TrueHoop: Steve Nash
Special to ESPN.com
Damon Stoudamire was the first draft pick ever made by the franchise and the face of NBA basketball in Canada up to that point. But after two losing seasons with the expansion team and faced with another, the point guard demanded a trade. He wanted out.
He wouldn’t be the last.
Tracy McGrady left in 2000 in search of an opportunity to become a franchise player. Vince Carter, credited with putting the Raptors on the map during his six-year stint, famously followed. Chris Bosh never fully embraced the void left by Carter and was all too happy to ditch Toronto for Miami seven season later, burning bridges on his way out as he complained about getting the “good cable” and that “it’s all about being on TV at the end of the day.”
Those kind of remarks infuriate Canadian basketball fans. Sonny Weems also criticized the cable service. Antonio Davis worried about his children learning the metric system. And Othella Harrington, believe it or not, said the cream in the center of Vancouver’s Oreos tasted funny.
Each player who has left the country had his reasons, but whatever the rationale, the takeaway was often the same: Canada isn’t a place an NBA star can be happy.
Perhaps that’s why Steve Nash’s stretch with the Phoenix Suns resonated so much with Canadian fans. While technically born in South Africa, Nash grew up here, became the player he is here. If the Raptors’ stars wouldn't embrace the country, perhaps the country could embrace one of its own.
In January 2007, the Raptors, months away from their lone division title, hosted Nash’s Suns and staged a 15-point second-half comeback. But Nash scored 13 points in the final seven minutes, sending the crowd into a frenzy with each basket. He was burying the home team at the Air Canada Centre and ruining a chance to upset one of the league’s elite teams, but the fans loved it. He wasn’t some visiting player. He was one of us.
The dream, then, became to have Nash play in Toronto -- Canada’s greatest basketball export leading what was now Canada’s only team. Canadian fans went crazy in 2012 as then-general manager Bryan Colangelo tried to lure his former point guard home as a free agent. That effort ultimately proved fruitless, but it showed a clear desire among local fans to embrace one of their own.
Jay Triano, a Canadian who served as the Raptors’ head coach from 2008-11, has seen it firsthand.
“I felt it was an honor to be in that position,” said Triano, the coach of Canada’s national team and the only Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. “I think players are happy to be in the NBA. There wouldn’t be extra pressure, but maybe extra demands on their time.”
As it stands, Jamaal Magloire is the only Canadian to have played for the Raptors, in a one-season, 34-game victory lap in 2011-12.
That could soon change. A record nine Canadian players can currently be found on NBA rosters, and it’s hardly a coincidence. Guys like Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are a product of the first generation to grow up with basketball in this country, and the hope is that more Canadians in the league “will drive more athletes out to the playground and grow that basketball culture,” as Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of Canada’s men’s team, put it.
When Nash won his second straight MVP award, Andrew Wiggins was 11 years old. Now the Kansas freshman is the unquestioned face of Canadian basketball, and the new homegrown product Raptors fans have chosen as their savior. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is reportedly enamored with the idea of bringing the kid from Thornhill -- 25 minutes away from the Air Canada Centre -- to Toronto, too.
Perhaps most importantly, Wiggins seems to want to play here. When asked in July who he’d most like to be drafted by, Wiggins said: “I would like to say the Raptors. I want to play for them.”
If attracting and retaining players is difficult, building around a home-grown potential All-Star who wants to play for you is an absolute best-case scenario.
Trading Rudy Gay on Dec. 9 was viewed by fans as a sign that the Raptors were doing what they could to make that happen. The team is still too talented to tank properly, especially given how putrid the Eastern Conference is, but more moves to push them higher in the draft lottery may be coming.
“One thing I can say is we won’t be stuck in the middle, we won’t be in no-man’s land,” Ujiri said last week.
Nineteen years after the birth of the NBA in Canada, basketball’s presence in Canada probably isn’t as large as what was expected. This is unquestionably a hockey country, making the experience of a Canadian basketball fan a peculiar one. Perhaps that’s why, despite being smaller in numbers, Raptors fans are regarded as one of the most rabid and passionate groups in the league. Outcasts in their own country and afterthoughts on a league scale, they’re ready to put everything into a winning team or, failing that, a top Canadian player, as we saw with Nash.
It feels almost cruel, then, that the 2014 NBA draft is dangling a potential merger of those two interests above their heads. But given how things have gone in the first two decades of Raptors basketball, even a 25 percent chance at Wiggins is worth dreaming on.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant and Pau Gasol wonder what could have been as time runs out on the Lakers' season.
