In Mike D’Atnoni’s introductory press conference he wowed media and fans alike with his calm confidence, humor, and bold proclamations about what the Lakers can be on the offensive side of the ball. He expressed a willingness, no a desire, to let his players be the decision makers on the floor and allow their talent to shine through.
More important than what D’Atnoni said about the Lakers’ offense was his take on their defense. He noted that he has the type of defensive talent for the Lakers to a be “a bear” on that side of the ball and mentioned several times that in the period his players get up to speed on what they like to do on offense, the team will need to win games with energy and defense.
D’Antoni then laid on effusive praise for Dwight Howard and for good reason. While acknowledging that Howard is still not 100%, he expressed the need for Howard to carry the team on the defensive side of the ball in the short and the long term. This isn’t a foreign concept as it’s what we’ve all believed to be true as well. Howard’s pedigree on that side of the ball is well known and it’s impact there that had fans most excited about him becoming a Laker.
Through the first 8 games to the season, the Lakers haven’t gotten that guy. At least not consistently. He’s had his moments to be sure, but his timing and freakish athleticism haven’t come all the way back on an every play basis just yet. But, we may just be seeing a breakthrough. In the San Antonio game, Howard made one play that stood out to me as maybe his best defensive sequence of the season:
On this play, Howard did everything you’d want a big man to do. He hedged on the pick and roll to prevent dribble penetration. He then recovered to his man to contest what would have been a 15 foot jumper. After his man faked the shot and put the ball on the ground, Howard slid with him and then challenged the shot to force a miss. Then, as the ball caromed off the rim, he quickly leapt again to secure the rebound.
Dwight may not be all the way back but it’s plays like this that show me he’s getting closer. The angles, recovery, the challenge, and the second jump were all there.
Moving forward if Dwight can make these plays consistently, he’s going to make his coach look like a very smart man.
The version of the Princeton offense the Lakers will use this season has the chance to be an evolving oasis of offensive possibility. The sheer talent and versatility of their core four players can translate to a multitude of actions — some obvious, some not so much — that can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.
When the Princeton was first talked about as a system the Lakers would employ, one of the first things that came to mind was Pau Gasol operating at the high post. Using Pau at that spot on the floor, with Howard occupying the low block, would take advantage of his elite passing while also utilizing his ability to space the floor as one of the better mid-range shooting big men.
This, of course, has become a staple of what the Lakers do run on offense. Every game we’ve been treated to at least one Gasol dime to Howard where he makes a catch at the elbow and plays high-low basketball with his frontcourt partner. As the season advances and these two develop even more chemistry, we should see even more of this action and little wrinkles added to it to force defenses into making the types of lose/lose choices that often result in made baskets.
However, one of the not so obvious ways the Lakers have started to take advantage of their talent has been the inverting of their big men. Against the Pistons, the Lakers ran several actions that put Pau at the low block and left Howard at the high post. This is the opening play of the game:
This play starts as many Lakers’ sets have lately, with the point guard (Steve Blake in this instance) bringing the ball up the left side of the floor with Kobe on the wing and Dwight in the ball side post. Blake enters to Kobe who looks to Dwight for a quick post up. Instead of entering the ball, Kobe passes the ball back to Blake who then enters a quick pass into Dwight as he slides up the lane line to the elbow. Blake then screens away for Pau who pops open at the top of the key where he gets the ball from Howard. This is where the heart of this action comes to life.
After Pau gets the ball at the top of the key he swings the ball back to Kobe and then rubs off a high pick from Dwight to dive to the low post. Kobe hits Pau with an entry pass while Howard hovers around the free throw line. It’s important here to note how closely Howard’s man is playing him and how much room Pau has to work on the post:
With all this room, Pau backs his man down and shoots a half hook that misses. But since he’s maneuvered his way around his man, he follows his shot, gets the offensive rebound and scores easily on a put back. It bears repeating, in this next still Howard isn’t even in the picture and Maxiell still hasn’t left the FT line area to help on the glass and is watching as Pau scores an easy two points:
One of the key reasons this set works is that the Lakers have put Pau in the post and spaced the floor in a way where if the double team comes Gasol can use his tremendous passing ability to hit the open man.
Furthermore, with Dwight at the elbow, the defense has a unique problem. If Dwight’s man leaves to double team he’s allowing Howard to dive from the FT line with the best passing big man in the league ready to drop him off a pass that will surely end with either a basket, a foul, or both. Not to mention that if Dwight’s man leaves him but the pass doesn’t go to him, he still has a wide open lane to crash the glass and be an offensive rebounder.
What the Lakers have figured out — and based off how many times they ran a variation of this set, they have figured something out — is that the defense must respect Dwight if he’s anywhere near the paint. His ability to cut to the ball and score off passes or simply get to the front of the rim for rebounding chances means that his man has to keep within arm’s distance of him at nearly all times or risk being exposed.
This doesn’t have to be a full time set for the Lakers. Dwight is still best served operating from the low post and trying to score on his man via touches in the paint. Many of those touches will come from the splendid passing ability of Pau. But there will be times where the Lakers can invert their bigs and use Pau’s strength as a post scorer to their advantage and not hesitate. Even though Dwight doesn’t have range on his jumper and isn’t known as a great high-low passer, it doesn’t matter. He’s too dangerous to leave.
