Kobe Bryant’s season-ending surgery has turned the Los Angeles Lakers into an inside-out basketball club. The emphasis on interior play places a huge emphasis on maximizing the talents of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Bryant and Steve Nash missed the final two games of the 2012-13 regular season, which forced the Lakers to rely on their pair of future Hall of Fame big men.
With the starting backcourt out of commission, Mike D’Antoni turned the offense over to his big men, and they have made him look smart.
Gasol became a “power point-forward”, essentially starting and even finishing some of the plays for the Lakers. Although few have made the comparison, D’Antoni has transformed the Spaniard into Chris Webber.
The two-time world champion is being used at the elbows and on the low block where defenses simply cannot contain him. His combination of footwork, post moves, passing and basketball IQ have made him arguably the most potent offensive weapon for the Purple and Gold.
In the final two regular season games, Gasol’s saw his usage rate jump from 19.6 to 22.5 when compared with his figure for the entire campaign. He rewarded D’Antoni’s strategy by averaging 12 points, 18 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
The increased workload on offense also directly impacted his overall activity. Gasol attacked the glass harder, made decisive cuts towards the basket and consistently looked for his teammates.
The Lakers have benefited from his play and used it as a springboard for the playoffs.
In the opening game of the Lakers’ postseason run, the Spaniard produced similar numbers and had the same effect on the offensive side. Gasol is a great pressure release point as well as a gifted big man.
By using him as a facilitator, the Lakers have minimized the load of their perimeters players. That’s important because other than Nash, they are mostly unaccustomed with big responsibilities.
Going forward, it’s paramount D’Anotni maintains the same philosophy. Not only does his game plan revolve around Gasol and show off the big man’s skills, but it also gives the team its best chance at winning.
The three-time NBA finalist simply makes things easier for his teammates as Howard can attest.
With Bryant recuperating at home from his Achilles tear, the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year has seen his number called early and often.
His usage rate hovered around 20.1 for most of the season but rose in Bryant’s absence to 24.5 per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.
In the final two contests of the regular season, Howard posted averaged of 21 points and 17.5 rebounds per game. He increased his activity level around the rim at both ends of the court but also made due with his scoring opportunities.
Howard has seen his fair share of touches in the low block where he’s been efficient scoring the ball. In addition, he’s played well in concert with Gasol.
The Lakers’ starting power forward has repeatedly fed Howard from the high post for spectacular finishes. Gasol has consistently taken advantage of rotating defenses to find the superstar center every time he’s shaken free.
Because Gasol is such a heady player, it’s forced defenses into being incredibly selective with the options used when defending Howard.
For instance, teams have rarely fronted Howard because of Gasol’s passing ability. Indeed, fronting him opens the entire other side of the floor for Howard, and his frontcourt partner always finds him when he seals his defender.
With Howard posting up, catching lobs and shaking loose around the basket, the Lakers have uncovered multiple advantageous situations with their center.
In the Lakers’ first playoff game, Howard generated 20 points and 15 rebounds on 8-for-12 field-goal shooting.
D’Antoni has found a good formula, and consequently his group has been competitive despite losing Bryant.
As the postseason unfolds, the Lakers must continue going to their duo of big men. Any hope of playoff success rests square on their shoulders. But in truth, as good as the tandem has been late in the regular season and early in the playoffs, they must play better.
Gasol must make better decisions with the ball, otherwise the six turnovers he’s averaging so far in the playoffs will become the norm.
Howard has the same issue but in different circumstances. He must simply latch harder onto the ball during the post ups and when going to the basket. Far too often he brings the ball down where guards swipe at it and create turnovers.
D’Antoni has figured out the necessary recipe for the Lakers. Now his players must perform and capitalize on their strengths.