The Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 season will be a constant battle between 2005 and the present day.
Mike D'Antoni's most successful years came when he was deploying a run-and-gun offense that would rather forfeit games than let more than seven seconds tick off the shot clock during a single possession. He tried to use the same strategy early on during his tenure with the Lake Show, but he quickly had to scale back.
Now the roster has changed once more, and it's even more important that he adjusts his offensive system accordingly.
Assuming Kobe Bryant manages to return to full strength after his ruptured Achilles rehab is finished, this team does have enough talent to get back to the postseason for yet another year. It'll be tough in the brutal gauntlet that is the Western Conference, but it really is possible with Kobe, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and the rest of the pieces that are already in place.
But only if D'Antoni follows a couple keys.
Aging Roster Prevents too Much Running
During the 2012-13 season, the Los Angeles Lakers had the fifth-fastest pace in the NBA. Only the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors used more possessions per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.
Notice a trend there?
Not one player in his 30s started more than 40 games for any of the four aforementioned teams. In fact, Andre Iguodala and David Lee were the two oldest consistent starters, and both can still run the court quite well. Iggy remains an athletic marvel, while Lee is a surprisingly quick big man in transition.
This doesn't bode well for the Lakers if they plan to continue running. The expected starting lineup for 2013-14 has withstood the test of Father Time for far too long to play at such breakneck paces.
The backcourt is just about ancient, between Steve Nash's 39 years and Kobe Bryant's 34. Pau Gasol (33) and Chris Kaman (31) don't make for a much younger set of big men, and Nick Young (28) is easily the young buck in the group.
But on top of that, many of the starters are coming off major injuries.
Kobe may be ahead of the expected timetable, but he's still recovering from a ruptured Achilles, an injury that more often than not has ended or at least seriously harmed the careers of veterans. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash both spent quite a bit of time in suits rather than jerseys last year as well.
Nothing about that situation should lead to lots of running. Mike D'Antoni must realize that these aren't the same players who made up his "seven seconds or less" offense with the Phoenix Suns.
I apologize for the graininess of these screenshots, but such is life when you're dealing with videos from the 2004-05 season.
As soon as the rebound is secured, Steve Nash immediately finds his spot along the baseline. It's a preordained decision so that the outlet pass requires little to no thought.
At the same time, the rest of the Suns just take off. Before the ball is even en route to Nash's hands, all three of his non-involved teammates are almost out of the picture.
By the time Nash crosses midcourt, one of them actually is out of the picture, as indicated by the arrow in the bottom-right corner.
Amar'e Stoudemire receives the ball in the paint and finishes the play with an easy slam dunk, but look at the ridiculous number of options open to Nash at this point in the proceedings.
He could have continued driving himself, kicked it out for a spot-up three-pointer or hit a different cutter. That's the beauty of running with reckless abandon and hustling to get down the court.
But of course, this isn't what the Lakers need to be focusing on. Trying to get up shots without making full use of the shot clock is a recipe for disaster, one sure to bring about injuries to the veteran players and plenty of poor decisions.
The following quote comes from Eric Pincus' Los Angeles Times article about assist coach Kurt Rambis' desire for a slower tempo:
"In order to run, you need a push guard. That's Steve Nash," said Rambis. "It remains to be seen whether he's coming back from his injuries, and continues to [push] at an elite fast-break pace."
In Phoenix, Nash was surrounded by athletes and shooters. The Lakers are moving in that direction but aren't quite there.
"You need guys that can really get out and fill the wings because that pushes the defense down," said Rambis. "That's not necessarily the way that you would look at this team and describe them. You might say that with Nick Young, but it's not necessarily Kobe's forte nor was it Metta World Peace's forte last year."
D'Antoni had hoped to play at a faster pace but adjusted his system midway through the season to better match the Lakers' personnel.
It remains to be seen if the acquisitions of Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar and Kaman, along with rookies Elias Harris and Ryan Kelly (who remains unsigned), will be enough for the team to play at an accelerated clip.
"It's difficult for them to run at a real fast pace," said Rambis. "That doesn't mean you can't push the ball and add some thrust into your offense and play offense before the defense is set. That makes it a lot easier."
Pushing the ball is fine. But only if it leads to the following strategies.
Play Through Pau Gasol On the High Block
Kobe may be the best player on the Los Angeles roster, but he's not the most important. There's a massive distinction there.
Gasol is the player who everything needs to run through. When you have one of the most versatile and unique players in the NBA, you should ride him whenever possible.
