The Breakdown: Steve Nash

Phillip Barnett —  October 15, 2012

Over the summer the Lakers signed point guard Steve Nash, and after a couple months of me yelling at myself “oh my God we have Steve Nash!” I could not wait to see how he’d play in the games. Through the Lakers first three preseason games I’ve realized that watching this rendition of the Los Angeles Lakers is unique to any team over the last 15 years. It is no secret that Steve Nash has been putting a lot of pressure on defenses, but watching the ways in which he goes about doing this has been different, but fun, to watch. The Lakers coaching staff has wanted this Lakers team to be a bit more up-tempo, and they have succeeded at playing faster, but have also been good at allowing Nash to put pressure on defenses in half-court sets.

What I’ve noticed in a lot of sets so far is that Steve Nash is either screening away or cutting through the middle after making his initial pass. He’s taking a defender with him away from where the action is, and going back to receive the ball if the action doesn’t quickly lead to a shot attempt. He’ll swing the ball to Kobe to see if he can get anything working on the wing or dump the ball into the pinch post to Sacre or Pau with a wing in the corner for a two man game — but if nothing seems to be developing, Nash goes back to get the ball and effectively gets into what he does best: probing around with the ball until a shot for someone opens up. For the most part, this has involved Nash slyly getting into the paint and either hoisting up a floater or finding one of the bigs for an easy basket.

Nash’s ability to penetrate at any given time has made his teammates more dangerous as well. In the first video, you saw three sets of eyes on Nash as he attacked the rim, leaving Sacre open underneath for a shot at an easy two. Throughout the course of the preseason, we’ve seen Nash hit Kobe on a skip pass for a wide open three, hit Pau at the elbow for a few 15-foot jump shots, gotten Ron the ball as he ran along the baseline and has gotten his own shot off like we saw in the second clip.

We’ve also seen a lot of Nash in P&R sets as expected. If you remember from last year, the Lakers would have a big, either Pau or Bynum, trailing on plays. What the Lakers would do then was have the guard swing the ball to the trailing big, and have that big either the dump it in to the other big or reverse the ball to the opposite side and get into the horns sets. This year the Lakers have had a trailing big, but instead of stopping above the three point line, that big is actually standing just inside the three-point line and setting a high the screen for Nash. For the most part the big has been Sacre with Pau heading to the low block on the opposite side.

And through these P&R sets, we’ve seen myriad outcomes. Again, Nash has found Kobe on the weak side for open jumpers, he has hit the cutter with accurate, pin point passes and has knocked down the open jumper off the screen. What I’ve liked the most, and what I hope we see more of as the season progresses is the 1-4 P&R with Gasol. Nash has this insane ability to place those tricky pocket passes right where they need to be, and Pau is one of the best in the business in the pick-and-pop game. In the following example, Pau misses the shot, but you can see how well these two already work together. Pau sets a screen on Nash’s right and slips out to his left side with Aldridge hedging and Nash slips a slick pass right between the two defenders giving Pau a wide open look.

I thought we might see some 1-2 P&R action between Kobe and Nash, however I can’t remember a time where this has happened in the first three games. An action that I did notice that they’ve run in conjunction is a double-down screen for Nash where Nash makes the initial guard-to-guard pass to Kobe and goes over to set an on ball screen for him. Instead of making contact, Nash slips the screen and took his man down to the strong side block with Sacre moving up the line to the elbow. Pau moved up to the right wing and received a pass from Kobe. Gasol made a hard dribble toward the top of the key while Sacre and Kobe both set down screens for Nash who came up the line to receive a pass from Pau. They actually ran this exact set two times before Nash actually caught the pass on the third attempt. (Kobe actually makes the pass on the 3rd attempt with Pau and Sacre setting the down screens as evidenced in the following clip). They’ve also ran a similar play where Nash curled off a Ron down screen that led to him assisting on Sacre bucket early in the third quarter against Utah. Kobe was wide open in the opposite corner.

A lot of talk there was a lot of talk about Nash playing off the ball this off season, but this really hasn’t been the case thus far. Naturally, playing on a team with four other guys who have made all-star appearances, it was hard to imagine any scenario where Nash would be handling the ball as much as he did as a member of the Suns, but any time Nash has been off the ball has been constructive. There hasn’t been a point where Nash has just stood in the corner and hoped for a pass to head his way like we saw with Sessions, Blake and Fisher in previous seasons. They’ve either run sets for Nash as described above (shown below) or he’s been off the ball for a Kobe isolation or a two man game with Kobe and Pau, who have more than enough developed chemistry to justify moving Nash to the weak side without the ball for a couple possessions per game.

Lastly, we’ve seen the Lakers push the ball more often and get into their sets much earlier than last season. I’ll let Zephid take it from here:

The big impression I got with Nash running the show is that the Lakers get into their sets a LOT earlier in the shot clock.  It seemed like the past couple of years, the Lakers wouldn’t get into their offense until 16-14 seconds were left on the shot clock, while in the two preseason games, they’ve been getting into their sets at about the 20 second mark.

I think the benefits of this are twofold.

1.) The Lakers are attacking more often in semi-transition, where the defense is back but maybe not completely set, and at times cross-matched.  All 5 of our starters are especially good at punishing mismatches, so the Lakers could see a lot of easy points just for Nash pushing the ball a little.

2.) When the Lakers don’t get anything easy, they have more time to make their reads and get a good shot.  Too many times last year the Lakers would get into their sets late, pound the ball, and then have Kobe or someone chuck up a terrible shot with the clock running down.  With more time on the clock, the Lakers should have more time to get off a higher percentage shot, or at least generate an imbalance in the defense to get offensive boards.

In recent years, I’ve found that the Lakers were the most frustrating team to watch in transition. A lot of this is probably rooted in me wanting them to succeed, but these concerns were also legitimized in the numbers. Last season, the Lakers were 29th in the league in fast-break points with only 9.3 per game, and were dead last on the road with an abysmal 6.9 fast-break points per game. So far this preseason, Nash has made scoring in transition seem effortless while he was on the floor. In the following clip, we’ll see Nash fly up the court with a 3 on 2 advantage and throw a no-look pass to Artest for an easy basket. What isn’t shown is that Nash hit Artest in transition on the previous possession who got fouled and knocked down both free throws.

We’re only three games into the preseason and the Princeton offense is still in its infancy with this team, but you can already see how Nash’s ability to constantly put pressure on the defense is going to make this a much more efficient offense this season — and we haven’t even seen Dwight Howard on the floor yet. As the season progresses, I think we’ll start seeing some 1-2 P&Rs considering they weren’t too shabby between Kobe and Sessions and some more Nash off ball action that will allow Pau and Howard to work together. One thing I didn’t point out in this post is how Nash is getting Ron involved. We’ve seen Ron score in just about every way that he can in these few games because of the pressure Nash has been able to take off of him just by getting him the ball in the right situations. This is going to help the Lakers leaps and bounds if Ron can continue to take the right shots and exploit mismatches when they’re available. In the next few games, I’m going to be paying special attention to how Pau is utilized and how they’re adjusting to the Princeton Offense.

Phillip Barnett