When Kobe Bryant went down with an ankle injury after landing on Atlanta’s Dahntay Jones following a shot attempt, the Lakers’ looked like they were in trouble. Initially it was unclear how long Kobe would be out, but he managed to suit up to start Friday’s game against the Pacers. That lasted all of one quarter before Bryant was back on the bench, and he will be listed as day-to-day for upcoming games.
Indiana jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter before the Lakers went on a run to pull within 3. The Pacers opened up their lead in part thanks to several early foul calls in the Dwight Howard–Roy Hibbert battle that saw both All-Star centers stuck to the bench for most of the first. With them out of the game, and with Indiana employing a healthy backup center in Ian Mahinmi, the Pacers were able to hold their advantage for most of the quarter.
When Howard returned, he managed to force Mahinmi into foul trouble as well, and the Pacers were forced to spend part of the game defending Howard with Jeff Pendergraph, a move that probably wasn’t in Frank Vogel’s game plan, and ultimately helped the Lakers secure the victory..
With Bryant slowed by his injury and then sitting out, the Lakers’ offense shifted from the usual Bryant-centric attack to leaning more heavily on Howard to generate shots. This came in the form of increased post-ups and pick-and-rolls led by the Steves (Nash and Blake). The Steve Nash-Dwight Howard P&R in particular was highly anticipated when the two joined the team over the summer, but due to injuries and the presence of Bryant they have not developed a strong chemistry together.
Part of the problem is that neither Nash nor Howard have been playing at their historic levels for most of the season. Nash is noticeably slower turning the corner, which is understandable given that he is closer to getting an AARP card than he is to his rookie year. As for Howard, his return from back surgery was not as smooth as L.A. had hoped, leading to a number of stiff performances on defense, especially early in the season. This does seem to be improving, with Dwight increasingly looking like his old self in the second half of the season.
Against the Pacers the Dwight-centered offense had a number of side-effects that helped the Lakers walk away with a victory on the road against a good team. In theory, the Pacers should be a very tough opponent for Howard since they have Hibbert to bottle him up in the post. However in practice Howard’s greatest impact can come when the opponent relies on their center.
The Pacers defense is built around Hibbert’s effectiveness protecting the rim, and he is also an important contributor to their offense. When Howard’s quickness led Hibbert to get into foul trouble early, the Lakers benefitted on both ends. Even while Dwight was on the bench due to his own foul trouble, the offense was able to operate without the massive Hibbert planted in the middle, and when he was on the floor he had to play less aggressively to avoid fouling out.
This effect is perhaps the most impactful facet of Howard’s game. When the ball is constantly in Kobe’s hands he will score, and he may do it efficiently, but that’s all he is doing. Dwight’s scoring comes with numerous other benefits. The defense must shrink around him, freeing additional space for shooters and cutters to operate, the Lakers will get to the line more often, and more opposing players will hit the bench because of foul trouble.
Shifting the offense to being primarily run through Howard would also have significant benefits for Bryant specifically. He would be able to work off the ball more on offense, allowing him to expend less energy and get easier shots. Currently he works hard for almost every point he gets, which shows on defense, where his effort on that end has been low for the last several years. With more time to rest on offense he could recommit himself on the defensive end, where the Lakers have the most room for improvement.
Of course the Lakers have many problems, not the least of which is their lack of depth, which leaves the team reeling whenever the starters are on the bench. Pau Gasol is expected to return soon from injury (although he did experience soreness in his injured foot after recent workouts), and when he does get back on the court the Lakers will be presented with an opportunity to leverage the unique skills all four of their future Hall-of-Famers.
With all of their major assets available, the Lakers should look to stagger playing time to paper over their depth problems and play more synergistic lineups. With some shifting of playing time the roster could be used to give time to a couple of different styles, rather than trying to force players who don’t fit well together to co-exist.
The first shift should be bringing Gasol off the bench and using him as the backup center. With Gasol out the Lakers have often been going center-less when Howard is on the bench, and playing Gasol behind him will correct this problem. It will also let Gasol work as the focal point of the offense in the post, rather than spotting up at the elbows, along the baseline, or, worst of all, behind the 3-point line, which he has done more per game than any other time in his career. To open games L.A. should focus on getting Howard the ball and wearing down the opposing front line. When he checks out, Gasol will can come in and feast on backups. The defense will never catch a break.
Nash and Bryant should also have their playing time staggered to a degree. While having the sharp-shooting Nash play next to Bryant can be helpful for offensive spacing, there is value in developing the Nash-Howard pick-and-roll. Removing Bryant from the equation earlier in the game would allow Dwight to become established and do his damage to opposing bigs. Splitting up Bryant’s minutes to include him in units featuring Gasol would also give the Lakers two elite inside-outside duos to batter opponents with throughout the entire game.
All four (with Metta World Peace) could then be brought together to close out games. Leaning on Howard, with a (probably literal) assist from Nash, early and then using Bryant and Gasol to clean up would put opponents in a bind and should be enough to get the Lakers into the playoffs, and possibly make some noise when they get there.