The NBA’s Intelligent Design

Kurt —  June 6, 2006

Everywhere from Bristol to blogs, Dallas and Phoenix are being touted as the future model for an NBA roster — multi-talented and athletic big men, strong perimeter teams, and the ability to play at pace. Versatility, match up nightmares, speed. Personally, I think the hype about the “new NBA” is a bit overstated — in a few years everyone will be talking about Greg Oden and GM’s will be looking for the next one. Shaq would be a force in any era regardless of the style of play. Talent wins, and it comes in numerous sizes and shapes.

But due to a couple rule changes, speed and perimeter play are becoming more valuable in the NBA — and pretty soon how to defend that speed will be a big concern of GMs and fans. It’s worthwhile to think about how the Lakers, within the triangle, mesh with these changes.

For the record, those two rule changes are: 1) the much-discussed no hand checking or touches on the perimeter, essentially making good NBA perimeter players hard to guard and great players like Kobe/Wade/Nash/Parker virtually impossible; 2) the current zone defense rule, which has put a premium on versatile big men. (Remember, the NBA had become seemingly all isolation, in part because of the man-only defense rules, which meant you could put a big stiff like Elden Campbell/Greg Ostertag at the three-point line on the other side of the court and his man would have to be within 10 feet of said stiff, too far away to do much as a help defender. Now with the zone rules defenses can sit back more, meaning your big guy has to be a threat outside if he is going to spread the defense.)

The Lakers obviously have one huge advantage in the new system — Kobe. He is now basically unguardable by one person and forces a double team every time he touches the ball. Plus, he is a good defender on the perimeter. I could go on and on here, but the point is obvious — the new rule enforcement has helped Kobe as much as any player in the league.

Then there is Lamar Odom, whose versatility fits well in the new paradigm. Try to cover him with your average power forward and he’ll take him outside and beat him off the dribble or just shoot the jumper. Put a small forward on him and Odom can post him up all night long. By the end of the season and into the playoffs, Odom seemed to be figuring out how to take advantage of those mismatches and get his points within the triangle.

But after those two, it becomes clear the Lakers could use more versatility, particularly in their forwards and centers. The triangle is an offense that can thrive with interchangeable parts, moving guys around to set up mismatches, but you need to have the personnel to do it.

Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm both can be solid inside-presence centers, but neither have the offensive game to step away from the basket, either with a consistent jumper or taking guys off the dribble. That makes it challenging to play both of them together because it means two guys gravitate toward the basket, clogging the lane should Kobe/Odom/Smush try to penetrate. The need for more versatility at the four is a prime reason to look at trades for Mihm (if Kwame proves he can play consistently like he did the second half of last season).

Brian Cook can certainly step outside, but he is a pick and pop guy that struggles when he has to put the ball on the floor (or defend a guy who can). Luke Walton brings some unique passing and court-vision skills, but he is not a fearsome athletic perimeter player. Walton does will within the triangle (and likely in any offense), but he is not a match-up problem for most teams. Devean George provided a little of that, but he is still more outside shooter than off-the-dribble threat. Turiaf will have a growing role on this team, but his game is also near the basket (however, his value goes way up if he can develop a consistent 17-foot jumper).

While it’s easy to point out deficiencies and say “we need a Shawn Marion” the fact is there are only so many of those guys to go around and now everybody is looking for them — every GM wants to find the next Boris Diaw languishing on somebody else’s bench. It may be easier to find these new-breed bigs in the draft, if you think a Shawne Williams or Nick Fazekas or Leon Powe some other guy can grow into that role. What I fear is the Lakers drafting a Kevin Pittsnogle (a less athletic Brian Cook).

The need for versatility is not limited to bigs — look at the success the 6-4 Smush Parker had success posting up Steve Nash in the playoffs. Phil Jackson has always preferred big guards that could be interchanged and I expect that is what he wants in his veteran guard (that and defense).

However, the draft could play a role here too — right now Draft Express has the Lakers taking Mardy Collins, the 6-6 guard from Temple. There are questions about his shot and mixed reports (from what I’ve read) on his defense against quick guards, but his size certainly fits the triangle mold. Daniel Gibson of Texas may be another good fit.

The bottom line is that the Lakers do not need to try to become the Suns, but they can’t ignore the trend toward perimeter play in the NBA. With Kobe they already have a big step in that direction, but they need to keep this trend in mind as they look at free agents and draft picks.