Last season, the thought of what Steve Nash could do on the Lakers left fans drooling at the mouth. With years of Derek Fisher, Smush Parker, and Steve Blake fresh on their minds, the Lakers weren’t use to a playmaker like Nash who could create so many opportunities for teammates. But his ability to score was something Lakers fans hoped most was that he could relieve the pressure off of Kobe Bryant with his scoring ability.
As we know, none of this happened. In the games Nash did play, he was relegated to spot up shooting and minimal play-making beside Bryant. But that didn’t stop Nash from nearly completing another 50/40/90 season, which would have been his fifth. We were left with glimpses of the Suns version of Nash, where he was relegated to a Derek Fisher role.
Kobe, on the other hand, resorted to his ball-dominating for the majority of the season. Save for his Magic Mamba phase, he maintained his on-ball, iso basketball that has worked so well for him for 17 years. While his usage rate went down, it still sat at 31.9%, which was 5th in the league. It took a legendary shooting performance in which his true shooting percentage was the highest it had been in six years and his effective field goal percentage was his best ever.
More often than not, we saw two individuals playing on the same team. The duo rarely meshed and any of their great plays from the season were a result of great individual talent. Given an entire off-season of recovery and learning Mike D’Antoni’s offense, how will Nash and Kobe co-exist this year?
Last season, Nash did not get many opportunities to execute the pick and roll he’s so deadly at due to the reluctance of big man Dwight Howard. However, in the few times they did run it, good things often happened. Let’s first take a look at Nash’s third game with the Lakers against the Warriors, a game that saw the Lakers make a memorable comeback to eventually pull out the win. The play we’re focusing on is a pick and roll run late in overtime that iced the game for the Lakers.
On the play, Dwight Howard sets a screen for Nash, who gets into the lane and eventually knocks down the contested jumper for the win. But what made this play work?
At the beginning of the play, Kobe Bryant is in the corner, guarded by Klay Thompson. As you can tell, Thompson is aware of Bryant and isn’t too far off him. Gasol and MWP resort to the other corner, giving Nash and Howard plenty of room to work. Nash beautifully sets up Curry with a quick crossover before dribbling him into Howard.
When Nash comes off the screen, Howard rolls to the rim and draws the attention of three Warriors players. You can see how out of place Gasol was as he has no where to go on the screen and brings his man into the way, allowing Jarrett Jack to guard him and MWP at once. However, focus on Thompson. He’s sagged off Bryant to cover Howard’s roll, but the very next frame, he sprints out to Bryant, knowing he’s wide open for a three pointer that would certainly ice the game.
Nash, the brilliant player he is, notices that Bryant is open, but also notices the closing Thompson. By flying out to cover Bryant, Thompson leaves the elbow area open. Credit to Dwight for clearing out both of Golden State’s big men, giving Nash enough space to put up a fading jumper that he knocks down.
The key point here was how the defender reacted to the open Bryant. Nash come off the screen and went straight to Bryant’s side, forcing the defender to either choose to guard Nash and leave Bryant open for a three, or cover Bryant and leave the ballhandler with an open lane.
Now, let’s take a look at another pick and roll and the Nash/Bryant dynamic.
On this play, Nash and Dwight execute the pick and roll, which is hedged hard by Bucks big man Samuel Dalembert. However, Nash still finds Bryant for the open three pointer. Let’s break it down.
Again, this pick and roll is set up to go away from Bryant originally, with him in the corner. With Jamison on the floor, the Lakers have much better spacing, with three shooters on the perimeter. Dalembert makes a hard hedge on Nash, forcing his teammates to help cover Howard on the roll.
Dwight’s roll is covered by both Jamison and Bryant’s defenders, leaving both open. On Jamison’s side, there is still MWP’s defender, who can cover both players simultaneously. Bryant, however, realizes he’ll be open and comes toward Nash, calling for the ball. Nash sees the same thing, and fires a two-handed pass to Bryant on the wing.
The defender over-pursues Bryant, who doesn’t need much space to get a shot away. To Bryant, this is an open three. He immediately catches and shoots the shot, burying it for the Lakers.
Bryant, however, wasn’t always on the receiving end of a pass from Nash. Bryant’s “Magic Mamba” phase showed he was comfortable being the distributor on the team, creating open looks for his teammates. Let’s look at how he and Nash worked together in this aspect.
At a point in the game where the Lakers needed a score, Bryant often resorts to “Hero Mode.” In this moment, he waits and sees what the defense gives him before making the right play. Bryant, who loves working from the block, can really be helped from the great shooting Steve Nash.
When Nash brings the ball up court, Bryant has already established position against the much smaller Jose Calderon. Nash passes to Bryant, realizing the mismatch. Bryant is immediately double teamed by Nash’s defender.
The double team leaves tons of open space for Nash, which Bryant realizes. Nash slides down a step to create a better angle for a return pass from Bryant. Earl Clark’s defender also notices the open Nash and begins sprinting toward Nash.
Bryant’s quick recognition of the double team means that he can get the ball to Nash before his defender can recover. When Nash catches the ball, both Bryant and Nash’s defenders are on Bryant, leaving just DeMar Derozan to cover Nash. In this scenario, Nash simply buries the three. However, in this upcoming season, the spots of Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison could be filled with the likes of Nick Young or Ryan Kelly, but much more adept three point shooters.
Bryant and Nash will be looked upon to carry the Lakers scoring load for most part this season. Coming off an injury and still battling Father Time, Bryant knows he can’t play at the level he did last season, both in production and in sheer minutes played. Less “Hero Mode” from Bryant and more playing within the offense is the most sensible option for Bryant. What I didn’t show was other plays that Nash and Bryant succeeded at – Bryant curls, Bryant backdoor cuts/post ups – which the Lakers will exploit more and more this season.
As a Lakers fan, I’m not worried about whether Bryant or Nash will complement each other, but instead intrigued to see just how well they do it.