What Mike D'Antoni, LA Lakers Must Learn from Steve Nash's Phoenix Suns Career
These Lakers are about as complex a convocation as Nash has ever played for—and D'Antoni has ever coached—but there's success to be found by living in the past.
With so many weapons, Los Angeles should, in theory, embody D'Antoni's the "ball finds energy" mantra. But it doesn't. Not entirely.
The Lakers rank third in possessions used per-48 minutes (94.6), but just 17th in assists per game (22). As a faction that houses the playmaking abilities of Nash, that's forever disconcerting. It's also fixable.
What troubles me most about Hollywood's offense doesn't stem from the team's decision to play Nash off the ball more. He's a phenomenal shooter who is currently hitting on 52.1 percent of his attempts from the floor and 43.8 percent of his deep-balls. Utilizing that touch more than normal is actually encouraging and thus, makes it easy to overlook the fact that he's posting the lowest assist percentage (35) in over a decade.
Where Los Angeles can improve is in its general ball-movement. Isolations shouldn't be a fixture, pick-and-rolls should. Right now, they're not.
Per Synergy Sports, the Lakers rank eighth in points scored per possessions (1.03) by the roll man and fifth (0.82) in points scored by the ball-handler off pick-and-rolls. That said, pick-and-rolls account for 17.4 percent of the team's offensive plays while isolations and post-ups account for 24.9.
No one's asking Los Angeles to run like Nash's previous Suns teams did. And no one's imploring them put the ball in Nash's hands as much either. What needs to be demanded of this offense, however, is ball movement, specifically pick-and-rolls.
It was those Nash-fueled pick-and-rolls that helped Amar'e Stoudemire become one of the most dominant big men in the game. It is those pick-and-rolls that allowed Marcin Gortat to enliven what was a dying NBA career. It's those pick-and-rolls, that combination of selflessness and ball-movement, that the Lakers must use to run their offense.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, it's not. Los Angeles has become a team that stifles ball movement by running the rock through the post where Dwight Howard prefers it.
But forcing the ball down low kills momentum. Pick-and-rolls were a staple in Phoenix, where the Suns finished below .500 just once in Nash's eight year tenure.
Given the success Nash had in Phoenix employing such tactics, it's no wonder he's started to call for more of it in Tinseltown (via Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register):
Nash is not convinced Howard is incapable of playing pick and roll.
"We'd like to get him in the pick and roll more," Nash said Sunday. "I think that's how he was really good in Orlando. He'd pick and he'd dive and they'd swing and put it in to him, so he could get deeper catches and the help side has a more difficult time coming to him.
"I don't know. It's been difficult really to get him into that game – running into pick and rolls, diving hard, looking for the ball. We really haven't found that rhythm from him yet."
It's unclear whether the Lakers will ever find that elusive "rhythm" in Howard that Nash references to.
Because the center's belief that he's incapable of playing within pick-and-rolls goes against everything we've come to learn.
As I've outlined previously, Howard actually thrives as the roll man in said situations. On the season, he's shooting 74.1 percent as the roll man and posting an average of 1.19 points per possession, the 14th best mark in the league.
The problem here is just 11.2 percent of Howard's touches come under those circumstances. At his own behest, 46.1 percent of his offensive touches come in post-up situations. It's there he ranks 92nd with 0.75 points scored per possession and is shooting a rather low 45.5 percent.
Knowing that the frequency at which pick-and-rolls can be run largely depends upon a big man's dedication to helping implement them, this trend becomes near impossible to reverse without Howard's support.
Or should I say without D'Antoni's instruction?
Howard is an important part of the Lakers' future, but he's also the primary reason why the Lakers' already eighth-ranked offense isn't as potent as it should be.
Bear in mind that Los Angeles is actually scoring more points with Howard off the floor this season. If he were as offensively inept as some other bigs, this might be expected. Even in injury, though, he's far more athletic than some of the immobile towers the league is home to.
Yet Howard finds himself having one of the worst offensive seasons of his career. His 16.2 points per game is the third-lowest total of his NBA tenure and this is the first time his team has ever scored more points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.
Which needs to change. Just like the rest of the team has tried to.
That nearly 20 percent of Kobe Bryant's offensive touches are coming in pick-and-rolls and he is posting the third-highest assist rate of his career is telling. It shows that he, among others, has committed to moving the ball more. Not running with it necessarily, but moving it.
But this Lakers offense can only move the ball as much as Howard is willing to move himself. He's more important than anyone, including Nash and Kobe, on the offensive end.
The general argument that big men are of little significance in the blueprint enacted while Nash was in Phoenix is an utter misconception. It's just the opposite.
Should the Lakers run their offense more like the Nash-led Suns?
In Nash's eight years with the Suns, the team was led in scoring by a power forward or center six times. How is that insignificant?
Los Angeles needs to use that pick-and-roll heavy offense Nash ran in Phoenix. He doesn't have to be the one directing it (you're welcome, Kobe), but some version of it must be run. If the Lakers are going to remain near the bottom of the barrel in points allowed (they will), they need to find continuity on the offensive end.
That starts with D'Antoni demanding it be done. It starts with Nash and Bryant running the pick-and-roll as frequently as those Nash-led Suns teams did. It starts with the Lakers discontinuing their excessive use of isolations and post-ups.
But it ends with Howard buying into such contrivance. Or being forced to, it doesn't really matter. Whatever it takes to for this team to see the brilliance .
The same brilliance that defined what was a dominant Suns team for nearly a decade.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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