Can Steve Nash and Dwight Howard Pick-and-Roll Chemistry Save Lakers' Season?

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Can Steve Nash and Dwight Howard Pick-and-Roll Chemistry Save Lakers' Season?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers notched a crucial, emotional victory over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, 113-99. It was the team's first game since their legendary owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, passed away.

Kobe Bryant addressed the crowd at Staples Center before the game, and the team paid a moving tribute to their dearly departed patriarch. 

But once the game tipped off, L.A. was all business. The Lakers finished with seven players in double figures and they totaled 54 points in the paint (Boston had just 30). The offense was so good as a unit, Kobe was almost an afterthought.

Steve Nash finished with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and seven assists.

And Dwight Howard looked rejuvenated after the All-Star break, putting in 24 points and pulling down 12 boards, including seven on the offensive glass.

The Lakers own preseason predictions for Nash and Howard.

But can Nash and Howard's newfound chemistry salvage the Lakers' season? Well, yes and no.

It can punch their ticket to the playoffs, but it won't get them any further than the second round, if that.

 

Spoiler Alert

Against Boston on Wednesday, Howard was moving around the offensive half court like Baryshnikov.

He was setting beautiful ball screens without slipping off early, which keyed a host of buckets off the pick-and-roll. The Lakers point differential was plus-22 with Howard on the court.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Mitch Kupchak wants a statue of Dwight outside Staples Center. Will it wear lycra too?

Following their dismal start to the season, the Lakers are showing signs of life. This team can make the playoffs, there's no doubt about that. They're still a disappointing 26-29, but they're only three-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot.

So is a potent Nash-to-Howard pick-and-roll enough to save the season? Not really.

As GM Mitch Kupchak told ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd on Wednesday, "As of now, we're looking at a two-year window, [and that] plays to the urgency of the situation and how we build the team...This team's window to win is this year and next year" (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).

When Kupchak says "win," he doesn't mean win some regular-season games or a playoff series. He mean win a championship.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
For better or worse, the Lakers are all-in on Howard.

And there's just no way the Lakers can do that this season. They lack the depth and the defensive effort.

Once (or should I say "if") the Lakers are in the playoffs, all the pick-and-roll chemistry in the world isn't enough to get them past the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or even the Memphis Grizzlies in a seven-game series.

The role of first-round spoiler is the best they can hope for.

So suffice to say that Howard and Nash's chemistry can at least save the Lakers' regular season. Now let's examine their pick-and-roll in a little more depth.

 

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni knows a thing or two about the pick-and-roll. He ran it sublimely with the Phoenix Suns when they had Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Nash has had great chemistry on the pick-and-roll before.

When D'Antoni moved to the New York Knicks, he called the pick-and-roll combination of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton "unguardable" (per Newsday's Alan Hahn).

Now, the pick-and-roll is finally starting to percolate in L.A.

Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News tweeted (via Sulia) Howard's comments on why he and Steve Nash were so good on the pick-and-roll

We did a good job of Steve waiting on the screens and I was able to set good screens and was able to roll hard. After setting a couple of hard screens, Steve was able to come off and hit some jump shots. That opened everything up. Once Steve hit some jump shots, it's tough for guys. They have to make a decision. They either have to let Steve get hot as he continues to shoot the ball or they have to step up and allow me to get dunks?

The are two keys to the Lakers successful pick-and-roll. One is Dwight not slipping off the screen early, which makes the pick pointless, but has still become a bad habit of his.

The other key is Nash knocking down the open shots. If defenses have to respect that, they can't simply focus on Howard inside.

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And even if Nash misses, the extra room the defense yields to defend the shooter makes it easier for Howard to rebound a miss when he rolls to the hoop.

There are four basic ways to defend the pick-and-roll: go under, switch, trap or hedge it.

Going under briefly leaves the shooter wide open for a jump shot. Switching creates mismatches; trapping the ball with two defenders leaves three covering four and is unwise will a strong ball-handler. Hedging is a timing and spacing defense used by high-IQ teams like the San Antonio Spurs.

Hedging requires the man defending the screener to step into the path off the dribbler and slow him down so his defenders can catch up. The hedger then steps back to cover the screener again, who may be rolling to the bucket by this point.

If Nash can drain the open jumper or dribble and pass out of the trap, and if Howard can beat the hedge, L.A. would seem to be developing an "unguardable pick-and-roll of their own.

All in all, the Lakers offense is really starting to jell, which is what you would expect from a D'Antoni team. The emergence of Earl Clark in Gasol's absence has also been a boon, but if Nash and Howard continue to flourish, look out.

 

The Synergy of Nash and Howard

In mid-December, Ryan Weisert of HoopSpeak.com used stats from Synergy to break down the Lakers' ineffective pick-and-roll with Nash out due to injury:

Last year, Dwight was second in the NBA in pick-and-roll scoring, averaging a robust 1.36 points per play. This year, Howard is averaging just 0.97 points per play. One of the issues is decrease(d) opportunity. Dwight has gotten the ball in pick and roll situations only 1.5 times per game this season, and the Lakers are using only 15.5 percent of their possessions in pick-and-rolls.

The bottom line is that the Lakers need Nash to run the pick-and-roll with sustained success. Also, without strong shooting on the perimeter, defenses can swarm Howard inside, which caused some of his turnover issues earlier this season.

The Lakers definitely run the pick-and-roll more often with Nash at the helm, and the spacing for it is actually better with Gasol out injured. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Kobe reminds Dwight what it's all about. L-A-K-E-R-S.

The three most common five-man units for the Lakers all involve Kobe, Dwight and Metta World Peace on the court.

One of the rotations has Darius Morris at PG and Paul Gasol at PF. Another has Nash at PG and Gasol at PF, and the third has Nash at PG and Earl Clark at PF.

The rotation with Morris as PG has a minus-12 point differential. The two units with Nash at PG are plus-14 and plus-20 (via 82games.com). There's no denying how much more effective the offense is with Nash running the point.

While Kobe can create his own chances, Dwight needs good ball movement to get good looks instead of relying on post play and putbacks

As the pick-and-roll heats up, so does the Lakers offense. More easy buckets also helps their transition defense. And this improved play will certainly carry them into the playoffs.

But L.A. can only do so much with the eighth or seventh (or maybe sixth) seed they're likely to get. Their defense isn't up to snuff, they lack depth on the bench and they've been rotten on the road (9-18).

Add all these things up and you realize this season is beyond saving for the Lakers.

 


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