Let us count the ways, with significant help from the Elias Sports Bureau.
• The San Antonio Spurs outscored the Lakers by 18.8 points per game in their four-game sweep. Elias tells us that is tied for the fourth-largest points per game differential in a best-of-seven series in NBA history and the worst by the Lakers in franchise history.
The biggest in any series was 25.3 points in a four-game sweep by the Orlando Magic over the Atlanta Hawks in the 2010 Eastern Conference semis.
• The Lakers have now lost six straight playoff games dating back to last season. That matches the longest playoff losing streak in franchise history. They previously lost six in a row from 1973 to 1974 and 1991 to 1992.
• Dating back to his stints with the Suns and Knicks, Mike D’Antoni is 1-14 in his last 15 playoff games as head coach. Elias says the only other coach in league history to lose 14 of 15 in the postseason is current NBA broadcaster Mike Fratello. His worst span was losing 16 of 17 from 1995 to 2006 while with the Cavaliers and Grizzlies.
• The Lakers lost the final two games of their series against the Spurs by 31 and 21 points, respectively. In doing so, they became just the second team in NBA history to lose consecutive home playoff games by at least 20 points, joining the Miami Heat who did so against the Hornets in the 2001 first round.
• Since the playoffs expanded to eight teams per conference in 1983-84, the Lakers are now 0-5 in playoff series as the 7 or 8 seed. It should come as little surprise that they struggled against the 2-seed Spurs as the Lakers went 4-14 during the regular season against the top five seeds in the Western Conference including a 1-2 mark against San Antonio.
• The Lakers’ stars struggled with injuries for much of the season and it all came to a head on April 12 when Kobe Bryant was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. When they did have Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard in the lineup together, they went 8-14 in 22 games.
• Additionally, the Lakers’ expected starting five of Nash, Bryant, Gasol, Howard and Metta World Peace played only 189 minutes and 11 seconds together - just 4.8 percent of the team's total minutes played during the regular season.
Bryant is out indefinitely and if he misses Friday's game at Indiana, it would be the third time in the last four seasons that he has missed at least one game in a season.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lakers are 611-350 (.636) with Bryant and 41-32 (.562) without him since 2000.
Bryant has been remarkably durable over the course of his career, especially as he’s gotten older. He’s actually missed fewer games as he’s risen in age.
Prior to the 2007-08 season, Bryant missed a number of games with various injuries.
He missed the first 15 games of the 1999-2000 season after breaking his right hand during the Lakers preseason game against the Wizards. The Lakers didn't miss Bryant though going 11-4 without him during their run to their first NBA title under Phil Jackson.
Bryant missed six games in January 2004 after injuring his surgically-repaired shoulder against the Cavaliers. He came back for two games and then missed seven more with a cut in his index finger.
The next season, Bryant missed a month after spraining his ankle against Cleveland in January. The Lakers weren’t able to recover as they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1993-94 season.
Bryant has more than tripled the scoring of the next closest Laker in crunch time this season and has taken half of the teams shots in those situations. Entering Wednesday, Bryant scored 122 points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter with the score within five. Only Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James had scored more in crunch time.
Bryant’s injury would only add to the number of games missed by the Lakers Big 4 this season. Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have missed a combined 60 games this season.
Accuscore runs computer simulations to determine team win-loss probabilities.
The Lakers chance of winning each of their next three games can be seen in the chart on the right.
If Bryant only misses three games, it shouldn't have much of an impact on the Lakers' playoff chances. Accuscore gives them a 71 percent chance of making the playoffs if he plays in those games, a 69 percent chance of making it if he misses the next three.
Isaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant can both reach notable statistical marks in the near-future.
James is presently averaging 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. If he finishes the season pushing the assist numbers up a smidge, he could be the first player to average a 27-8-7 line since Michael Jordan in 1988-89.
Only three other players besides Jordan have averaged those numbers for a full season- Oscar Robertson (five times), John Havlicek (twice) and Larry Bird (once).
Kobe Bryant enters the post-All-Star Break portion with 30,933 points. That’s 486 points behind Wilt Chamberlain for fourth-most all-time.
At his current scoring rate of 26.8 points per game, he would pass Chamberlain on March 28 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Bryant’s teammate, Steve Nash, should move into fourth place all-time on the NBA’s assist list pretty soon. His 10,137 assists are four shy of Magic Johnson.