Offensive spacing can come from many places. In this case it comes from Dwight Howard standing at the foul line. Not sure many people saw that coming.
Welcome to the Strategy Session. In this space we’ll explore different aspects of the game from a strategy standpoint. It may mean looking at a coaching decision — like determining a rotation. Or a specific offensive play that we think will work. Or it could be an examination of a defensive scheme. Sometimes we’ll use video others we’ll just blab away for a while on the topic of the day. Hope you enjoy it.
With a lot of negatives to focus on after the Lakers’ first two games, I thought I’d instead look at something that has worked in the past and should be able to work again in the future.
Contrary to popular sentiment, the Lakers’ offense really isn’t the chief problem with this team right now. Of course there are issues — most notably Steve Nash still finding his balance between on/off ball effectiveness and a feel of clunkiness that persists to sets the team is still picking up on — but the team is shooting the ball pretty well and has shown glimpses of what they can be once they settle in and find their stride.
One such action that can aid them in moving forward in a positive direction (it proved to work in the preseason) and should continue to be a useful play for the Lakers is a strong side hand-off sequence. This action utilizes Nash, Kobe, and Dwight on the same side of the floor and puts the defense in a position to make tough choices. All three players are threats on the play and when run crisply it creates good looks.
This first example leads to the type of shot the Lakers want Kobe taking:
The play starts with Nash bringing the ball up the right sideline while Dwight waits at the elbow and Kobe sits on the wing. Nash enters the Howard and proceeds to set a screen for Kobe who curls off the pick towards Dwight. Kobe continues his cut, takes the hand-off from Dwight and then elevates for his jumper over DeMarcus Cousins who helped a split second too late. Kobe knocks down the 16 footer, a high percentage shot for him.
This play worked so well, the Lakers decided they were going to run the exact same action on their next possession. The only difference is that they run it on the other side of the floor:
Here, again, you see Nash bringing the ball up the floor (this time on the left side) with Kobe (on the wing) and Dwight (at the elbow) in the exact same positions. Nash makes his entry to Dwight, proceeds to set his screen for Kobe who then curls to take the hand off from Howard. Here’s where you see the difference, however. When Kobe gets the ball he again looks to elevate for his shot but he’s drawing more defensive attention with a quicker reaction as well. Kobe recognizes the defense is out of position and when Howard rolls to the hoop he leads him to the rim with a lob pass that is dunked home.
One play, two actions, same result.
There are even more actions that can be run off this single look. In both of the above plays, Steve Nash’s man sinks to the lane line to try and help on Howard’s dive to the rim. If Kobe is looking that way, he can hit him for an open jumper. On the play where Kobe threw the lob, you’ll notice that Ron’s man came over to help and left him open on the wing for a wide open jumper. Other options include Nash, instead of flaring to the wing, cutting back door after setting the screen or Kobe, rather than accepting Nash’s screen, cutting back door when Nash comes over to try and free him.
One of the key principles to the Princeton offense is setting up plays to look the same but then countering what the defense does through reading how they react to the action in front of them. The Lakers are trying to get to the point where all of these options are utilized; where the players working together can recognize what the defense is doing and then respond accordingly.
In some cases — like the plays above — they’ve made headway. In many others they’re not yet close. The result is flashes of brilliance mixed with bouts of frustration. The hope is that we see more progress soon. But the good thing is, that hope can be rooted in knowing that this stuff actually does work.
After a nearly flawless off-season, we saw all of the Lakers flaws come to the forefront during the pre-season as the Lakers went 0-8 as Mike Brown tried to work around a new offensive system, new personnel, injuries and a roster that was simply too long with too many fringe guys. In the midst of the new personnel and injury reports was the Lakers newest big man who reportedly has biceps the size of ostrich and a smile as broad as his shoulders. More importantly, however, he jumps like a small forward and moves his feet like a shooting guard. Dwight Howard only played in two pre-season games, but how he’s played on the defensive end has already gotten my wheels turning about how the rest of the Lakers are going to have to defend differently with Howard on the floor.
It isn’t a secret that Kobe has lost a step on the defensive end of the floor despite the fact that he continues to rack up All-NBA defensive team awards. However, even when Kobe was at the apex of his defending abilities, he always had the tendency to creep into the paint and try to sit on passes or help out post defenders leaving his man open for jump shots. The Lakers have been burned time and time again by perimeter defenders getting sucked in too deep only to have the ball kicked out to a wide open Jason Terry or Shane Battier. Derek Fisher had this problem, Steve Blake has this problem, and I’ve noticed that Steve Nash has also had this problem in his eight games as a Laker. With Howard in the middle now, more than ever, the Lakers perimeter defenders should be encouraged to stay home on their man and force guys to beat them off the dribble instead of giving up wide open jump shots because Dwight can jump like a small forward and move his feet like a shooting guard. This first video is a perfect example of the good Howard will bring to the defense being negated by the bad habits that the Lakers perimeter defenders are going to have to change to maximize Howard’s talents.
