Here are some things we know about the Lakers after their blockbuster heist of Steve Nash:
• They will be fascinating to watch on offense. The Lakers have four mammoth stars, and regardless of who the fifth starter is and how awkwardly some parts might mesh, this should be a top-five offense from the minute it takes the floor. The Lakers were an inconsistent offensive team last season, but they took off after the Ramon Sessions deal (how’s that look now, by the way?) and finished a strong 10th overall in points per possession. A finish outside the top five next season would mean that either one of those four stars suffered a long-term injury or that the players and coaching staff suffered a near-complete failure in integrating the roster.
It will be a challenge, though, especially as the Lakers compete against the league’s very best teams. The Lakers now have two stars, Nash and Pau Gasol, whose default mode on offense is to move quickly — fast dribbling (Nash), smart cuts, passes a step ahead of the defense and shots that come on the move (Nash) or immediately upon receiving a pass (Gasol). Those are generalizations, of course; Gasol is a gifted post-up player who can play the back-it-down game if needed. But these guys play with pace and movement, even if one of them (Nash) has the ball most of the time.
Kobe Bryant and especially Andrew Bynum have tendencies to hold the ball, survey the defense and look for their own. That is not to say they are selfish. Bryant is a gifted passer, but many of his best passes come after holding on the wing for a full four or five seconds, drawing extra defensive attention and skipping the ball to an open man. But not all of those hold-hold-hold possessions result in smart passes. Many end in terrible shots: Bryant has inexplicably and inexcusably led the league in usage rate for two consecutive seasons, even as his shooting percentage reached its lowest point since he was a teenager last season.
Bynum, too, has worked on his passing and has paired with Gasol to run a mean big/big pick-and-roll. But at heart, he is a back-to-the-basket-type player. He is not a pick-and-roll machine in the model of Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler.
But that’s precisely why this Lakers team will be so fun to watch: It would be hard for Nash to go to any system more different than the one he played in Phoenix for the last eight years. The Lakers finished 20 percent of their possessions via post-up plays last season, by far the highest percentage in the league, per Synergy Sports. Only Utah had a smaller percentage of its possessions end with the pick-and-roll ballhandler finishing the play by shooting, drawing a foul or turning the ball over. No team had a lower percentage of its possessions end with pick-and-rolls in which the roll man finished the play. No team devoted a smaller percentage of its possessions to transition chances, per Synergy.
Huge numbers of post-ups, few pick-and-rolls, no fast-break points — this sounds like the exact opposite of Nash’s Suns teams, right? Indeed: By the end of the season, the Lakers’ very best pick-and-roll option might have been the unorthodox Sessons/Bryant combination, a play designed to draw a switch and provide Bryant with a matchup advantage for an isolation play or a post-up.
A reminder: Nash has huge value to the Lakers even if they play the exact same style — a style that doesn’t particularly suit Nash’s talents. The Lakers’ lack of outside shooting caused their undoing in the playoffs, as Denver and then Oklahoma City happily ignored every point guard and small forward the Lakers’ used in order to double team big men in the post. Nash isn’t just a great shooter. He probably is the greatest shooter in the NBA history — one of only seven players to have shot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the line in the same season, and the only player to have accomplished that feat more than twice. (Nash has done it four times, and nearly pulled it off again last season, at age 38.)
But Nash’s peak value obviously comes from his combination of passing, shooting and ballhandling. Defenses must pressure him behind the three-point line because of his deadly shooting, and that, in turn, opens up driving lanes, passing lanes and open looks for teammates.
To reach their full potential, the Lakers will have to optimize everyone. The tools are here, to some degree. Bryant is a very good cutter, and Mike Brown designed a bunch of sets to take advantage of Bryant’s cutting and give him good looks below the foul line last season. Gasol is a godsend for any system — a big man who loves to pass, can shoot efficiently from up to 20 feet and doesn’t need 15 shots a night to stay happy.
