With Friday’s win over the Jazz and Sunday’s over the Thunder, the sense is that the Lakers have found something to build on. The teamwork and attention to detail on both ends speak to good habits being formed. On the other hand, the fact that the games were played at home and under circumstances (at least for OKC, who were at the end of road trip and playing a mid-day game) favored the Lakers speak to variables that must also be accounted for. So, while I’m cautiously optimistic they’ve found a foundation for success, we need to let more games pass where a similar approach leads to victories before we can really say for sure whether the Lakers have turned a corner. Hard to deny they are showing some promise, though.
On to some thoughts on the OKC game and the Lakers’ new approach on offense…
- If you click around the web, articles on Kobe’s role as a facilitator are quite popular this morning. Fourteen assists in back to back games will do that, I suppose. However, what must also understand that Kobe’s willingness to pass is not new, even though the high assist totals might be. Think back to all the long playoff runs and this is what we’ve seen from Kobe. I know the highlight jumpers and jaw juts live on in the highlight reels, but more important were the skip passes to open shooters who then knocked down the shots. Ask the 2009 Nuggets if you don’t believe me.
- Kobe’s assist totals have people talking about him as the “point guard”, but I’m much more focused on a different position. Namely, the right mid-post where Kobe’s been doing most of his damage from as a distributor. I look at the picture below and see a man at home; a man who has done so much work from that exact spot on the floor for so many years he understands exactly how to manipulate a defense into allowing a good shot for his team.
- Yes, that’s a screen cap of the Lakers’ first possession of the game. What followed was Nash setting a screen on Dwight’s man and then Dwight setting a pick on Kobe’s man. With Dwight rolling the rim and Nash popping back out to the top of the key, Kobe penetrated middle, drew help and hit Ron with a pass who then knocked down a 3 pointer. Very nice set play to start the game for the Lakers.
- One of the reasons Kobe is so good from this spot on the floor is that every option is open to him. He can power dribble into a post up. He can shoot a turnaround jumper over either shoulder. He can make every pass out from that spot, including the most difficult skip passes to teammates on the weak side. And, maybe most importantly, he can consistently beat his man baseline and make something positive happen. In the NBA, the old saying is that “baseline is death” due to the boundary acting as another defender and the ability of NBA help defenders to cover up the rim so quickly. But Kobe’s lived on the baseline for 17 years and continues to find ways to make plays — for himself and his teammates — getting to that side.
- In reviewing the tape, Sunday’s game reminded me of those close contests that the Lakers’ lost to OKC in last year’s playoffs, except for the very important variable of replacing Ramon Sessions/Steve Blake with Steve Nash (and losses with a win). Last May, the perimeter ball handling errors and shoddy offensive execution allowed OKC to erase late deficits and win games the Lakers could have claimed had they shown more poise. Sunday, the Lakers turned a 4 point lead with 3 minutes left into a 9 point win. Nash’s only statistical contributions in those final minutes were a defensive rebound and his two made FT’s to end the game, but if you watch some of those last possessions again you’ll see the veteran PG, cool as a cucumber, initiate the Lakers’ O and get them going to where the needed to.
- Whether Kobe the facilitator is the long term solution to what’s ailed the Lakers isn’t yet clear. But I do think it’s a strategy that can continue to work as long as it’s deployed in the manner it is. Kobe’s ability to score or pass from a post up position from that spot on the floor make it difficult to effectively single or double cover him without surrendering a somewhat quality shot on most possessions. The Lakers’ last three possessions were a Kobe lay-in off a post up, a Pau lay-in off a Kobe baseline drive, and a Kobe long jumper. And while the long jumper isn’t necessarily ideal, like it did against the Thunder, even that shot will fall sometimes.
- This style also has a dramatic affect on the tempo of the game. These possessions are more deliberate and force the defense into guarding for longer stretches. If you go back to the screen shot above, every single defender is looking right at the ball. This was a recurring them all night and several times Nash and Ron broke free for open looks simply by adjusting their positioning slightly while their defender peeked for one second too long, only to find they’d moved as Kobe was passing the ball.
- This style also promotes better floor balance while still emphasizing the spacing that D’Antoni really wants in his offense. The latter can’t be overvalued, but the former is just as important due to how it promotes better transition defense.
Ultimately, I think Mike D’Antoni deserves a lot of credit for this shift in the Laker attack. Since he’s been hired all we’ve heard from his critics is how his system doesn’t work for the Lakers, how he’s stubborn and inflexible, and countless other jabs at his coaching style (which could just as easily be interpreted as sour grapes). And while there’s some truth to some of those claims, what’s also true is he’s consistently tried to shift lineups and tweak his sets to help produce optimal results. It’s to the point now that these wing post ups for Kobe have become a primary set up, when they were only a footnote action when he coached in Phoenix and in NY.
It’s sometimes easier to dismiss the searching when nothing is working, but when something does start to work, I also think it’s important make sure it does go recognized.