One ball might not be enough for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014-15.
In assembling the roster for next season, the Lakers took a twofold approach by acquiring and retaining ready-to-contribute talent that wouldn't cost them long-term flexibility. The end result is what you would expect: weird.
Names like Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young and Julius Randle now headline a roster that figures to be terrible defensively, despite head coach Byron Scott insisting otherwise. And with poor defense typically comes an excess of offensive mouths to feed—the Lakers are not an exception.
They might be the disturbing rule.
Most of the Lakers' players follow score-first credos. At some point a lineup of Lin, Bryant, Boozer, Young and Randle will be fielded, and mayhem could ensue.
There is not a pass-first player on the roster aside from Steve Nash, who, at 40, is no longer capable of quarterbacking offenses on his own. The dream of him playing like he did with the Phoenix Suns is dead. He has appeared in just 65 games over the last two seasons. He'll never be that player again.
One player would never be enough anyway.
Problems abound on the perimeter, where the Lakers are packed with ball-dominant scorers who aren't accustomed to playing off the rock.
Less than one-third of Bryant's made baskets came off assists in 2012-13, and he converted only 35.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts that year, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Lin isn't much better. Almost 53 percent of his made baskets were unassisted in 2013-14, which is pretty amazing considering that he played more than 1,300 minutes alongside the rock-hoarding James Harden.
Spot-up shooting remained an area in which he continued to struggle as well. Only 41.2 percent of his off-ball opportunities found the net, per Synergy.
Then there's Young. Swaggy P. The City. Bean Burrito. Mr. I Actually Know How to Play Off the Ball.
That last one is true as toast. At least it was last season.
Nearly 59 percent of Young's buckets came off assists in 2013-14, and he shot a scorching 47.6 percent on standstill attempts, making him one of the 15 most efficient spot-up scorers in the entire league. Better still, standalone shots accounted for almost 20 percent of his offensive touches, so this wasn't a matter of diminished exposure.
Young is only one player, though. He's also one of many who is used to an excess of touches, no matter how he gets them.
Nine current Lakers have posted a plus-19 percent usage rate through the last two seasons, be it in college or the NBA, or while splitting time between both. Randle is the only exception, since he played only one year at Kentucky. But in his one season there, he still registered a usage rate north of 25.
If you take all 13 players currently on the roster and combine their usage rates from the last two years—one in Randle's case—on whatever stage they appeared on, the Lakers would have an average of 21.8 per person.
The Philadelphia 76ers were the only NBA team last season that had its top 13 players—determined by number of regular-season appearances—combine for an average usage rate of 21.8. They ranked dead last in offensive efficiency.
For added context, not one of the NBA's top 10 offenses boasted a combined usage rate greater than 19.3. That poses issues for the Lakers.
Here they are, not built to defend, but not built to adequately complement one another offensively, either. What are they to do? Simply accept their impending doom?
While disjointed in structure, the Lakers offense is not without hope.
It helps that Young isn't totally unaccustomed to playing off the ball. It also helps that Lin's off-ball struggles are progressively getting better, as he himself has hinted at, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
I think from the minute that I stepped into Houston until now, I'm definitely a much more complete player, and I learned how to do a lot of things that maybe I never had to do before, which was learning how to play off the ball, cutting and really challenging myself with some of the weaknesses that I've had to try to improve on.
No, the overall percentages weren't pretty, as noted before. But Lin did manage to bang in 38.4 percent of his spot-up three-pointers last season while hitting a career-best 35.8 percent of his treys overall. That he continues to expand his range is encouraging.
Bryant is the main concern here. He's put in more than 33 percent of his spot-up treys just once since 2009-10, according to Synergy.
Lucky for the Lakers, though, Scott's offenses are built to combat this.
Pick-and-rolls are a staple of his. Bryant can initiate those while on the ball and rely on others to do the off-rock dirty work (Lin, Nash, Young, etc.).
Those same pick-and-rolls also favor Randle and Ed Davis, two players built to slink off screens while cutting to the basket. Davis himself ranked sixth in pick-and-roll shooting efficiency last season, converting 66.1 percent of his attempts as the roll man, per Synergy.
Boozer has struggled within pick-and-rolls over the last few years, but that's more on the Chicago Bulls than him. They have been an atrocious offensive team during Derrick Rose's absence. Synergy has them as the worst pick-and-roll club from last season, and one of the worst six in 2012-13.
Case in point: The more pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops the Lakers run, the better. They're simple and common, but they're also tough to defend. And most importantly, they allow the Lakers to play an inside-out game that simultaneously caters to their bigs, Bryant's preference to control the ball, and Lin's and Young's improving catch-and-shoot strokes.
Keeping everyone involved—and therefore happy—will be the primary challenge, a point Forum Blue & Gold's Darius Soriano further unpacks:
When looking at this team, especially when it’s laid out in this manner, it’s easy to see why folks would be down on this roster. Right now they have serious questions on the perimeter and a log-jam at the big man spots. As it has been in season’s past, this roster looks to be severely imbalanced and I wonder how Scott will manage to put together capable lineups that mesh well enough to compete while not shortchanging players out of minutes they’ll probably deserve.
Putting a system in place and establishing discernible direction helps here. Scott needs to lay down the law and openly admit, "This is how it's going to be."
To his credit, he's already done that.
"We will have our share of [pick-and-roll] because of those two guys and because of Kobe as well," he explained on Twitter, per the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus. "[Bryant will] be going in the post, mid-post, and elbows a lot. There'll be enough room for him to operate in space."
There should be no confusion over the offensive ground rules, so to speak. That helps.
So, too, does the fact that there wasn't an overwhelming correlation between a team's average usage rate for its players, offensive performance and total wins last season—despite what we found earlier—as the chart below shows:
The Brooklyn Nets' top 13 players combined for an average usage rate of 21.2—just shy of the Sixers' 21.8—and they still managed to uphold a top-15 offense. That's good news for a Lakers team awash with players who are usually offensive focal points.
It lends merit to the hope that their offense won't seem as crowded and incongruous on the floor as it does on paper.
Salvation Through Sacrifice
All the statistics in the world, all the best-laid plans ever won't matter if the Lakers don't buy in.
Although there are clearly ways to battle massive overlaps in talent, this team's only chance at harmonic offense is sacrifice.
Kobe can play point guard. Lin and Young can play off the ball. The Lakers have bigs who can thrive within pick-and-rolls. But they also need those players to do all those things.
These Lakers are like last year's tanktastic club in so many ways. Few players fit into the their future plans, so they run the risk of this season's squad becoming a me-first melee led by players such as Boozer, Lin, Davis and Jordan Hill (team option) who are fighting for their next contracts and thus themselves.
Avoiding that type of dysfunction, even if it's inadvertent, is imperative. As is tapering expectations for a roster that isn't built to contend in the top-, middle- and bottom-heavy Western Conference.
The Lakers aren't going to come out and play for a championship. They aren't going to have a top-five offense. They're just there, trying to make the most of an unavoidably unsavory situation. And they have the talent necessary to do just that.
All that's left to do is make sure everyone's on the same page, playing together and for one another, completely aware that there is only one basketball to share but 10-plus teammates to fight for.
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