The last eight months certainly haven't gone according to plan for the Los Angeles Lakers. The championship aspirations they carried into last season evaporated quickly as they struggled through injuries, coaching changes, disastrous defensive performances and an inability to get everyone on the same page. With Dwight Howard gone permanently and Kobe Bryant out for an undetermined but certainly significant portion of the season, the Lakers will have to reinvent themselves offensively.
As much as the Lakers struggled last season, the results on offense were more than respectable. Scoring an average of 105.6 points per 100 possessions, they finished the season with the eighth-most efficient offense in the league.
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), the Lakers had 7,659 half-court offensive possessions last season. Of those possessions, 1,978 were used on Howard post-ups, isolations or shots out of the pick-and-roll by Bryant. In case you don't have a calculator handy, that works out to 26 percent of their offense.
Those possessions, while generally effective, also required very little creativity and very little participation from their teammates. Without those two enormous offensive engines to drive their efficiency, the Lakers will have to focus on creativity, versatility and flexibility.
Luckily, the Lakers still have Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Both players are on the wrong side of their primes, and Nash in particular is a shade of what he once was. But both players still have hugely versatile skill sets and the ability to complement each other in a variety of ways. It's easy to forget just what these two are capable of because so much of their time was spent fitting in around Howard's and Bryant's offensive possessions last season. A quick search of NBAWowy.com shows that Nash and Gasol played just 25 minutes together last season with neither Bryant nor Howard on the floor.
So if the Lakers, by necessity, move Nash and Gasol to the center of their offensive attack, what sorts of sets can we expect to see?
One set, featuring these two, that the Lakers used frequently, and with great success, last season was a quick dribble handoff. As Nash brings the ball across half court, Gasol sets up at the elbow. Nash dumps the ball in and then makes a quick cut to the basket, running his man right into Gasol. From here, it's an easy pass over the top to Nash for the layup.
On any occasion where Gasol's man would rotate down onto Nash, there was always a free lane to kick the ball back out to for a jump shot.
This is an incredibly simple set, but it presents big problems for a defense. If rotations aren't crisp and complete, there are multiple places for the defense to break down.
But if you really want to see Nash and Gasol working as one unit, you have to watch them run the pick-and-roll. This example comes on a delayed fast break. Both players see an opportunity as Nash brings the ball over half court and they fluidly move into a high pick-and-roll. Gasol's defender does a solid job hedging on Nash, but he patiently pulls both defenders another step away from the basket and allows Gasol to get in front of the next big man rotating over.
Here's another example that shows the range of what these two can accomplish with a simple pick-and-roll. Nash again draws both defenders and patiently pulls them down to the corner. As he makes the pass back to the rolling Gasol, one defender rotates back. But at this point Gasol has deep post position and he's incredibly difficult to stop when he receives the ball this close to the basket.
The offensive work Nash and Gasol do together also can open opportunities for their teammates. The Lakers begin this set with Gasol and Howard at the elbows, an orientation called Horns. If it looks familiar, it's because several of the plays we looked at above began from this formation.
Here, Nash passes to Gasol and then cuts down the lane, similar to the handoff plays we looked at earlier. But this time, instead of getting the ball back, he curls around to set a pin-down screen for Metta World Peace, who pops out from the corner. Jason Kidd gets caught ball-watching, and Nash doesn't even need to make contact with his screen for World Peace to get a wide open three-pointer.
My favorite thing about this set is that the Lakers ran it again less than two minutes later. They again caught Kidd daydreaming and created another quality outside shot for World Peace.
These are just a handful of examples that directly involve both players. But there are plenty more options for Mike D'Antoni to explore. Most of these sets involved Gasol playing in the high post, around the free-throw line. While that works well in tandem with Nash's penetration and movement, not having Howard or Bryant taking up space on the blocks also means there will be a more opportunities for Gasol to work in the low post as well.
Although his opportunities to be featured there have continually shrunk with the Lakers, he's still one of the most potent low-block scorers in the league.
For Nash, not having to share ball-handling duties with Bryant means the opportunity to attack multiple times in the same possession. An unsuccessful Lakers pick-and-roll run by Nash last season often led to an isolation by Bryant. Without him as a pressure release to sop up possessions with a failed initial action, Nash will have the freedom to freelance more.
This means opportunities to dribble into the lane and then back out, hitting cutters moving back to the rim. It also means the chance to run multiple pick-and-rolls on the same possession, changing orientation and position and the potential for more movement on the baseline. The Lakers' simply won't have the luxury of stopping their offensive flow to let Bryant do his thing. They will have to be running offense for 24 seconds, on every single possession.
Having to make such significant adjustments to their offense is certainly no simple task. But despite their declining health and production, the Lakers are lucky to have talent like Nash and Gasol to fall back on.
While the team's offense may not be as effective as it has been in the past, it will undoubtedly have a new stylistic flair. Where individual excellence was once the driving force, now creativity, movement and flexibility will need to be pushing things forward.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.
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