When the Spanish 7-footer gets the ball in the high post, the Lakers have more options than they do in any other situation.
Take the following play against the Denver Nuggets in the 2012 postseason, for example.
Gasol's options are represented by the purple arrows, and there are quite a few of them.
He can drop the ball off for a three-point shooter while setting a pick, throw a high entry pass to Andrew Bynum (a pass that few bigs can make with such high frequency and levels of success), swing the ball to Kobe or simply take the shot himself.
All of the options are positive ones, and Gasol chooses to let the Mamba strike. His pass hits Bryant right between the "2" and the "4," and Kobe calmly drills it for three points.
Here's another example from the second half of the same game.
Gasol finished this postseason contest with 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, but this play showed off his skills more than any other.
The reason is simply the abundance of options, as there are even more than he was presented with in the prior situation.
First and foremost, he has enough space that he could easily drop a jumper through the bottom of the net. However, Gasol is almost always going to look for other options before he calls his own number. And there are plenty of them.
He could play a two-man game with Kobe, setting a screen that allows the shooting guard to curl around for an easy jumper. He could also drive to the basket (something he's quite adept at doing) or pass to the top of a key for a reset.
None of those are the best options, though.
Gasol recognizes the massive amount of space free on the weak side of the court, especially because Bynum's positioning is effectively containing Metta World Peace's defender as well. Three points are always better than two points, particularly when the attempt is coming from the corner.
Gasol hits MWP, and the small forward who now plays for the New York Knicks adds another three points to that 13-4 L.A. run.
The most impressive part can't be captured in a screenshot.
That last picture wasn't taken after World Peace adjusted to begin his shooting motion. It's exactly where Gasol's pass hit him, and no extra motion was needed before he started to let fly.
It's a perfect representation of the passing skills that earn the Spaniard such rave reviews. Take a look at Gasol's assist rate compared to the other top qualified power forwards (40 games played, 20 minutes per game), as provided by Hoopdata.com:
Gasol is the best passing 4 in the game, and it's really not even close.
It would be a travesty if the Lakers don't start making better use of that.
Tons of Screens
A staple of any Mike D'Antoni offense, screens need to be a crucial part of the offense on every single possession. Even if Gasol isn't directly involved, there must be a great deal of motion to maximize the three-point looks that MDA is sure to ask for.
In 2012-13, the Lakers scored 0.94 points per possession according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), good for ninth-best in the NBA. And here comes the biggest testament of them all as to what kind of offense L.A. should run.
|Type of Play||PPP||Rank in NBA|
While the Lakers scored the same number of points per possession off screens as they did in transition, that's far more of a complement to their prowess using picks than anything else. Teams are expected to score at high rates in transition, as the offense is at a major advantage once they start running.
What's telling, though, is how often they found themselves in these situations.
The Lakers finished possessions in transition 10.2 percent of the time. They used screens to finish the play on only 1.8 percent of their possessions.
That ratio has to shift dramatically in 2013-14.
Let Steve Nash Shoot More
The final key involves letting a certain point guard shoot the ball significantly more often.
Sharpshooting Steve Nash had the 4th fewest 3pt attempts among starting PGs. Seems like kind of a waste.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) August 2, 2013
Nash shot 43.8 percent from behind the arc during the 2012-13 season, but he was only given 2.6 attempts per game. He was one of only six qualified players throughout the league to hit at least 43 percent of his three-point tries, but each of the other five got to shoot with more frequency.
|Player||3P%||3PA per game|
I'll confirm what Ethan Strauss said up above. It was a waste.
Nash's three-point shooting is one of the most threatening aspects of the Lakers' offense, particularly because the other stars demand so much attention.
With Gasol drawing plenty of looks as soon as he touches the ball and Bryant freezing the defense when he goes into isolation, Nash will have plenty of spot-up opportunities. According to Synergy, he scored 1.31 points per possession in that situation, a mark beaten by only eight guys throughout the league.
Capitalizing on that strength is a must. In fact, playing to strengths must be the overall theme for the Lakers as well.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
They didn't do so in 2012-13 thanks to D'Antoni's insistence on having the offense push the ball at every possible opportunity, and that needs to change now.
Everything that the Lakers have done during the offseason seems geared toward making a run at the postseason. Rather than succumbing to the allures of tanking after Dwight Howard decided not to put on a purple-and-gold jersey again, general manager Mitch Kupchak decided to spend money as advantageously as possible.
That mentality must carry over to the building of an offense tailored for the players on the roster. Pushing the ball is fine, but not at the expense of the other keys.