Scouting the Competition: Los Angeles Lakers

In the 2013-14 NBA season, the New Orleans Pelicans are projected to either barely miss the playoffs or barely make the playoffs. They are seen as a team on the brink of the postseason. In the Pelicans Debrief “Scouting the Competition” series, we will be evaluating some of the other western conference teams that are expected to be fighting for the 7th and 8th seeds in the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Lakers have had a roller coaster ride in the last 13 months. Last July, following the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, there was talk of winning the NBA title. Nowadays, that kind of talk with this team is seen as a joke. After a series of unfortunate events, the world has turned upside-down on the purple and gold. After a year of coaching changes, spacing issues, plantar fasciitis, defensive laziness, a torn Achilles, and enough “Dwama” to crash the servers of the ESPNLA website, the team is now on the outside looking in in the western conference playoff hunt in the eyes of many respected basketball analysts and writers.

But nonetheless, the team still possesses a lot of talent and if the gears all turn in the right direction they still hold the potential to make the postseason in a spot the Pelicans dearly want.

Key Matchups:

  • Kobe Bryant- Reports now say that Bryant (torn Achilles) should be ready to play again by the beginning of the 2013-14 season. If he’s in close to the same sort of shape he was in last season, he’ll still be the face of the offense. Annually, Bryant is among the league leaders in usage percentage. As a player that takes as many shot as he does, the team often lives and dies through whether or not his shooting was efficient. Defending Kobe can be a tricky task. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can be expected to trade off the duty of guarding the Black Mamba, with Anthony Davis playing a crucial role if Bryant attacks the basket. For years, the easy solution was to simply double-team Kobe. He was incredibly reluctant to pass and double-teaming him would increase the difficulty of the shots. However, lately Kobe is becoming much more competent passing out of double-teams. Here’s how Kobe ranks among 242 qualified NBA players in assist rate after January 25th last season:
    As you can see, Kobe Bryant is vastly improved in the passing spectrum of his game. Heck, the only non-point guard that accumulated assists at a higher rate than Bryant during this period was Lebron James. The key to playing against Kobe is to–as ridiculous as it sounds–make him beat you. Play an aggressive 1-on-1 defense against him the whole game with fresh legs. When Bryant is baited into taking an abundance of shots, the Lakers become more likely to lose. When Kobe takes at least 27 field goal attempts in a game, since the 10-11 season, the Lakers are just 16-20 (.444 win%), a far cry from the team’s overall winning percentage during that span.
  • Pick-and-Roll- With the installation of the Mike D’Antoni offense and the acquisition of Steve Nash, the Lakers quietly had one of the most proficient pick-and-roll games in the NBA. In the midst of a drama-filled season, unnoticed went the fact that the Lakers were 6th in the NBA in points per possession by the pick-and-roll roll man and 7th in the NBA in points per possession by the PnR ball handler. Over the off-season, the Lakers added another veteran highly familiar with the pick-and-roll in Chris Kaman, which should further bolster the team’s prowess running the play. As far as the Pelicans defense is concerned, the point guards need to work hard to fight through the screen. Pau Gasol has been given flack in the past for being a “soft” player at times. Although much of the criticism is unwarranted, he is certainly more of a ball-handling, footwork savvy, kind of big man than the physical, hard screening kind. The same can be said for Chris Kaman. These are guys that Jrue Holiday can get around the screens of with some quickness and stay on the ball handler (likely Steve Nash), allowing Anthony Davis to peel back and wait for Gasol/Kaman to roll towards the hoop. Whether Holiday should go over or under the screen depends nearly exclusively on the ball-handler. If it’s Kobe Bryant, go under and prevent an immediate drive to the basket. For Steve Nash, a historically great shooter, the obvious choice is to go over the screen. With smart pick-and-roll defense, the Pelicans can negate one of the biggest strengths from the Lakers.
  • Old Defensive Legs- At the start of the season the Lakers will start a 39-year old Steve Nash, a 28-year old Nick Young, a 35-year old Kobe Bryant, a 33-year old Pau Gasol and a 31-year old Chris Kaman. That makes a starting line-up with an average age of 33.2 years. Needless to say, they’ll be more than a bit lacking in lateral movement on the defensive end. The Lakers were 29th in the league in turnovers forced and 20th (last among all playoff teams) in defensive rating, allowing a tad fewer than 107 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, they allowed the second most fast break points in the NBA last season and were 23rd in the league, according to Synergy Sports Technology, in isolation defense last year. And this was with Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace. Now they have Chris Kaman and Nick Young, so the defensive numbers figure to worsen even further. How should the Pelicans attack this monstrosity of a team? They need to do three things to be successful. They need to pick up the tempo, forcing the ball down court at every chance. The acquisitions of Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday should help this effort. If New Orleans can beat LA to the other side of the floor, it makes offense tremendously easier. Secondly, the Pelicans need to screen. And screen. And screen. Screen on pick and rolls. Screen to open up cuts to the basket. Screen to free jump shooters. Ryan Anderson should be a weapon for the Pelicans. If he runs around screens on offense, Pau Gasol isn’t going to be able to nor have the will to keep up with him. The Pelicans could easily score 15 points solely from Anderson three pointers. Lastly, the Pelicans need to make sure that their offense never becomes stagnant. Even though the Lakers D seems abysmal on paper, they’re experienced players and if they’re able to sit back in position to stop a defense, they’ll find that the Lakers are much more capable defensively.
2013-14 Forecast: I expect the Pelicans to get the best of the Lakers in the coming season, both in the standings and head-to-head.

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