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Renato Afonso is a long time reader, commenter, and friend of FB&G. He is based in Portugal, played semi-pro hoops, and after that coached his alma mater for two years. He now passes his time in a veteran’s league and raising his first born. This is his latest for FB&G. You can find him on twitter here.

With this post we’re trying to analyze the Lakers current offense and maybe understand the reason behind the team’s offensive woes. While it apparently seems the Lakers are also as bad on the defensive side, the fact is solving the problems on defense seems far easier than solving our offensive issues. Also, this is an X’s and O’s analysis and not a discussion about shot effectiveness, or putting it another way, what is the offense designed to do and which are its shortcomings.

For this analysis we’re considering only the recent string of games without Kobe. The reason for it is quite simple: Byron Scott enables Kobe, the players on court defer to him and we end up with a pump fake, pump fake, jab step, contested fade away three point shot that doesn’t find the net.  So, what kind of plays are they running?

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There has been a lot of handwringing over the Lakers’ offense. I know, I have been doing it myself. And while I stand by my criticisms of how the team’s worst tendencies have been too present to start the season, we are beginning to see a slight shift in how the team attacks.

Since the Nuggets game, the Lakers have been running more quick hitting actions, getting into their sets faster, and using more integrated pick and rolls throughout any given set. This has all led to a more fluid looking attack. Granted, the team has played two very poor defenses, but I’ll take any progress I can get.

But even when the team has been running some of the actions they have been running all season, the execution and attention to detail has been better than what we saw in the preseason or the team’s first few games. An example of this was a Triangle action from the Brooklyn game on Friday night:

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There has not been much to cheer for in the Lakers 0-4 start, but one player who has proven to be a bright spot is Jordan Clarkson. After a strong second half to his rookie campaign, Clarkson has shown that the hard work during the off-season and strong play from the summer and preseason were not a mirage.

Clarkson is leading the Lakers in minutes played (31 minutes a night), scoring (18.3 points per game), and is second on the team among rotation players (behind Nick Young!) in PER (20.6). Not bad for a guy taken 46th in the draft a summer ago.

While some of Clarkson’s early season success could easily be small sample sized theater — I do not expect him to make 46.7% of his three pointers on almost 4 attempts per game all year — his continued growth in certain parts of his game is clear and, in my opinion, very real.

Nowhere is this more true than his work in the pick and roll. Consider the following stats, per through Synergy (10 possession minimum):

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Earlier this week we covered the type of offensive set which has too often been representative of what the Lakers do on that side of the ball. The slow developing, non-attacking, late clock, long jumper producing set is symbolic of all that can be wrong with how the Lakers operate offensively. The hope, of course, is we see less and less of that as the season goes on.

The flip-side of that type of action is a quick hitting, full-on attacking action which forces the defense to react, putting them in bad positions in the process. We mostly see this when the Lakers are in transition, but not as often in the half court.

Friday night’s Lakers’ loss to the Kings did not offer many highlights, but one play they did run epitomized the latter type of play I would like to see more of.

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Any critique leveled against any team on the second day of the season has many caveats attached to it. For the Lakers, this is especially true. Not only is the “it’s only been one game!” caveat important, so are the ones tied to the team’s youth, the high amount of roster turnover, and the resulting lack of familiarity and continuity which comes with it.

Simply put, any real criticisms should be held off on for now. We really are too early in the season to come to any lasting conclusions. Let’s see what things look like after 15-20 games to get an idea if what we are seeing are actual trends or not.

However, some of the issues we saw in Wednesday’s loss to the Timberwolves aren’t new. This is especially true on offense where the Lakers looked very much like the team they were last season in many ways. And not good ways, either.

In reviewing the game, one play stood out to me that captured many of the team’s issues and encapsulated why they can sometimes struggle in the half-court.

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Whenever a team loses, the gut instinct is to try and establish who messed up so you can assign blame. When a team loses on a last second play the way the Lakers did against the Bulls, that instinct is even stronger.

As Pau Gasol said after the contest, “You don’t lose a game on a single play, but to lose a game like that on a layup still hurts.”

Yes. Yes, it does.

After the game, Mike D’Antoni spoke about the play in question and, per Mark Medina, defended his decision to have Manny Harris in the game and tried to explain what the plan on defense was:

D’Antoni said Harris was just following instructions, which entailed defending the inbounds pass so he could rotate to the perimeter wherever needed. “He played on the backside,” D’Antoni said. “He thought he was going to pop a guy out and he didn’t do that, We didn’t slide over to cover for him.”

In the clip above, you actually see Harris start the play standing between Taj Gibson and the basket only to get a signal from the bench to move into a position behind the Bulls’ Forward. When the play started, Harris found himself woefully out of position to defend the simplest cut in the game, a dive right to the front of the rim. Harris got pinned on Gibson’s back and Pau couldn’t recover in time to bother the shot enough to force a miss.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I see multiple errors with the Lakers’ defensive strategy that must come back to the coaches.

In the article quoted above, D’Antoni notes that Harris is a good defensive player who was a better option than some of the Lakers who were on the bench at the time. Harris is a good defender, so I’m not questioning that. However, having Harris defend Gibson specifically is a tactical mistake. Gibson was bullying the Lakers all night, pushing around everyone not named Jordan Hill on the offensive glass and in the post. Having Harris — who is a shooting guard — defend the Bulls’ power forward is a mistake.

Second, I don’t really see the value in having Pau defend the inbounder. Yes Pau is long and has the ability to disrupt an entry pass. However, without a second big man in the game to help guard the rim, the Lakers found themselves out of position to guard the type of shot that could beat them easiest. Granted Pau wasn’t as active defending the passer as he needed to be, but with only wings and Ryan Kelly in the game, the team wasn’t in a position personnel wise to guard the paint should a pass find its way in there.

Overall, it just seems like the Lakers’ coaches outthought themselves on this final play. Playing Harris isn’t a bad choice, but playing him over Johnson or Hill or even Meeks — players who have more experience — was probably a miscalculation. Having Pau defend the inbound in a hope he disrupts the pass rather than zoning up the paint to contest any lob pass or quick shot at the front of the rim also comes off as over-thinking things. And having Harris change his position from playing between the ball and his man to playing on the top side so he could be in better position to close out on a jump shooter on the perimeter is also getting too cute defensively when what was really required was playing a hard-nosed final second of defense.

Of course, if the Lakers get a stop on that final possession and the decisions the coaches made played a key part in making that happen, no one says anything. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite.

Pau is right, of course, you don’t lose a game on a single possession, but the decisions the Lakers’ coaches made on the final play certainly tests that theory.

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.

Sunday’s loss to the Spurs showed great effort by the Lakers, but also a severe lack of outside shooting. The Lakers only made 10 of their 43 shots outside the paint, struggling to generate any sort of offensive momentum against a defense set on crowding the paint like a Best Buy on black Friday.

The Spurs understand that with Kobe Bryant tweeting from his couch and Steve Nash admittedly ailing physically, the Lakers’ offense is going to be a post heavy attack. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are the team’s best scorers and feeding them the ball to let them create makable shots is the one advantage the Lakers have in this series, even if the Spurs possess two very good post defenders in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. It simply makes too much sense, then, for the Spurs to crowd the paint and make the Lakers’ bigs earn any basket that comes from a direct post-up while simultaneously trying to force them to pass the ball out to shooters who simply aren’t as dangerous.

For a better idea of what Dwight and Pau are facing on every touch, we go to the eye in the sky. Here’s a fourth quarter post touch for Dwight Howard right after the ball has been entered into the post:

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