Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Lakers Are a Significantly Different Team Without Kobe Bryant

This is an image Lakers fans aren't used to
Kobe Bryant's torn Achilles has been well documented among Laker fans and the Los Angeles media. We
know that Kobe is supposed to be ahead of schedule for his rehabilitation and the team, as well as Kobe himself, is looking for him to return for opening night, roughly three weeks away. No other Elite, non-point guard player changes the identity of a whole team as much as Kobe does, with a few exceptions like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard.

While it seems Kobe will in fact be ready for opening night, nobody can be certain of that and the Lakers must adjust accordingly. Mitch Kupchak certainly took precautions, having signed a plethora of young, athletic swingmen in Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Farmar, while retaining the services of Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Steve Nash. Should Kobe not be ready for opening night in three weeks, the Lakers seem well stocked and well prepared in the depth department.

That just leaves the performance department, which just so happens to be the most important one. I'm sure we all remember what Jordan Farmar brings to the table. Solid defensive ability, combined with speed in the open court, as well as an above average stroke from beyond the arch (career 36.7%), although he is still a below average player in general, due to his inefficiency from the floor (career 42.7% field goal percentage, as well as a 72.8% free throw percentage; relatively low for a guard). Still, you could do a whole lot worse from what should be a third string player behind Nash and Blake.

Xavier Henry is surprisingly young, entering this season at the ripe old age of 22 years of age. Henry seems to be far from a finished project, however, having gone to three different teams in 4 seasons (Memphis, New Orleans and Los Angeles). Henry provides a potentially more dynamic option than Meeks at the shooting guard slot, being more athletic, bigger (both in height and weight), stronger and a much better finisher around the rim, particularly on the fast break.

Despite his physical advantages, Henry has shown a relatively low basketball I.Q, as well as a bad habit of forcing shots and disrupting the general flow and rhythm of an offensive possession once the ball touches his hands. He also does not have the value of stretching the floor with his three point shooting (career 28.9%), and despite those percentages being substantially higher the past two seasons (41.2% and 36.4%), he does not put up enough three pointers to be able to say with any certainty that he can consistently make the outside jump shot. Henry certainly has potential; his average defensive ability, combined with his athleticism could eventually make him into a serviceable player. As he is, a backup role on this team seems likely, with or without Kobe.

Wesley Johnson has taken a different path than that of a normal Top-5 draft pick. Thoroughly underwhelming in his two seasons for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns, where he was an entirely replaceable player, being worth a whopping 0 Win Share for the Suns. That's not to say he doesn't provide any value; he was worth 0.5 DWS, to go along with his -0.5 OWS. Being used as a defensive specialist, with only 3 point shooting offensive responsibilities, he may very well improve those numbers. Like Henry, Johnson is supremely athletic and should improve the Lakers' fast break game. Unlike Henry, Johnson is known to hoist up a fair amount of three pointers, averaging 3.2 three point field goals per game for his career, while shooting 33.6% from beyond the arch. The Lakers seem to be hoping for another Shannon Brown/Earl Clark situation on their hands with Johnson, hoping to find that diamond in the rough to take over the Small Forward position.

And finally, Nick Young. All offense, all the time, coming into this season with a career 37.4% shooting percentage from beyond the arch, as well as a career average of 11.3 points per game that gets raised to 17.7 points per game per 36 minutes of playing time. He owns a career 9.9 WS, 7 of which are OWS. And while the 9.9 WS isn't all that impressive, it's still his long range stroke, along with Nash's three point shooting ability, that will give Chris Kaman, Pau Gasol and Kobe all the space needed to operate in the low block. Young isn't the most athletic player on the planet, but he will have to do, as the Lakers will ask him to man the Small Forward position, despite only being 6'6'' and weighing in at 200 lb. It's clear D'Antoni values his offense a whole lot more than his defense.

Without Kobe, the Lakers will be a lot more inclined to play through Pau Gasol in the low post and, without Dwight Howard clogging the lane, Gasol should improve his efficiency by a wide margin. Last season, playing a lot further away from the basket, Gasol shot a career low 46.6% from the floor, hoisting up a career high number of shots from 16 feet or further (197), while only making a dismal 36.5% of those shot attempts (28.6% from beyond the arch). Without Kobe, Gasol becomes the team's premier offensive threat; his combination of low post moves, hook shots, turnaround jump shots and his ability to put the ball on the floor, as well as his excellent vision and passing ability make him one of the most dangerous offensive big men in the league down in the low post. When he has the ball around the free throw line, or at the elbow, Gasol's decent shooting range keeps his defender honest, while his passing ability lets him use the High-Low play between him and the Lakers' other big man, which we saw translate into multiple alley-oops last season between him and Howard.

If healthy, Steve Nash takes the bulk of the perimeter offensive duties. When Nash has the ball, the Lakers will be looking to run the pick and roll along with the pick and pop with both Gasol and Kaman, while sticking more to the pick and roll with Jordan Hill off the bench. Nash's excellent passing ability should help those of his teammates that struggle to create their shots. His shooting ability aids his dribble penetration immensely, which, in turn, gets perimeter players open for long range shot attempts.

When Nash hits the bench, the Lakers will likely run more set plays with Steve Blake taking the reins of the offense, and the bulk of the plays being back door screens and cuts with Johnson, Young, Henry and Meeks, as well as a fair amount of three point shot attempts from just about everybody that isn't playing center (in this case, Kaman/Hill/Gasol).

Between Kobe, Gasol, Nash, Kaman, Young and Meeks, and no more Hack-a-Dwight strategy being used against the Lakers, the offense looks to be in very good shape, with turnovers still being a question mark (they were ranked 23rd last season with 1232 total turnovers, or 15 per game). It's the defense that might give Lakers fans nightmares all season long. Even with Howard patrolling the paint last season, the Lakers were ranked 22nd in points allowed per game (101 PPG) and 25th in steals (7 steals per game). While they did rank 13th in blocked shots, that was mostly due to Howard swatting 2.4 shots per game (5th among qualifying players), or 186 (ranked 4th among qualifying players) of the Lakers' 429 total blocks. And while Kaman, Hill and Gasol can each patrol the paint, none of them are the defensive game changer that Dwight Howard is on the court. For the Lakers to be competitive, expect shoot outs, and lots of them.