Can the Lakers' Methuselah Backcourt Lead a Championship Run?The proposed transaction sending Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns to the L.A. Lakers in exchange for draft picks, the Lamar Odom trade exception and cash has already attracted much media attention even though it will not become official until July 11. Making predictions is a hazardous business but, assuming Nash becomes a Laker next season, it is reasonable to assume three things:
1) Kobe Bryant will not lead the Lakers in assists.
2) Kobe Bryant's field goal percentage will improve.
3) The Lakers will score more points and shoot a better field goal percentage.
Astute readers will notice that the word "championship" did not appear anywhere in that list; even with Nash in the fold, the Lakers still need to get younger and faster in order to seriously contend for the NBA championship: a Methuselah backcourt--one half of which is severely challenged defensively--combined with two good big men, no speed on the wings and no bench is not a championship-winning formula unless Bryant turns back time and is able to dominate for an entire season (in order to earn a top seed) and a whole playoff run.
For most of his career, Bryant has filled both the Michael Jordan and the Scottie Pippen roles in the Triangle Offense, serving as the top scoring option and the primary facilitator (that does not mean that he is better than Jordan and Pippen put together, but merely that Bryant has been asked to fill roles that normally are handled by two different players). Bryant performed well at both tasks but now that he has logged more games and more minutes than Jordan did in his entire career some wear and tear has shown around the edges; Bryant is still an elite player but he is no longer the best player in the league and it is not only logical but essential for the Lakers to ease some of his burden in order to extend his career as long as possible and maximize the number of championships that they can potentially win with him functioning as the team's best player. During the 2011-12 season, most of Bryant's per minute numbers were at or near his career norms but he had his lowest field goal percentage since his first two seasons in the league.
Nash's arrival helps Bryant in two ways. Nash will assume most of the ballhandling and ball distribution duties, freeing Bryant from those responsibilities; that will enable Bryant to get down court earlier and thus have more time to establish good position in the post or mid post area, where Nash will be able to get Bryant the ball for higher percentage shots than the shots Bryant attempted last season. No longer will Bryant be left with so many hand grenades--shots that he has to fire up because the shot clock is about to "explode" like a hand grenade after the pin has been pulled. Even though the Lakers no longer run the Triangle, they can still borrow some of the concepts that the Chicago Bulls used toward the end of Jordan's career when Pippen brought the ball up the court while Jordan got easy points by establishing position before the defense was fully set. Nash will also help the Lakers overall because he can run screen/roll actions with Bryant, Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol (if one or both of those big men are traded for Dwight Howard then of course Nash could run screen/roll actions with Howard to even more devastating effect), actions that will either free up those players for easy shots or else open up shots for role players on the weak side as the defense scrambles to stop the primary options.
Nash is also a tremendous shooter, one of the best pure shooters in the history of the league. For more than a decade, the Lakers have survived--and mostly thrived--while employing journeymen (Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Chucky Atkins, Ramon Sessions) or worse (Smush Parker) at point guard, so even a 38 year old Nash is a tremendous upgrade offensively but Nash has always been a below average defender; at the end of tight playoff games, Bryant (or someone else) will still have to guard the elite point guards but Coach Mike Brown built some great defenses in Cleveland with some subpar point guard defenders so he is more than up to the task of both putting Nash in the best possible position and also figuring out how to use various schemes to hide/protect Nash at times. Nash's minutes will have to be monitored so that his cranky back does not have a tantrum.
This proposed deal obviously improves the Lakers; the Lakers essentially are swapping the ghost of Lamar Odom plus some draft picks that--at best--would not have had any impact until after Bryant's career is over in exchange for a future Hall of Famer. However, if the Lakers do not either acquire Dwight Howard or significantly improve their overall speed and their woeful depth then they still will not be able to beat Oklahoma City or San Antonio in a seven game series. The Lakers are in a precarious position right now, neither building for the post-Bryant future nor really capable of winning a championship as currently constructed but all of that would be fixed by bringing Howard into the fold; Howard could cover up Nash's defensive flaws, control the paint at both ends of the court and ensure that the Lakers would have an excellent foundation after Bryant retires. If Howard's top priority is winning a championship then he should use whatever real or imagined leverage he possesses in order to make sure that he becomes a Laker.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM