Lakers’ fans, maybe more than any other fan-base, love to have their whipping boys. Typically, these are guys who don’t consistently play well, but also fit snugly into two different categories: 1). Guys who fans think should play a certain way, but don’t (Pau needs to be tougher!) or 2), Guys who aren’t seen as earning their paycheck. Players who have fallen into the latter category in recent seasons range from Lamar Odom (when he was making near max money before the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008), Luke Walton (whose six year contract at the full mid-level was instantly criticized by a certain sect of fans), and, most recently Steve Blake (who, in his first few years of his contract, didn’t live up to what fans expected from a guy making $4 million a year).
It’s Blake’s inclusion on this list that’s always been somewhat puzzling to me. Not because Blake was playing well and didn’t deserve some criticism for his on-court production, but rather because as a back up point guard making less than the mid-level, I never really viewed Blake as either A). overpaid or B). not playing hard or giving it his all on the court. Sure, Blake could have played better and there were times I wanted more from him considering his skill set. That said, when a player competes hard and is put in a position to be a role player who mostly plays off the ball and is only given limited opportunities, I don’t necessarily think it is fair to jump on him when his production isn’t what you’d want. Critique is one thing, but some of the blowback Blake has received in his time as a Laker has gone way beyond fair criticism.
This season, though, the much maligned Blake has turned those criticisms upside down by playing some of the best basketball of his career and certainly his best as a Laker. Consider the following:
*Since becoming the starting point guard 3 games ago, Blake has dished out 37 assists while committing only 8 turnovers.
*In those same three games, Blake has assisted on 47.4% of the Lakers’ baskets when he’s on the floor. In the past 40 years, with a minimum of 40 games played, only 12 players have put up an assist percentage over 47 over the course of a season. The guys on that list include names like Magic, Stockton, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, and Deron Williams.
*Scoring wise, Blake hasn’t been amazing, but he has been scoring 11 points a night while shooting 44% from the field (including 50% of his two point shots — a pretty big feat for a guy whose two point percentage is normally in the low 40′s).
In essence, what we are seeing, is a player who is both comfortable in the offense he’s being asked to run and operating in an offense that finally allows him to show off more of the skills that made him a priority signing 4 years ago. As Mike D’Antoni said at halftime of the Pistons’ game, Blake is getting comfortable with the reads within this system and that comfort is showing on a nightly basis.
On this set, the Lakers start out running an half-hearted pin down action on the back side to free Jordan Hill up at the top of the floor to receive a pass. This flows seamlessly into a swing pass to Blake that sets up a pick and roll between Blake and Hill. Blake, reading that the D is a bit lax, goes away from the pick towards the baseline and draws a double team. After pivoting and finding Hill as a release valve, Blake instantly runs another P&R with Hill and drops him a nice pocket bounce pass along the baseline that Hill gathers and then rises up to sink a jumper.
On this next set, Blake again runs a P&R with Hill. This time, however, Blake accepts the pick right away and darts down the lane line to threaten the D. When Blake draws a second defender, he patiently strings out his dribble and waits for Hill to create an angle to receive a pass. Once Hill is open, Blake bounces a picture perfect pass to his big man that Hill is able to scoop up and turn into an easy basket.
On this last play, Blake has the ball high with Pau inching up to set a pick. Blake reads the D and decides again to go away from the screen and pressure the D by pushing the ball at Tony Allen who is covering Jodie Meeks in the corner. As Blake continues his dribble, you can see the Grizzlies defense respond to his hard dribble combined with Pau’s sliding towards the paint. Blake has successfully occupied his own man, taken Marc Gasol with him towards the hoop, and turned Tony Allen completely towards him in a help position. With Allen’s head turned, Meeks cuts right behind him and Blake hits him with a bounce pass that Meeks turns into an uncontested lay up.
None of these assists are spectacular passes where Blake is making the highlight play. But just because these are simple actions doesn’t mean Blake doesn’t deserve credit. In every one of these plays, Blake is manipulating the defense by keeping his dribble alive and attacking specific spots on the floor. By threatening the defense, Blake is successfully occupying multiple defenders and then picking out the open man with textbook passes that set them up for uncontested shots. What he’s doing epitomizes floor generaliship and is a key reason that, at least right now, this team doesn’t miss Steve Nash much at all.
No, Blake isn’t the scoring threat that Nash has been in his career and, despite good numbers from behind the arc for the season, Blake won’t garner the same attention off the ball that Nash has (and still does). That said, what Blake is doing with the ball in his hands is just as much (if not more) than Nash could be expected to do at this stage of his career and goes to show how much Blake really can offer this team offensively. Again, he may not be doing anything that gives you visions of Magic Johnson, but his technical precision and ability to make the play in front of him certainly reminds of a late career Stockton or, maybe more apt, what Mark Price used to do for those old Cavs teams.
Not bad for a guy who used to be every Lakers’ fan’s whipping boy.