Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system is predicated on several principles that nearly all successful offensive systems are built on. Spacing is critical. Ball movement is not just encouraged, it is required. Penetration into the paint via the dribble and via the pass create the movement by a defense that fuels the shots the team wants to take — three pointers and shots in the paint (preferably at the rim).
In order to bring these principles to life, D’Antoni typically relies on three key positions: point guard, center, and power forward. Collectively these three players combine to make everything go. The point guard is the trigger-man for the entire show. He reads the defense, makes the right passes, and decides where the ball should go. He works in tandem with the center who is the main screen setter and the player who establishes the offensive paint by diving to towards the rim. When the center and point guard have a strong chemistry, they can be the dual pillars that have the ability to torment defenses.
The third piece to the puzzle, though, is nearly as important. While the shooting guard and small forward are natural wings and, based solely off their positions, start plays behind the arc it is the power forward who must have a combination of perimeter and paint skills to truly make the offense thrive. The perfect power forward for this type of attack should have enough range to be a threat behind the arc, be good enough off the dribble to attack closeouts by defenders rushing at him after trying to help in the paint, and enough passing ability to be a playmaker for others when he ends up in the creases of the defense.
Looking at those qualities D’Antoni would want in a power forward, it should not be a surprise that Ryan Kelly has found his way into the lineup as a steady rotation player. Though shooting only 29.7% on three pointers this season, Kelly has range on his jumper to beyond the arc. When defenses close out on him, he has enough ball handling ability to take a power dribble into a pull-up mid-range jumper or multiple dribbles to get into the paint and either finish with a floater or draw a foul. He is also smart enough to read defenses effectively and clever enough with the ball to deliver passes on time and on target to a teammate for an open shot.
These skills matter because they not only help Kelly be productive, but they help the team’s offense flow more smoothly. In the last 5 games (including 3 starts), Kelly is scoring over 12 points a game while shooting nearly 48% from the field. His assist numbers aren’t anything to write home about (he’s getting about one a game), but he’s showing that he knows where to move the ball to and not taking unnecessary chances when he’s put in a decision making role.
From the team’s standpoint, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency is 106.0 when Kelly is in the game. The sample is small — Kelly has only played 338 minutes this season — but that mark would rank 8th in the entire NBA (right in between the Thunder and Suns) if produced over the course of a full season. That number isn’t only about Kelly, of course, but his ability to fit squarely into what this offense wants from the position he plays certainly helps.
It also helps that in 144 of his 338 minutes played, Kelly has been flanked by a rejuvenated Pau Gasol and a better than expected Kendall Marshall. When those three share the floor the Lakers post an offensive efficiency of 105.7 and a defensive efficiency of 99.1. Considering the Lakers have a negative efficiency differential of 4.7 on the season, the +6.6 differential when those three share the floor is telling.
Ultimately, though, maybe it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. After all, when Mike D’Antoni’s teams are at their best they rely on the point guard, the center, and the power forward. Which just so happen to be the three positions that those guys play. And nothing against Jordan Hill (whose play has suffered lately), Chris Kaman, or Robert Sacre, none are really power forwards in this offense and none really duplicate the skill set that Kelly brings to the floor.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Kelly is the better player overall, but what is becoming clearer is that he may be the best fit at PF rather than trying to shoehorn those other guys into that role.