The questions should center on finding the right balance between Bryant and Bynum. And this is why I suspect the rumblings that the Lakers will revisit a Bynum/Howard swap are true, even though the Lakers, in the Nash trade, dealt away future first-round picks and some financial flexibility (the Lamar Odom trade exception) with which they could have swallowed a bad Orlando contract. Howard is faster on his feet and is a far more polished pick-and-roll player than Bynum. Toss in the discernible gap between their defensive skills (an issue we’ll get to shortly), and Howard is simply a better fit in L.A. Howard and Bynum bring similar salary impacts, since both will be free agents after next season and command max deals. Howard’s, however, will be a few million higher, as his current salary is $3.5 million larger and max deals at this salary level are based on prior salaries.
At the very least, the addition of another star that can score should ease the minutes burden that hurt the Lakers last season, when Bynum, Gasol and Bryant all ranked among the top 25 in minutes played — with Bryant and Gasol both in the top ten. That is unsustainable, and even though this L.A. roster is still thin, the addition one one trustworthy offensive player should have a beneficial trickle-down effect. With two star bigs and two star guards, the Lakers can keep complementary players on the floor at all times so that Gasol, in particular, doesn’t have to carry second units as the lone star on the court. That helps.
But all that talk about money brings us to the other certainty about this L.A. team:
• Holy cow, is it going to be expensive. At this very moment, the Lakers have about $88 million committed to 10 players. Yowza. The tax threshold will again be set at just over $70 million, meaning that, factoring in the dollar-for-dollar penalty, the Lakers are looking at a total payroll bill of about $106 million. Yes, the Lakers sell out every game an make a fortune from their new TV deal. But this is the same franchise that cut costs like crazy last season, making moves such as the Lamar Odom salary dump and trade deadline deals that sent both Derek Fisher and Luke Walton away.
The Lakers could shave about $7.25 million off their books — and thus nearly $14.5 million once you factor in the tax–by using the amnesty provision on Metta World Peace, though they would presumably have to replace him; ESPN.com has already reported Grant Hill may end up deciding between the Lakers and retirement. Paying Hill the mini mid-level exception, valued at $3 million next season, would end up saving the Lakers something like $8.5 million if paired with a World Peace amnesty. That is meaningful, but it doesn’t change the big picture of L.A. suddenly spending like mad. Combine with this Brooklyn’s spree and the Knicks’ apparent (and failed) willingness to break the bank for a Nash/Jeremy Lin pairing, and the last week has thrown a giant monkey wrench into the idea that the new collective bargaining deal has given the biggest markets serious pause about spending massive totals.
Even so: The new CBA has clearly given Dallas pause, and the harsher tax rates — which start at $1.50-per-dollar and escalate from there — don’t kick in until the 2013-14 season.
But wait! The Lakers now have nearly $70 million in salary already committed for that season. That includes World Peace’s deal for now, but it counts only five players and includes nothing for a salary slot the Lakers surely hope will go to Bynum or Howard. Figuring very conservatively (i.e. the amnesty of World Peace and minimal spending elsewhere), if the Lakers end up with an $80 million payroll in 2013-14 and the tax line jumps to something like $72 million, they would be looking at a tax bill of nearly $13 million under the new tax rates.
To avoid this kind of tax hit, the Lakers basically have to turn the Gasol/Bynum salary slots into one salary at some point before the 2014 bill comes into effect.
Of course, the Lakers could also just bite the bullet. They are the Lakers, after all, and they have nothing beyond Nash committed for 2014-15. That’s important, because the Lakers will at that point have paid the tax in the prior three seasons (including last year), and the new CBA includes an extra-harsh repeater penalty for any team that pays the tax in four of five seasons — with the clock already started in 2011-12. The Lakers could avoid that penalty even while breaking the bank in the intervening years. That is a factor.
And, finally, one major uncertainty about this team:
• Can they defend well enough to win? The Lakers ranked just 13th in points allowed per possession last season, and their defense disappeared in the playoffs. Fatigue had something to do with it, and, as mentioned above, the Nash trade should help in that regard. But Nash is a minus defender, and even if the Lakers do nab Hill, his addition doesn’t tilt the equation if it comes at the cost of World Peace.
This is now the biggest question facing the Lakers, especially if they don’t deal for Howard. Howard can do something that Gasol and Bynum cannot — disrupt opposing offenses from the three-point arc to the rim. I can’t wait to see how L.A. addresses the problem.