stage for a basketball revolt.
Simply put, the Lakers' new-look offense is a blend of simultaneous structure and chaos. They will operate within the creative confines of the Princeton offense, yet will also attempt to stray away from it when the opposing defensive sets and offensive floor spacing calls for it.
But how will they do it? How can the Lakers find that medium; how can they most efficiently decipher between when to follow a predetermined configuration and when to allow instincts to take over?
Leave it to Nash himself to provide the answer to such pressing questions:
“It's a lot of reading and reacting, a lot of connectivity,” Nash said. “You have to read the guy in front you and there's kind of limitless possibilities out there. But that's good. I think everyone is open and optimistic about it.”
Reading. Reacting. Those are the two primary jobs of a point guard. And few point men are as instinctively superior as Nash.
He's the floor general who finished second in the NBA with an average of 10.7 assists per game last season. He's a crafty passer who has dished out 10 or more dimes per contest seven of the last eight seasons. He's the ball-handling connoisseur who led an essential team of no-names in Phoenix to a top-eight points per game finish last season.
Which really poses the question, why would you want to take the ball out of Nash's hands?
The Princeton offense calls for Los Angeles' bigs to know when to kick the ball back out, a responsibility Pau Gasol is more than capable of shouldering, but one Dwight Howard must acclimate himself to. Early on, the Lakers must minimize the extent to which they rely upon Howard to do this, instead placing an increased focus on playing to his strengths, most notably within pick-and-roll sets.
That's where Nash excels as well. He's spent his entire career using pick-and-rolls to exploit opposing defenses. And while many aspects of the Lakers' newest offensive system call for Nash to play off the ball more, he led a group of below-average roll-men in Phoenix to a 60.5 percent conversion rate good for 1.17 points per possession (second in the league).
That makes Nash, at least right now, more valuable to Howard—who Berger notes averaged 1.38 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-rolls last season—as someone who jump-starts the offense where he feels most comfortable.
Then you have Bryant, who has been more of an isolation player his entire career more than anything else. But that's been out of necessity. Never before has he had the luxury of a point guard who can attack the rim and break down defenses the way Nash can.
Allowing Nash to handle the ball more, instead of dumping it immediately off to Howard in the high post, ensures he is given ample opportunity to draw defenses inward, which would mean—gasp—more uncontested shots for Bryant.
There's also transitional opportunities to consider as well. The Princeton offense calls for calm fluidity of half court sets. Running in transition has been Nash's bread and butter for 16 years, as he can remain composed in even the most high-octane of situations.
That's the beauty of Los Angeles' current dynamic. But it could also be the downfall. Because this, in truth, goes beyond statistics, beyond which offensive methodologies best suit each player.
The Lakers have a lot of moving parts in their offense, moving parts that have not only spent little time together, but who aren't used playing alongside the vast array of talents that Tinseltown is currently housing. And Los Angeles needs someone who can tie it all together, who can quarterback the team as it navigates the path to familiarity.
That someone is Nash, who has made a living off promoting ball and player movement, and superior decision-making.
This is not just about Howard—or even Kobe—buying into the Princeton offense; it's about the Lakers feeling confident enough to function under any circumstance without limitations as to how they do it. Nash can meet the needs of both Bryant and Howard, and even Gasol, the same cannot be said of the Princeton offense, which again, calls for both Bryant and Howard to step out of their comfort zones.
So, while a structured system provides the Lakers with a justifiable blueprint to help spread defenses and ensure every player remains involved, Nash's instincts, his precise passing and his innate selflessness are more vital to the team's success.
Putting—and keeping—the ball in his hands creates even more options for Los Angeles, because he is talented enough, intellectually sound enough to read the defenses and know which form of attack, whether it be the Princeton offense, Triangle offense, high or low pick-and-rolls, etc., to utilize.
That's a luxury no one system can afford, no statistic can fully measure. Because Nash's instincts are the key to Los Angeles' immediate future.
And as long as he is given free reign to run the offense as his court vision sees fit, there's no reason to believe the Lakers, and all of their moving parts, will experience anything other than instantaneous success.