Pau Is Finding His Way In the New Offense

Phillip Barnett —  December 30, 2011

A few days ago, J.M. wrote about how Kobe’s role has been different this season with different personnel and a new coaching staff. Today, we’re going to take a look at the subtle differences in the way Pau has been used so far this season. I think it’s important to note that the changes really have been subtle. I went into Synergy and took a look at how often Pau has been put into various offensive situations, and compared it to last season, and what I found was that Mike Brown has Pau in P&R situations a bit more than Pau was in last season. Conversely, although they’re still the bulk of his work, Pau has been isolated a bit less. If you take a look at the two charts below, you’ll notice that everything else is relatively the same save for a few tenths of percentage points here and there.

What has been interesting to watch with Pau is how Mike Brown has made a few changes to do some of the same things Phil Jackson tried to accomplish with Pau in seasons past (which he was successful with for the most part), and how those subtle changes have affected the other four players on the court with him. In this post, I’m going to be paying special attention to how Brown has found ways to isolate Pau on the block or pinch post and how he’s used him in P&R situations.

With Phil running the Triangle, one of the ways that he freed up Pau on isolation sets was to run the center opposite and have the guard throwing the entry pass clear out by cutting along the baseline. For the most part, this clear out didn’t accomplish much except for creating more space for Pau to operate and to give him the comfort knowing that the double team can only come from one direction, as there were no longer any defenders on the side of the court that he caught the ball. What Mike Brown has done is found a way to create the same kind of isolation, but to give the offense a bit more flexibility. Take a look at this set from early in last night’s game against the Knicks.

I’ll let Darius take it from here: It’s easy to see why he’s scoring more efficiently in the post Lakers are doing a good job of getting Pau into position both by allowing him to move into the empty post on his own when he has a foot speed advantage and can beat his man to the spot and by setting cross screens for him so he can get a step on his man when moving to the post. The Knicks game offered a great example of this on a play where Pau got his first of 5 assists. The Lakers set up with Fisher brining the ball up and Kobe on the left wing. Kobe came up to receive a pass but was denied and Fisher waved him off and Kobe back cut and set a cross screen on Gasol. Fisher continued to the wing, made an on time entry pass to Pau, and then cut off his shoulder to the baseline side. Pau dropped the ball off to Fisher and it was an easy lay up. 

What makes the cross screen so much more effective than just the center opposite sets from the past is two-fold: 1) Pau doesn’t have to fight as hard through defenders to get to his spot as a screen is being set on Pau’s main defender (Tyson Chandler in this case) and 2) with Kobe setting the cross screen and popping out, more eyes are going to be focusing on what Bean is doing on the perimeter in stead of taking away the baseline. The primary help defender, Carmelo Anthony, is looking at Kobe as Derek Fisher starts to make his cut, by the time Fish receives the ball, it’s much too late for Melo to do anything about it. Through these first four games, we’ve seen that cross screen a few times, which has really put Pau in a position to succeed. When isolated, especially on the left block, Pau has the ability to use his full offensive arsenal, and as we highlighted above, can pass very well from that position, too.

This next clip shows how far away Brown has gone from the Triangle, but shows how easy it is to get Pau isolated by using Kobe’s presence on the floor. I’m currently coaching a 4th/5th basketball team, and we run this basic motion set exactly (it just isn’t executed nearly as well, as you can imagine). What we’re going to see is down screens from each wing to its respective block. On the right side of the floor, you have Pau setting a down screen for Kobe, who pops out and receives the pass from Fisher. After Fish makes the pass, he clears to the opposite corner, which clears away the right side of the floor for a two-man game between the Lakers’ two best offensive options.

As soon as Kobe pops out from the screen, Pau is immediately battling for position with his defender (Enes Kanter in this situation). As soon as Pau catches the ball, the weak side wing defender (C.J. Miles) immediately comes to help, which gives Devin Ebanks a clear slashing lane should Pau want to get rid of the ball, and suck in Fisher’s defender, allowing for a wide-open three. In this case, Pau knows where the help is coming from, gives him a pump fake and finishes over Kanter for the easy bucket.

What I’ve noticed in these first few games is that Brown likes tons of movement in his offense. Save for a few possessions where Kobe has held the ball for much too long, he’s had guys, and the ball, in constant movement for the most part. Evidence of this is his utilization of Pau in P&R sets.

In this clip, Pau is trailing Fish as he brings the ball up the court and catches the ball at the top. Fish sets a down screen for Kobe, who takes the ball from Pau and initiates the offense. Pau moves to clear out, but comes back to catch a pass just a bit outside of his range. Instead of Kobe standing and calling for the ball, he sets up his defender going to the left and receives a hand off from Pau, which doubles as a screen back at the top of the perimeter. After the hand off, Pau immediately cuts to the basket as his defender helps on Kobe while the primary defender recovers. The result is a wide-open Pau who finishes in the lane.

These types of plays don’t just get the Lakers easy buckets, but also set the defense up for situations in which they can alternative easy buckets later in the game. As J.M. points out,

Pau’s been a bit more active in the last two games and has showed more confidence in his game and also a willingness to go down on the block to post up and attack his defender.

The end result is that he’s a much more willing and aggressive participant in the P&R now. As opposed to just going pick and pop, he now seems more intent on catching the ball on the move instead of merely being static and waiting for the ball for a jump shot.

His aggressiveness has meant that defenses have titled their weak side help a little more towards him, thus leaving a player on the back end uncovered. This will help create open shots (Pau is good at finding open players on the catch and has no problem deferring to them).

We saw an illustration of this last night as Kobe ran the P&R a few times early in the game (results were a kick-out made three-pointer and a missed dunk). In the third quarter, Pau came up to set another screen for Kobe, but slipped the screen instead of setting the pick, which resulted in the easiest basket of Gasol’s night.

Tomorrow night, the Lakers are going to face a very good Nuggets team, and Pau’s play is going to be a key factor in how well the Lakers fare. What I’ll be keeping an eye on is how much these things change with Andrew Bynum seeing his first game time of this regular season. It’ll certainly clear Pau up for a few more offensive rebounding opportunities, and might give him the opportunity to work a bit more from the pinch post, which I feel is the second most comfortable spot on the floor for Gasol outside of the left block. However Brown intends to incorporate Bynum, I think it’s important for Pau to continue to receive similar touches as the season progresses. The cross screens and the basic motion offense haven’t just worked well for Pau (more in the last two games than the first two), but a lot of the role players have responded well to the constant player and ball movement.

Phillip Barnett