First of all, I just want to say Happy New Year! And, Thank you to Kurt, the other contributors, and all the faithful commentors that make this site the daily (multiple times) read that it is. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The recent post by Kurt that focussed on Lamar Odom and the post by Reed on our team after 30 games got me thinking a lot about the make up of the team, our best lineups, and our roster in general. As Reed pointed out, we are a top 5 team in both Offensive and Defensive efficiency. Despite some inconsistent effort and some spotty and sloppy play, the Lakers have been a truly dominant team. And up to this point, in this forum, we’ve focussed a lot on our Strong Side Zone and how that change in philosophy (when executed properly) is a challenge for teams that face us, especially when they see the defense for the first time. However, one thing that we have not really discussed in depth is what we’re doing on offense, why it’s working, and who is doing what in making our offensive attack remain one of the best in the NBA. And in the last 10 games, we’ve seen a change in the lineup that I think has helped us execute on offense and will continue to help us execute on offense for the rest of the season.
For the last 10 games, Luke Walton has been put back into the starting lineup. And if we go back to the recent past, this is not a new concept. Two seasons ago, Luke was a mainstay at Small Forward. But for the first 20 games of this season, Luke had been relegated to mop up time in blowouts or spot duty due to foul trouble to our other SF’s. But now that he is back starting, we can once again appreciate the things that Bill’s son brings to the table and how that is helping this Laker’s team on offense.
First off, Luke is a fantastic fit for this offense. His ability to handle the ball, see the floor, execute the simple and complex pass, post up, penetrate, and shoot the ball is the exact skill set required for a wing player in this offense. Sure, he could shoot the ball better (an understatement, I know). And sure, he is not the quickest person whose first step scares defenders. However, the combination of a good enough jumper, his repetoire of hesitation moves, knowledge of angles, and know how to use his frame to create space for himself to get his shot off are traits that make him an underrated offensive player. Add to the fact that he has (as mentioned frequently, but bears repeating) a tremendous basketball IQ and he is the type of player that can be a glue player for any motion offense as he knows what to do with the ball. He is unselfish enough to pass to the open player while also being smart enough to know when to shoot.
X’s and O’s wise, the most important thing that Luke brings to the offense is his want to execute the Triangle in all phases. What this means is Luke focusses just as hard on making the right pass or making the shot that he takes as he is on moving/cutting off the ball and setting screens to free up his teammates. If you watch Luke in any given game on any given possesion, you’ll see a player that is doing what he is supposed to be doing on almost every single play. This level of execution is what makes the Triangle offense one of (if not the) most difficult offenses to defend (especially when every other player is acting in this same manner). For example, Luke often finds himself as the initiator of the offense from the strong side guard postion. And when Luke makes an entry pass either to the wing or to the post, he cuts hard and then executes the motion in the offense superbly. By cutting hard and setting the screens that he’s supposed to with the proper timing and at the proper angle, Luke is consistenly getting his teammates the half step they need to get open. I mean, how many times have you seen Luke pass to the post from the strong side, cut to the weakside low block and set a good screen that either frees up Gasol/Bynum to roll to the basket? How many times does he set this same screen for Kobe? And then when the defense reacts to this and tries to cheat into the lane to defend the curl play, how many times have you seen Luke seal the man that he screens to free himself up for an easy lay up or draw a foul? These are plays that Luke executes with great frequency that other players that play SF just don’t do on a consistent basis.
Earlier, I also mentioned Luke’s ability to handle the ball. In our starting lineup, having a third ball handler that can run the fast break or initiate the offense is a key to the offense running smoothly. When you think back to last season, Odom was that third player. But this year, with Bynum and Gasol in the lineup together, and Radman starting, we really didn’t have that third player. But now that Luke is in the starting lineup, he’s getting outlet passes and running the fast break, he’s initiating offense as a primary ball handler, and he’s setting up his teamates for scores. Once Luke got back to getting minutes consistently, we’ve seen an increase in easy layups and dunks for teammates in the half court, on the fast break, and on the delayed break/early offense. Luke is masterful at hitting cutters at the right time and at identifying the trailing big man and hitting him in stride to finish at the basket without having to dribble. When watching the game, these may seem like simple, fundamental plays. But how often were we seeing them before Luke began getting consistent minutes?
Overall, I understand that Luke is not the perfect player. As I said earlier, his jumper is not reliable and his lack of quickness (on offense and defense) is obvious. But, in the end, I like the fact that he’s starting again. I like that players are running and cutting harder because they know that he’s looking for them. I like that players are getting open off his screens. I like that we have another post up option in our half court sets. I like that Kobe and Fisher don’t always have to bring the ball up and initiate the offense with the first unit. But most of all, I just like that we’re back to running our sets with more consistency. Earlier in the season, I commented for a week straight that we were running too much Pick and Roll and isolations (from the wing and the post) in our half court offense. We were running these types of sets so often that I just stopped saying it. But for the past ten games, it’s been different. It’s not all because of Luke, but I do know that before he started playing, it just wasn’t happening. But I’m not the only guy watching. What do you guys see?