Breaking Down L.A. Lakers Offense Without Kobe Bryant
In the same amount of time you may have spent waiting for this page to load, Mike D'Antoni's offense can create a highly efficient look at the basket. It takes a natural floor general and a team-wide commitment to the system, but with the right players in place it's poetry in motion.
Last season, though, D'Antoni's Los Angeles Lakers offense seemed frozen in time. His prized pupil, floor general Steve Nash, took his dizzying passing talents to the wing where he often served as nothing more than a three-point threat.
Making Bryant the focal point of L.A.'s attack had some obvious benefits, but the team hardly looked lost without him. The Lakers' offensive rating dipped from 110.4 to 103.4 when Bryant left the floor last season, but their assist percentage jumped 10 points (from 56.7 to 66.7), and their defensive intensity rose (103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions without Bryant compared to 108.1 with him).
L.A.'s most effective two-man pairing last season, at least in terms of the plus-minus ratio, was the inside-out tandem of Nash and Howard (plus-3.6). Despite butting heads on the floor and Howard never fully committing to effective screening and finishing, Nash made more use out of his big man than any other player on the team.
The Lakers' second best dynamic duo was the reserve combination of Steve Blake and Pau Gasol (plus-3.0). Gasol has always been a productive player when utilized, and Blake scores well enough (both from beyond the arc and from the perimeter) to keep opposing defenses honest.
Bryant's most effective running mate was Metta World Peace. They registered a plus-2.6 rating together (tied for fifth among all of L.A.'s two-man lineups). For all his wide-ranging offensive talents, Bryant worked best when sharing the floor with someone who settled in the short corner and waited for his chance to show off his receiving skills.
The days of the ball-killing isolations have been relegated to the history books now, though. With Bryant optimistically eyeing November or December for his return from a torn Achilles and Howard now donning the red-and-white threads of the Houston Rockets, D'Antoni-ball will make its long awaited Hollywood debut.
As the roster stands currently, the coach has some usable tools at his disposal. A projected opening day starting group with Nash running point, Nick Young and Jodie Meeks filling the wings and Gasol and Chris Kaman manning the middle already has the wheels turning inside D'Antoni's mind.
This won't be a Being John Malkovich kind of trip into the offensive guru's inner workings, but it will lay out the blueprint of L.A.'s offensive attack sans Bryant.
Power in Numbers
One of the fundamental principals to the offensive mastermind's machine is having all his players believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This keeps passes flying quickly, snipers moving all around the arc and, most importantly, the box score filling at ludicrous speed.
While D'Antoni's ideal set is the spread pick-and-roll system built around dribble penetration and three-point barrages, he doesn't have the athletes or the shooters to efficiently feature that look.
Instead he's better off dialing it back to the more conventional Horns formation. This look, pictured below, also relies heavily on drivers, screeners and long-ball marksmen, but puts those players in more traditional areas of the floor.
Two things immediately jump out of this image.
The first is all of the real estate that Nash has available to him up top. Not only is he free to roam to either wing, but his shooters are in prime position for the shorter, more efficient corner threes.
The second is that incredibly inviting, defender-free restricted area. With Kaman (who shot 51.8 percent from beyond 16 feet last season) taking over for Howard (19.0 percent), opposing defenses will get pulled even further from the tin to protect against the mid-range jumper.
This set can open up any number of different scoring chances but requires three key ingredients to be successful.
The first is having a competent floor general like Nash to read the defense. With a strong working relationship with D'Antoni and a highly decorated basketball resume, he's given tremendous freedom to orchestrate the offense however he sees fit. If he eyes a weakness, he's encouraged to exploit it at the first opportunity.
The second demands keeping offensive threats where Nash will be looking first—to his twin towers at the elbows. Gasol is the principal target here given his high basketball IQ, court vision and passing skill, but Kaman's soft shooting touch makes him a strong secondary receiver.
The last major component involves flanking this trio with a pair of floor-spacing wings. Meeks (a career 39.9 percent three-point shooter) and Young (37.4) are both capable of playing that role.
Now that the stage is set, let's take a look at the way that the Lakers can create efficient scoring chances out of this offense.
With all five offensive players in scoring position, help defense is at best a risky move. As soon as the first link snaps, it isn't long before the entire defensive chain is rendered useless.
At its essence, this formation is a basic pick-and-roll scheme. As Nash crosses the time line, his wide-bodied seven-footers move into screening position.
If Nash initiates the set from center court, Kaman and Gasol flank him with a pick on either side.
