Offensive Success Will Depend On Balance

Darius Soriano —  July 12, 2012

The Lakers have acquired Steve Nash. It’s official now. Yesterday, in his introductory press conference, he fielded questions like a gold glove short stop and dished out answers like the top 5 all-time assist man that he is. In those 40 minutes in front of assembled media, Steve Nash looked comfortable and at home.

Of course, looking comfortable in front a bank of cameras is less important than looking comfortable on the hardwood when playing with his new teammates. And, to that end, there are legitimate questions as to how well the Nash acquisition will work on offense. Over at TrueHoop, Henry Abbott explores one of the more popular concerns when asking if Nash can do his thing with the Lakers.

In essence, Abbott argues that historically, what has led to Nash being at his best is the offense revolving around him with the ball in his hands and how that’s not always so easy for his teammates:

Nash has rightly earned a reputation as a selfless player, but the fact is that when he does his brilliant thing, which often ends in a pass, he has the ball for an eternity, in NBA terms. If the first screen doesn’t get the job done, he’ll use another, then another. He’ll dribble all the way to the hoop and back out again, and then back in. Meanwhile, not having the ball very much plays havoc on the psyches of some teammates who feel they can and should do more. Marion and Joe Johnson are just two of the players who won a lot of games, starred in a lot of highlights and were tremendously productive alongside Nash — but nevertheless sought work on teams where they show more of their skills and win more of the credit. Stoudemire ultimately left for a bundle of reasons, money chief among them, but before doing so he expressed a will to, for instance, have the ball in the post once in a while, which seldom happens when Nash is dribble-probing all possession long. Here’s where we have to start thinking about how Bryant, Bynum and Gasol might handle life as a Nash teammate.

There’s really nothing to disagree with in that excerpt. I said something very similar when putting the Nash acquisition under the microscope. Getting the best out of Nash has often meant freedom to set and reset the offense as he’s seen fit in order to produce the best looks for himself or a teammate. Whether that meant pushing the ball or playing a half court game, Nash was literally the Sun  that Phoenix’s offense revolved around; the decision maker in which the entire offense was built upon.

So, when taking this idea a step further, it’s easy to see where issues may arise. Nash isn’t walking into a team that’s built around him, but rather one that already has 3 high functioning offensive pieces that have all had a lot of offensive success in this league. And with this the case, there will need to be adjustments from all parties on how to work with and off each other in order to maximize results.

From these adjustments, a balance must be struck.

The coaching staff must build sets that give Nash the freedom to be himself. He’ll need to be able to run pick and rolls, will need to be able to push the ball when the opportunities present themselves, and will need be able to set and reset the half-court offense as he sees fit. These are ways the Lakers can shape their offense to give Nash an appropriate comfort level within the offense that can help him thrive. Which, in turn, should also benefit his teammates. Pick and rolls – whether of the Nash/Kobe, Nash/Pau, or Nash/Bynum varieties – will create open shots for roll men and spot up shooters. More running opportunities will do the same. And with Nash orchestrating the offense, we’ll see more of these chances throughout the course of the game.

However, the coaches must also work Nash into the schemes that are already in place. The expectation can’t be that the Lakers will suddenly morph into the Suns because that’s not how they’re built. They don’t have a big man that should be shooting half his shots from behind the three point line (ala Channing Frye) nor wings that like to camp behind the arc for full possessions just spotting up. The Lakers offer more diverse talent on O and that means more guys able to do more on their own without being spoon fed by their point guard.

Integrating Nash so he can mesh with this talent is also a priority. What needs to be said, however, is that Steve Nash can operate within and can help the sets the Lakers ran last season. Many of the Lakers’ offensive issues last season stemmed from the lack of space on the perimeter due to threat of the players who were positioned on the wing. Outside of Kobe Bryant – who was never left open for more than a split second – no perimeter player was respected enough to not be helped off of in the half court. This led to a crowded paint and disrupted passing angles to the Lakers post players and guys cutting through the lane. This then created stalled possessions that turned into iso heavy approaches where players – most notably Kobe – ended up forcing shots against the shot clock with little success.