Howard’s man, Jason Thompson, clears out from the left wing to the right block to create an ISO for Demarcus Cousins. Howard follows Thompson but stays help side to help out on any penetration. As the play progresses, Howard keeps an eye on both his man and the ball as Steve Nash comes down from the wing to unnecessarily front Thompson. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) Howard is already between Thompson and the ball, which makes Nash’s action redundant and 2) Nash is essentially using Thompson to set a screen on himself should the ball be kicked out to Isaiah Thomas, his assignment, in the corner. Tyreke Evans comes around Cousins and receives a handoff and drives baseline with Artest trailing and out of position to make a play. Dwight slides over and makes a great play on the ball as Thompson is boxing out Nash. Unfortunately, Evans recovers the block and kicks it out to Thomas who receives the pass and is already in rhythm to shoot the ball by the time Nash gets his first foot out of the paint. Nash exudes tons of effort to try and get back out to Isaiah but his efforts are futile. Splash.
While some of the faces to this Lakers team are new, the problems presented are not. The Lakers were consistently burned by kick out jump shots last season and it’ll likely continue to be a problem this year. However, this year that issue seems more correctable with Dwight, rather than Andrew Bynum, in the middle. A lot of this preseason has been focused around this team “gelling” together and this concept has been discussed about the offensive end of the floor ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed nearly enough is how they’re going to need just as much time to gel on the defensive end of the floor. Just like they’re going to have to break some bad habits and get used to the Princeton Offense, they’re going to have to do the same with Dwight in the middle as he corrects a lot of mistakes around the perimeter — but only if they’re making the correct mistakes.
As fantastic as Howard is on the defensive end, he can only do so much which is why the Lakers are going to need to play tighter coverage around the perimeter. Dwight can help clean up guys getting blown by or a defender losing his man on a back cut, but he [probably] can’t clean up a skip pass that leads to a wide-open corner three or a kick out from the post to the wing. Take the following for example.
The play begins with Kobe guarding Tyreke Evans, who kicks the ball to the corner and runs a cross screen action with Thomas Robinson in the paint. Kobe haphazardly follows Reke into the screen while watching the ball and follows the first body he feels behind him instead of finding his guy then getting back into a help position. Dwight does his job and stays with his man as neither screen was any good. As the double-cross screen is happening, Isaiah Thomas dumps the ball into James Johnson on the right block (being guarded by Artest). As he turns to face the rim, Robinson begins to clear out (taking Kobe and Howard with him) and Reke cuts through the wide-open for what should be an easy layup. Instead, Howard comes back across the lane and blocks the shot as its on its way up.
What can’t be overstated enough is how he’s going to change the complexities of this defense simply by his ability to move in ways that Andrew Bynum could not. Two years ago, I wrote a bread down post after Chris Paul picked and rolled the Lakers defense to death, and said if Andrew Bynum could continue to move his feet like he did in this single play, then the Lakers defense would be much improved. Of course the Lakers went on to win that series but their defensive efforts were not improved as they were eliminated in four games by another team who abused P&R sets. Now, the Lakers do have a guy who has the ability to hedge on the P&R, move his feet and recover on P&Rs and made Steve Nash look half way decent on one action that the Kings ran.
That was a fantastic example of how the Lakers perimeter defenders can take advantage of Howard’s range on the defensive end. After the Howard hedge, Nash was able to get back in front of Jimmer both times he received a screen. Also, Kobe was in a good spot defending Francisco in the corner. He still got sucked in trying to help in the paint, but as the P&R action was happening he kept one eye on Garcia and had only one foot in the paint, giving him a short enough distance to where he could effectively close out on a shot if the ball was swung to the corner. Even Pau did a great job of playing the back side of the cutter while Howard recovered from the hedge then used his length to close out on DeMarcus Cousins’ 17-footer.
It’s going to be a long process getting all of the guys on the same page on the defensive end of the floor, but this team is definitely better off with Howard prowling in the paint and beyond altering shots, correcting mistakes and finishing possessions with rebounds. I’m looking forward to seeing what ways the perimeter guys adjust to playing with a defensive force behind them, starting with their opening night game on this Tuesday.
Barring any complications with Howard’s back over the next couple days, the Lakers are optimistic the All-Star center will make their first appearance for them on Sunday. ”He is making progress,” one Lakers source told Yahoo! Sports. “There is a good chance he can play Sunday.”
Howard has been getting closer and closer in recent weeks. He started camp doing only non-contact drills, escalated to contact work in non-scrimmage settings, and then was finally cleared for all activity — except playing in actual games — shortly after. In recent days, he’s spoken of needing to get his conditioning up so that he could be prepared for real game situations.
Well, it seems that day is almost here. Soon enough we’ll see those Nash/Howard pick and rolls, high-low actions between Howard and Gasol, and Howard working with Kobe in two man games on and off the ball to help each other get easy looks. We’ll see him be a presence on defense, work the glass. and help set that physical tone that’s been missing so far this preseason.
Of course there will be some rust in his game and he may not be the exact player we expect (that 20/20 game may have to wait), but at least he’ll be back on the floor soon. Hopefully, as the report states, that will be this Sunday.