D'Antoni's offense doesn't necessitate a shot being hoisted in the first seven seconds of the shot clock, but tempo plays a pivotal role in his scheme. The sooner his offense can get into attacking position, the less time defenders have to assume theirs.
Luckily D'Antoni has a two-time MVP calling the shots, and one who understands the importance of pace. With a mirrored set in front of him, Nash can drive around either one of his big men.
Given Gasol's superior passing and decision-making skills, Nash pedals around the more one-dimensional Kaman.
The center follows his lead and crashes toward the basket, while Gasol assumes Nash's vacated position at the top of the key to give his point guard a clearer passing lane.
Here's where Nash's brain waves start flowing at a superhuman rate. He has plenty of options in front of him and a split-second to decide which is the smartest play.
The possibilities are nearly endless, but Nash and his teammates have mastered them all.
Thankfully they've provided video evidence to back that claim.
Reaping the Rewards
Now that we've got the ball rolling in this system, it's time to take a closer look at how the Bryant-less Lakers can put it in the basket.
The best strategy is often the simplest one, and this Horns set is no different. If Nash can lose his man on a punishing pick, his first option is to pad his own scoring stats.
In this clip from his days with the Phoenix Suns, he starts the set from the left wing. This subtle change forces his defender to navigate his way around a pair of screens, which is far easier said than done.
A career 42.8 percent three-point shooter, Nash isn't the kind of player defenders can tempt fate with by going underneath the screen. With his man on his back and the potential helper forced to decide between providing support or guarding the three-point lane, Nash finds nothing but open space and eventually a point-blank layup.
Needless to say the driving lane won't always be that open, even if the initial screen is solid.
As long as the pick man helps create separation, then he's done his job. And even the perimeter-oriented D'Antoni knows the importance of rewarding his bigs.
The next clip shows Nash's secondary option.
Here he loses his defender on a screen from Marcin Gortat and turns the corner thinking score first.
But Gortat's defender is ready for the play; at least he thinks he is. As the helper moves in front of Nash's penetration, the pesky point man spots a crack in the defense's armor.
One perfectly timed pocket pass later and Gortat has an easy finish from close range.
While Gasol is a solid screen setter, his unique talents are wasted if he's limited to playing only that role.
It's tempting to ride Nash and his career 2.93:1 assist-to-turnover ratio ragged, but it's equally intriguing to give the slick-passing Spaniard his turn at the wheel.
With Blake spelling Nash in this next clip, the reserve floor general feeds Gasol at the elbow. A scoring threat as a shooter or driver, Gasol commands a close watch from all five defenders.
He fakes a handoff to Blake, then feigns a give-and-go pass to the cutting reserve. As Blake races toward the basket, Jodie Meeks leaves his spot in the weak corner and slashes across the lane as he heads to the opposite wing.
With players piercing the paint from left and right, no one notices Blake's back pick on Howard's defender. Howard explodes toward the basket and transform's Gasol's soft lob into a vicious slam.
Kaman won't match Howard's highlight reel next season. But style points add nothing to the actual scoreboard.
Have you forgotten about those corner floor spacers yet? It's OK if you did; that's the idea here.
In this last clip, Gasol catches another quick pass at the elbow. Nash sprints through the lane, then takes a wide turn toward World Peace's defender.
Nash provides the first road block for World Peace's man and a shifting Howard gives another. World Peace curls his way toward the top of the key and a pin-point pass from Gasol means it's time to let it fly.
No Limits and No Worries, Even with No Bryant
While there's a clear progression to this offense, its true brilliance comes from the fact that it has more wrinkles than Greg Oden.
All parts are interchangeable, and improvisation is encouraged if not demanded.
Nash might spot a mismatch, stack his shooters on the opposite side and create a post isolation for Kaman or Gasol. Swapping a floor spacer for a screener pulls defenders further away from the basket and adds another dimension to the dribble-drive threat. If anyone has an opening in his shooting range, a permanent green light lingers above the purple-and-gold crowd inside the Staples Center.
The Lakers aren't a hopelessly barren canvas without Bryant. Replacing the No. 4 man on the league's all-time scoring leaders is never going to be an easy task, but D'Antoni's crew knows the feeling of facing adversity all too well.
There's still a masterpiece to be painted with the right artist holding the brush.
D'Antoni might have wanted to hack his ears off last season; nothing less could silence his critics. But the promise of a return to his brand of basketball in 2013-14 means he might be in line for a far more enjoyable Vincent van Gogh impression this time around.
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