Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ play in the second half of the season leads many to believe they reinvented their identity, citing their improved record as evidence. The narrative in some circles revolves around the idea that the team has finally bought into Mike D’Antoni’s coaching philosophy.
But the reality is a little more complicated than that.
On January 23rd, the Lakers held a team meeting on the road prior to a contest against the Memphis Grizzlies. As reported by numerous media outlets, the rendezvous was initiated with the idea of outlining the tasks of each player.
Although the Purple and Gold were defeated by the Grizzlies later that night, the course of events in Memphis apparently laid the groundwork for a successful second half of the season. The Lakers have won 17 of 25 games since the late January meeting and have played their way back into playoff contention.
It’s worth noting that D’Antoni’s coaching staff hasn’t exactly stumbled into a magic elixir that has cured all of the team’s issues. In fact, the most glamorous franchise in the NBA has remained exactly the same from a statistical standpoint.
The Lakers offense has seen some changes throughout the course of the season as a result of injuries. Between the absences of Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol at various points in the 2012-13 campaign, the team has been forced to adjust.
The team started out the season playing the Princeton offense. The college scheme was ditched once Mike Brown was fired and the team adapted their game plan to their personnel.
The Lakers tried running a plethora of pick-and-rolls and had mixed results. Afterwards D’Antoni incorporated some post-ups for Howard and Gasol, but the lack of spacing was problematic.
Instead, the coaching staff essentially put all of their faith into Bryant. He rewarded it to some degree by accepting the added weight of both scoring and facilitating for his teammates.
As a result, Nash is now basically a glorified Derek Fisher. His playmaking opportunities decreased in favor of affording him spot-up opportunities to shoot the ball.
But the tweaks in the Purple and Gold’s game plan have produced very minimal changes.
Per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, the offensive efficiency prior to the Memphis meeting has remained virtually the same in the aftermath of said encounter.
On the other side of the ball, Metta World Peace has been asked to defend power forwards while Bryant guards the opponent’s best perimeter player. Earl Clark is now a permanent fixture in the starting lineup and typically draws the task of shadowing small forwards.
But even on the defensive front, the numbers remain identical.
If we dig deeper, the biggest difference is evident: The source of the Lakers’ improvement has come in their late-game execution.
On this front, the 2007-08 league MVP was one of the main culprits. Bryant spent the majority of the first half of the season forcing up low-percentage shots with the game hanging in the balance. The former scoring champ was converting a little over a third of his shots late in games. And yet he kept firing away.
The numerous missed jumpers created transition opportunities for opponents given the Lakers’ inability to snuff fast breaks.
Hence, D’Antoni’s unit produced points at an incredibly low rate while allowing opponents to score without much resistance.
The late January meeting allowed players to understand their responsibilities better, but the biggest change occurred with the injury of Gasol on February 5th.
The Spaniard often played heavy minutes in the fourth quarter to close out contests, and his presence was somewhat of a nuisance for a scorer like Bryant. With the power forward sharing the court with Howard in the clutch, teams simply shrank the floor defensively.
Opponents helped off of Gasol because he had been relegated to the perimeter, where he did little to no damage. Bryant was far keener on shooting long, contested jumpers than feeding his open big guys away from the basket.
With Gasol out of commission after straining the plantar fascia in his right foot, the Lakers have depended on a smaller lineup to close out battles.
The former Knicks’ coach has used a five-man unit composed of Bryant, Nash, World Peace, Howard and Jodie Meeks at the end of ball games. NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us this lineup has played the second-most amount of total minutes for the Lakers since the Memphis meeting.
More importantly, this group has once again turned the Black Mamba into the Association’s signature assassin.
With Bryant surrounded by shooters, defenses have struggled with rotating off players to contain the Lakers’ leading scorer. On the few occasions they opted to do so, Nash and Meeks burned them. Not so coincidentally, one of the greatest one-on-one players in NBA history has been given what he’s always wanted: more single-coverage during winning time.
The four-time All-Star game MVP has feasted on opponents in late-game situations during the last 50 days or so.
Per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, Bryant has converted 50 percent of his clutch shots (clutch is defined as the last five minutes of a game with the scoring margin within five points) since January 23rd.
The former Olympian has used the right side of the court as his personal torture chamber for his adversaries. Have a look at all his clutch shots since the Memphis gathering:
His shot-making ability is an obvious plus for the Laker offense, but it also helps protect the defense in some respects. With Bryant now hitting half of his shots to close out fourth quarters, the opposing fast-break opportunities have been reduced. Consequently, Nash and company have been afforded the luxury of playing half-court defense.
At first glance, that might not sound like much of a difference-maker. But it is.
With Howard looking healthier in the past few weeks or so, the rest of the league has slowly noticed that scoring against the Lakers in crunch time is no longer a cakewalk.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is reacting much quicker in the face of drives, which forces ball-handlers to dish the ball. In addition, Howard is helping and recovering a little faster than at any other point in the season. He is changing more shots at the rim and even blocking his fair share whenever players get around the basket in the closing moments of the final period.
Have a look below at the graphic detailing the clutch shots allowed by the Lakers since late January. Pay particular attention at the basket area, where the league average conversion rate is 64.4 percent per Hoopdata:
For the sake of context, have a look at this video:
Between the improved shot-making, the smaller, quicker lineup and the reemergence of Howard as a defensive force, the Lakers own the third-best clutch defensive efficiency since the infamous conversation that redefined roles, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.
If we use the February 5th game where Gasol was injured as the launching point for our analysis, the defense then rates as the second-best in the league.
In other words, the Lakers’ recent success is a product of their two best players performing as such in the fourth quarter of games.
Granted, Bryant’s recent ankle injury may well force his teammates to alter their identity once again, but until we have definitive information on the duration of his absence, one should expect the twosome to continue steering the Laker ship towards victories.
It’s not necessarily that Bryant and Howard changed their identities. On the contrary, they both recaptured them.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter with the handle name @ShyneIV.