With Nash in the mix, that changes. First off, Nash’s ability to make defenses pay for leaving him open creates floor spacing. Leave him to double team or to rotate to your next assignment and he will knock down shots. Second, his ability to create off the dribble to score means ball rotations to him put the defense in a dilemma. Once Nash makes a catch, he’s a threat to make a long jumper or beat his man off the dribble to create for others. Kobe used to be the only perimeter Laker that was respected in both of these areas and that gave the defense easy outs. They’d cover him, force him way out on the perimeter, and when the Lakers needed a player to create off the dribble from the wing it resulted in someone ill-suited to do so or Kobe making a catch 30 feet from the basket trying to create in isolation.

Not so sound redundant, but Nash changes this. The only Laker – at least in the starting lineup – that a team can consistently leave to help is Ron Artest. This makes defensive schemes much easier to decipher. If the double comes, it’s likely coming from the small forward. If it comes from someone else the odds of Kobe, Nash, Pau, or Bynum getting a one on one look go up exponentially. Even if it comes from Ron’s man, the read will likely be an easy one where the offense can simply move the ball to the open man. And with two players (Nash & Kobe) on the floor that must be respected beyond the three point line, the defense is compromised by having to make multiple rotations by design. With Nash and Kobe sharing the floor, the defense will be in scramble mode more often, opening up offensive rebound chances, passing angles, and driving lanes.

And, understand, it doesn’t take a Nash-centric approach to develop these sets. A simple post up where Nash brings the ball up with Kobe in the corner and Bynum in the pivot creates a problem for the D. Do you sag off Kobe in the corner to disrupt a post entry? Do you sag off Nash? Do you try to front Bynum and help off Gasol when Nash has the ball in his hands? Run a basic HORNS set with Nash cutting through the lane to screen for Kobe and the Lakers can create an action where Pau has the ball and Bynum, Kobe, and Nash are all running screen actions on the weak side of the floor to get a good shot up. These are only two options from the Lakers’ playbook this past season that change dramatically simply because the Lakers have replaced Fisher/Sessions/Blake with Nash.

When looking at specific sets that capitalize on the Lakers big men, the coaches need not look much further than some of the combo pick and roll sets they ran last season. At the start of the year, the Lakers were extremely effective running a Kobe/Pau P&R where Pau popped to the shallow wing while Bynum used his size to carve out position under the rim. Often times, Pau caught a pass from Kobe and either took a short jumper or tossed a lob to Bynum under the rim. The play was so effective it looked like a cheat code. As the year progressed, however, this play became less effective because Kobe started to have issues turning the corner with his handle (and Sessions wasn’t the same threat that Kobe was). The play was further disrupted when the defense helped off the SF and PG off the ball to gum up passing angles.

Now, replace Kobe with Nash and put Kobe off the ball. Help is less available to block off passing angles and Nash’s ability to either hit Pau on the pop, shoot the shot himself coming off the pick, or probe the lane for a shorter shot/dish to Bynum presents a slew of problems for the defense. Again, this just a single action but it’s derived right from the Lakers playbook this past season and proved it could be a devastating weapon without Nash on board. Add him to the mix and the possibilities expand.

Balance will be the key here. The Lakers should try to capitalize on Nash’s skills within offensive sets where he’s had a lot of success. Not giving him those same freedoms would be an issue. I see no viable argument where turning Nash into a glorified Derek Fisher is the right plan. But, by simply running sets the Lakers ran last season but replacing their previous PG’s with Nash changes the Lakers offense a great deal. Help schemes change, rotations change, and fantastic one on one players get to play more one on one basketball.

It will take time to strike this balance. And it will take adjustments from everyone involved (coaches and players). But, it can certainly happen and, with time, I fully expect it to.

Darius Soriano

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