The Los Angeles Lakers are no stranger to scrutiny, but the scrutiny they have been under the last few weeks is high even for them.
What seemed to be a run of bad luck with injuries and close losses exploded on Tuesday night when they went into Cleveland and got beat down by Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao…and little else.
Their defense, analysts agree, seems to be their biggest problem.
- The Lakers’ wings are old and slow, and the addition of Steve Nash will do nothing but exacerbate their perimeter defense problems even further.
- Dwight Howard looks like a shell of the man that was the best defensive center since Hakeem Olajuwon.
- Their bench was thin at the beginning of the year – even before losing Nash and Gasol to injury.
- Antawn Jamison is one of the worst defensive players in the league.
- Kobe Bryant – despite all of his First Team Defensive awards – has slipped dramatically on the defensive end.
Much of the talk the last few days has focused on their transition defense – or lack thereof. An incredible 15% of their opponents’ possessions have come off of fast breaks, leaving them second in the last in the league in that category.
Of course, the addition of Mike D’Antoni has done nothing to stem the worries concerning the Lakers’ poor defense. D’Antoni’s teams are famous for playing poor defense, and many have blamed his teams’ lack of success on this neglect.
However, it is my opinion that the Lakers biggest problem is not their defense, but rather their offense.
It is also my belief that Steve Nash just might be what the doctor ordered in order to heal their offensive illnesses.
A quick look at the stats might make me sound crazy. The Lakers are 19th in the league in defensive points allowed, but 7th in offensive production. How could the offense really be the problem?
Poor Offense Leading to Poor Defense
The Lakers’ poor transition defense can be traced back to one thing – inefficient and error-prone offense.
As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Of course, this is usually just a lame cliche uttered by slow white guys like myself who are capable of playing good offensive basketball but never made defense a priority…for obvious reasons.
But in terms of transition defense, the best way to shore things up is to simply limit your opponent’s transition opportunities.
The San Antonio Spurs are not exactly the youngest, most athletic team in the NBA, but they limit their opponents’ ability to exploit this by being so methodical on offense. The Spurs ranked 3rd in the league last season in turnover rate, averaging just 13 a game.
The Lakers are at the other end of the spectrum, averaging almost 17 a game, which is good for second worst in the entire NBA. Poor bench play, a transition from the Princeton offense to “Seven Seconds or Less,” and injuries have all contributed, but the biggest factor has been the absence of Steve Nash.
In case you didn’t know, Chris Duhon has been averaging 30 minutes per game in Nash’s absence. The drop-off from Nash to Duhon is enormous.
While Duhon doesn’t necessarily turn the ball over like crazy (he’s only averaging 0.9 turnovers per game), he also doesn’t dominate the ball as much as Nash would. This means that the ball is more often in the hands of Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, and other inefficient offensive players who are much more turnover-prone.
Even Kobe has been affected.
While his scoring efficiency is higher than its ever been, he’s also turning the ball over at his highest rate in eight seasons. In fact, his 3.8 turnovers a game average is the second highest total of his career.
The absence of Nash greatly increases the amount of pressure on every other Laker. Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace, and Dwight Howard are all averaging more turnovers this season than they have in four years. Nearly every Laker is forcing the issue to some degree, and it all stems back to the absence of Nash.
Now you might be thinking, “This shouldn’t matter. A team with a healthy Kobe Bryant, a somewhat healthy Dwight Howard, and a what was until recently a healthy Pau Gasol should be able to win without Steve Nash.”
You wouldn’t be far off in that assessment. But without Nash, the Lakers are still missing one thing: the right mix on offense.
Lakers’ D is Good Enough
Again, people have been in a hurry to blame the Lakers’ 19th ranked defense.
But while 19th is not particularly great, it is good enough to win games, playoff series, and even championships.
Just last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished 17th in the league in points allowed – just two slots ahead of where the Lakers stand right now. San Antonio, an incredibly intelligent team that has been legendary for its defense for years, only finished one slot ahead of OKC.
However, both teams were so efficient offensively, it didn’t matter.
The only team that scored more points per game last year than the Thunder and Spurs was the Denver Nuggets – a team that prides itself on playing as quickly as possible in order to utilize the high altitude of their home environment to its optimum potential.
What made the Thunder and Spurs offenses so good? They followed the most basic formula that any efficient and high-powered offense needs to have. When Nash (and Gasol) return to full health, the Lakers will have all the ingredients in place to make a strong push towards the playoffs.
The Formula For Good Offensive Basketball
So what is this formula? It’s really quite simple.
Every team, no matter what level of basketball it may be, needs at least two creators – one guy that can create for himself, and another that can create for others.
To simplify it, if a team wants to maximize its offensive potential, it needs a creator and a facilitator.
It’s not hard to find teams that have great players, but that lack one or both of the essentials that a good offense must have to succeed.
The Pacers, without their creator (Danny Granger), have struggled immensely this season trying to find the right mix of guys that can score. Indiana’s defense is still one of the league’s best, but their struggles to score the ball have left them with a .500 record a quarter of the way through the season.
The 2011-12 Knicks were the perfect example of the reverse problem: Carmelo was one of the best creators in the game, but the team lacked a true facilitator.
Why are both so essential to offensive success? Because having a creator and a facilitator guarantees two things: 1) that you can get a basket when it matters, and 2) that the whole team will be involved from start to finish.
Just look at what the presence of Jason Kidd has done to this year’s Knicks squad.
Most of the attention is going to Carmelo Anthony – and deservedly so. He’s been incredible this season. But if you closely watch New York’s games, you will see two things that were something of a rarity last year: 1) open shots for guys other than Steve Novak, and 2) huge amounts of floor space for everyone.
Of course, Carmelo’s move to the 4 has helped to aid the floor spacing, but Jason Kidd’s passing and ability to get others involved has been the biggest difference. There is a reason that Ray Felton, JR Smith, and Tyson Chandler are all having career years offensively. Teams can’t ever leave Carmelo, and giving Jason Kidd space to play 4-on-4 basketball is probably a worse alternative than simply trying to stop Carmelo one-on-one.
The Lakers Will Be Okay
This year’s Lakers really are not that far away.
Their point differential is still +2.7, a number that puts them in the top 8 of the entire league. Those types of numbers are typically a little more reliable than the rudimentary Win/Loss record, and they tend to even out as the year goes on. You could make a good case that the Lakers are extremely unlucky to be sitting 4 games below .500 at this point.
The return of Steve Nash will only make the turn-around more likely. Adding a facilitator to the mix will not only make Kobe’s job easier, but it will also give Howard, Gasol, World Peace, and others much easier looks.
As for the spacing problem that the Lakers currently have, adding one of the best shooters in NBA history will do wonders to that as well.
Many people think that the Lakers are beyond hope – that doomsday came for them much sooner than December 21, 2012. How can Kobe return to greatness on defense? Metta World Peace, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol have all slipped as well. Common sense says that the addition of Nash, one of the worst defensive point guards in the league, will do nothing but thrust them further into the abyss.
Remember though, with Nash, it’s not about the defense – it never has been.
Nash will cut down the Lakers’ turnovers almost immediately – automatically improving the transition defense. If Nash hits a few more of the open threes that the Lakers are currently missing, limiting the number of long offensive rebounds that also spark fast breaks, the transition defense will take another step forward.
Creating shots for his teammates will be the icing on the cake. Just watch. There is no need for a massive turnaround on defense. Let the 2-time MVP return and work his magic on the offensive end – and the Lakers will be just fine.
Well, until they have to play OKC. But that’s another story entirely.