Over the past several weeks (really, since the start of the season) I’ve had some pretty strong opinions on the Lakers offense. Essentially, I’ve thought that they are underperforming on that side of the ball. For pretty much the entire season, the Lakers have hovered around 10th in offensive efficiency, which is a step back from the past two seasons – not so coincidentally since the Lakers aquired Gasol – where the Lakers ranked 3rd both seasons. Earlier in the year, their were mitigating factors that contributed to the Lakers not playing to their full capabilities on offense – Pau was injured, Ron Artest was a new acquisition that was not yet familiar with the nuance of the Triangle, Bynum was a much more polished offensive player whose ability to score was becoming a featured part of our sets, Kobe was in the post a lot more, etc, etc. However, as we approach the last 20 games of the regular season, most of these factors should no longer be an issue but the Lakers have not shown any really improvement (from an efficiency standpoint). Essentially, the Lakers are what they are on offense. All that said, I think there are a couple of ways that the Lakers can improve on offense coming down the home stretch of the season an building towards the playoffs.
The first way I think the offense can be improved is by going back to the basics and simplifying our sets. If you haven’t done so already, go check out the post that the K Bros and Kevin Arnovitz have put together over at Land O’ Lakers. Their video breakdown of Kobe on the weakside block is a perfect example of what I mean by “simplifying” the Lakers sets. This set is a based on a Triangle action (as you see in the video, Kobe is often either initiating the offense himself or directing traffic from his position at the pinch post), but it is not a complex initiation to our sets. Kobe referenced that this is a “playoff” style set and I whole heartedly agree with that statement. This offensive set was a staple of what the Lakers ran against Denver in games 5 & 6 in the WCF and against Orlando in the Finals. A key to this set is that it generates the proper spacing that the Triangle thrives on and it puts the ball in the hands of a very dangerous offensive player (in this case, Kobe). This set also works quite well with Pau at the weakside elbow as he is also quite adept at getting a good shot from that position of the floor. And while this set doesn’t inherently involve a lot of cutting or screening, it does put players in position to do just that as the overload on the opposite side of the court allows for those other players to see angles to cut to the rim and do so on defenders that are often ball watching due to the strength of the offensive player that possesses the rock and their help responsibilities on that player.
However, even though this is a good offensive formation for the Lakers, there are repercussions to this set. First is personnel. As you saw in the video that Kevin put together, this set works best when Odom is in the game. That means that either Bynum (likely) or Pau sits. Some may say that this isn’t a bad thing because our best lineups all season have featured Odom at PF. However, with one of our bigs out it puts a greater burden on our Center to be a physical rebounder AND an active defender in both the P&R and dribble penetration scenarios and that is a lot of responsibility. One of the benefits of having both Pau and ‘Drew in the line up together is that these guys can be interchangeable on the block on both offense and defense and cover for each other a bit better on the glass and as shot blockers. And while they may not have the best chemsitry on offense, when they share the court they are beasts on the offensive glass and can play the volleyball game on the boards better than any duo in the league. Overall, I think the Lakers lose something when one of these guys sits. That said, I think the team also gains a whole bunch when LO is in the game and playing with an aggression and focus like we saw in the 4th quarter against Denver and for the games that Kobe missed with his bum ankle. By no means am I saying that Bynum should no longer start (though, Bynum does have pros and cons that should be looked at hard in relation to what is best for the team) but I do think there is a net positive to having Odom in the game when we go to this offensive formation due his uncanny ability to find open space and be both a finsher in the lane and a passer if the opening is not there for him to shoot.
The second way I think the Lakers could fine tune their offense is to run less high P&R throughout the course of the game (by high P&R, I mean the play where Kobe is on the extended wing – usually on the left side – and he calls the big man over to set a screen for him; this is very similar to what every team in the league runs i.e. the Spurs, Cavs, etc, etc). Mind you, I am not saying the Lakers should not run this play. The high P&R can be a devastating weapon for this team (especially the Pau/Kobe P&R) and the Lakers have hurt many a team with this play over the past few seasons. However, I think the Lakers should choose their spots with this play and not become so reliant on this set. And I say this for two reasons. First is because the high P&R turns the rest of the Lakers into spectators. Kobe and the big man play this two man game and everyone else becomes stagnant. They watch Kobe go to work, watch our big man either roll to the cup or pop to the FT line and they all basically just stand around like fans that get paid to be on the court. The second reason is because Kobe is not getting the separation on this play and is not freeing himself to get good looks or to create the angles to get off good passes. The P&R should be used to free the ballhandler to get to a spot on the court where he can get an easy shot or make the defense over commit so a teammate gets that easy shot. Instead, Kobe is coming off the screen and he’s getting trapped. And due to his reduced ballhandling capability because of his busted finger, he’s committing more turnovers and our sets lose integrity. Also understand that every team in the league has a plan against this play because every team runs it. This simplifies defensive game plans and puts the opposition in a familiar position to defend. Defenses no longer have to worry about our read and react offensive system; they only have to worry about defending this play that they see every other night 35-50 times. I’d rather the Lakers be less predictable.
What I’d like to see instead of the traditional high P&R is more system based P&R that caters to our strengths as a team. Look at this diagrammed P&R. Granted, this occurred while Kobe was out injured, but this is a set that we run all the time to isolate Pau at the elbow where he can do damage against pretty much every big in the league. I’d also like to see more elbow P&R that gets set up by the ball going to the big man flashing to the high post on a pressure release and then executing the hand off to the circling top side guard. Off of that action, the guard can either continue his dribble hard as he turns the corner or hold up his dribble and play two man game with the big man that just handed him the ball. Out of that two man game, the Lakers guards can run the P&R where they are starting much closer to the basket (which compromises the defense) and do it from a dangerous area of the court (right around the 18 ft mark of the elbow extended). There are a myriad of options out of this version of the P&R, including the guard pentrating hard into the lane off the screen (if the defensive guard chases) or stepping behind the screener to shoot a wide open 20 foot jumpshot. After looking at some of the Lakers’ recent games, Farmar has used this set to great success, but has not gone to it enough, in my opinion (instead settling for the same high P&R that I’d like to see Kobe run less of).
These are just a couple of ways that I think the Lakers offense could show some general improvement. These things I’d like to see do not speak to some other long term issues that we’ve seen like our relatively poor three point shooting or stickiness of the ball when several players (Farmar, Shannon, Kobe, Bynum) receive the ball. Those are real concerns for me as well. However, by running less high P&R and also going more to the sets with Kobe on the weakside block and Odom as the primary cutter I think we get more bang for our buck and play to our strengths as a team a bit more. And with possessions being more and more valuable the deeper we get into the season, I think the team should be trying to do more of what they know works in order to generate success (which can then feed into the other aspects of this offense also improving). Will these subtle tweaks make the Lakers a top three team again on offense? I think it’s doubtful that at this point in the season we’ll see that type of jump. But I do think we’ll see a more effective offense and going into the playoffs, that’s all I can hope for.