The Lakers are blessed to have four of the best offensive players at their respective positions set to suit up for their organization. Their skills are so refined and their production so established, that actually doling out the accolades to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard would be overkill. However, I will say that their reputations as offensive forces as individuals are well deserved and the fact that they'll all be wearing the same uniform is sure to keep head coaches up at night.
After losing those hours of sleep, though, head coaches will still be tasked with slowing down the Lakers fantastic four. And while it won't be easy, they'll have ample history to work off of. All of these guys at one point or another has been the focal point for his respective team (yes, even Gasol who before Andrew Bynum's emergence was the Lakers key post weapon).
Coaches, then, can simply call on old game plans and strategies to try and limit these players as individuals. And when they face off against the Lakers, here is how they will try to do it...
Defending Nash will probably be opponents' biggest challenge, strictly from a conceptual standpoint. Nash is a player that consistently seeks out the best shot for himself or his teammates and rarely makes the type of mental errors or mistakes that bail out a defense.
This doesn't mean there aren't sound strategies to slowing him down. Nash, like most ball handlers, can be pressured into spots on the floor that he doesn't like and can be put into positions where his options become limited to the point that he becomes easier to defend.
Ultimately, this should be the approach defenses take when defending him.
For example, when Nash is playing in the pick and roll, teams will vary their looks against him but should skew their attack towards trapping him hard to take the ball out of his hands. While Nash still possesses good quickness, he's no longer the player that can turn the corner against any defense that tries to press up on him. By trapping him teams can effectively make him stop his dribble and give up the ball. That should lead to him having to pass from a non threatening position and thus slow down the rhythm of the offense. That's the ultimate win against him.
However, if you can't make him give up the ball, the next best thing is to make him shoot. Now, I know making Steve Nash shoot sounds foolish. But, in reality, what the defense is really doing is trying to dictate the terms of the possession and then force Nash into shots that he may not want to take.
Here you see that Nash's man plays him in a way that directs him away from the high screen. Nash's man then rides on his shoulder not allowing him any space to change direction. This ultimately encourages Nash to continue to the basket where the weak-side help comes and blocks the shot.
Of course Nash won't get his shot blocked on every possession, but the approach shown is one that you can expect coaches to employ a lot. Coaches don't want Nash creating for others, they want him trying to find his own shot and doing so against pressure defense.
Howard is probably one of the most underrated offensive players in the league. He has a better than advertised post game and is terrifying finishing in the pick and roll. Do not mistake lack of polish for lack of effectiveness. Howard can and will hurt you if given the chance.
However, Howard is not infallible. And when trying to stop him, opposing defenses have a tried and true game plan that they're going to go to until he proves he can overcome some of his more glaring weaknesses.
So, while this may not sound like the most sustainable approach, slowing Howard starts with playing physical with him and making him earn his baskets. Said another way, it means teams will foul him to stop him from scoring.
Here you see that Celtics weren't going to give Howard many, if any, clean looks at the basket. Be it drives to the rim, jump hooks, dive plays off pick and rolls, or even on his mid-range jumper, the Celtics were going to contest his shots and, if need be, foul him to make him earn his points at the free throw line. And, considering Howard is a career 58.8% foul shooter, this is a good strategy.
The physicality doesn't stop with fouling Howard, though. It continues into plays where teams try to earn fouls on Dwight to get him out of the game. Because Dwight is such a physical player in his own right, he's prone to picking up offensive fouls. His opponents know this and will then, ahem, embellish contact to earn the call.
Flopping serves two purposes. First and foremost it potentially draws a foul on Howard and either gets him out of the game earlier or makes him play a less aggressive style. Second is that it frustrates Howard and baits him into arguing. Howard is one of the league leaders in technical fouls every season and at least part of that is due to him complaining about the physical way he's guarded and how he can't dish it out the same way on both ends of the floor.
Of course defenses will also use other tactics to slow down Howard. They'll double team him to try and force turnovers, they'll body him and make him try to start his move higher out on the floor, and they'll also try to force him into hitting any type of shot rather than giving up dunks.
But, in the end, if they can't accomplish those things they will simply hack him. There's a reason he led the league in FT's per game in the 2011-12 season.
There may not be a more skilled big man in the league than Pau Gasol. His post game is as refined as anyone's, he's an elite passer, and he has range on his jumper out to 20 feet. His complete game is something that defenses must take into account whenever they game plan.
But, if there's one thing that opponents try to do to take Pau out of his comfort zone, it's playing physical with him. By knocking him off his spots, forcing him farther from the hoop and making him work to even catch the ball, the D can turn a disadvantageous matchup into a draw (or even a win) for them.
This is especially true when Pau is trying to post up. Over the years, Pau has become more and more susceptible to being bullied off his spot and/or fronted to be denied an entry pass.
You can see how Pau struggles to detach from his man, having trouble working around the front to make himself available for a pass. He tries circling LeBron to get open but can't do it. Uprooting him doesn't work either. Ultimately he just tries to shove him but gets a foul called. The frustrated look on his face is something that opposing coaches hope to see more of next season and they'll try to make it happen by bullying him all over the court.
Kobe is a feature of opposing game plans every night. His all court game is especially difficult to stop, especially since he can tailor his attack to whatever type of defender is guarding him. Smaller players can get taken to the post. Slower footed players can be isolated or beaten off the dribble. Longer defenders can be moved off screens and put in trail positions. Kobe can do it all.
That said, there is certainly a plan of attack to slow down No. 24. The key is to get him shooting long jumpers and to hope that he gets tunnel vision in only looking for his own shot.
Granted, all those shots were in late game situations where the offense is much more focused on getting a certain type of shot and defenses are dialed in on stopping key players. However, Kobe is a guy that loves to isolate and is also a player that receives maximum defensive attention at all times. So, this clip is very instructional as to what defenses will try to do.
As you can see above, the best strategy is to force Kobe into taking long jumpers where his accuracy diminishes. The defense gives him just enough room as to discourage the drive but doesn't back off so far that they can't recover to contest the shot. On plays where Kobe does beat his man off the dribble, he's swarmed by multiple defenders who provide help in a manner that allows them to help contest shots and take away passing angles at the same time.
These are the strategies that defenses are sure to employ in the coming campaign. And while they won't always be successful, they are surely the best way to lower his efficiency and slow him down.
Ultimately, regardless of the strategies above the Lakers are still going to be a top flight offensive team. They simply have too much talent to be slowed too much. But, that won't stop teams from trying, and these are the techniques that have been effective in slowing down these four guys in the past.
Wish the defenses luck, though. They are going to need it.