The Lakers playoff push
We detailed the state of Los Angeles basketball last week, but just to offer a quick recap from a Lakers perspective:
The Lakers have made the playoffs 34 times since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77, the most of any team.
But with a 25-29 record and a .463 winning percentage, the Lakers are on pace for their third-worst season since the merger, trailing only the 33-49 team from 1993-94 and the 34-48 team from 2004-05.
The Mavericks playoff push
The Mavericks are in danger of having their playoff streak come to an end at 12 straight seasons.
The Mavericks got off to a 13-23 start and only five teams had given up more points per 100 possessions through January 9 than they did.
But since then they’ve won 10 of 16 and rank fourth in offensive efficiency and first in turnover percentage.
The Mavericks remaining opponents winning percentage (.511) ranks seventh-toughest in the NBA. The good news for them is that two of the teams they’re chasing down from the No. 11 spot- the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz- face the toughest and third-toughest remaining schedules respectively.
The bad news is that two of the other teams- the Houston Rockets and Lakers- face the fifth-easiest and 11th-easiest remaining schedules
The Bulls without Derrick Rose
The Chicago Bulls are 30-22, 1½ games behind the Indiana Pacers for the Central Division lead. Point guard Derrick Rose’s status remains uncertain.
The Bulls averaged 110.7 points per 100 possessions with Rose on the court last season. This season, that has dropped to 103.5 points per 100 possessions (10th-lowest in the NBA). The Bulls have gone from outscoring teams by better than eight points per game last season to outscoring them by just 1.6 per game this season.
One other oddity: the Bulls have a better road record (15-9) than home record (15-12).
The last .500+ team to finish the season with a better road record than home record was the 2009-10 Boston Celtics -- a team Tom Thibodeau knows something about since he was an assistant coach on their staff, his last year there before leaving for the Bulls. That team reached the NBA Finals before losing in the Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
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Chris Paul and Steve Nash: System quarterbacks?
The NBA is a superstar league, but it’s often governed by systems. “The system” can be a monument or a mess. It can bring out the best in some players while alienating others. If executed to perfection, it can win a team a title. A system can delight purists, annoy the casual fan and drive a wedge between a coach and management. A system is philosophy, physics, architecture and chaos theory all rolled up into one.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, 2012-13 has been the Season of the System. Mike Brown was fired for a failure to effectively implement his Princeton offense, then succeeded by Mike D’Antoni, the architect of a high-octane spread pick-and-roll system that’s been appropriated by coaches all over the league. Had many Lakers fans had their druthers, Phil Jackson would’ve returned to re-institute the triangle, the gold standard of modern-day systems.
Back in November, when Los Angeles was engulfed in system overload the week Brown was dismissed and D’Antoni hired, Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was asked which system he deployed.
“Chris Paul,” Del Negro said.
Del Negro wasn’t being flip or coy. The question was straightforward, and he offered the best approximation of his team’s blueprint when it had the ball -- the Chris Paul System.
“All those names and all that stuff,” Del Negro said of the Princeton, the spread, seven seconds or less, etc. “You just put the ball in the best player's hands.”
To Del Negro and Paul, the NBA is a superstar league, and the offense they run is dictated by Paul. In the Clippers’ world, his instincts take precedent over any dogma. That intuition is rooted in strong principles. Paul will probe, but he’s meticulous and patient, and in the half court he’ll rarely act until the defense is leveraged.
“On offense, you just try to make the right play,” Paul said. “Every time I come down the court, I want to make sure that two people have to guard me, no matter what. If I’m in a ball screen, I want to make two people have to guard me and then somebody is going to be open.”
Draw the defense, make the play. Apart from that, there’s no defined program etched into the Clippers’ playbook. A system has principles, but not every principle belongs to a system.
Down the hallway at Staples Center, D’Antoni subscribes to a different basketball value system, but his doctrine has been a tough sell in Los Angeles, particularly to his big men. In the confines of D’Antoni’s system, size and length aren’t virtues unto themselves. Big men have the same imperatives within the offense as the little guys -- they must stay in motion, move the ball and keep the paint vacant so that there’s space for drives and cuts. Want to make yourself useful? Set a drag screen, make a quick pass from the high post, do anything that keeps the offense moving.
For Pau Gasol prior to his injury and Dwight Howard, who’s nursing one of his own, D’Antoni’s system has been vexing. Gasol won championships in a triple post offense, while Howard feels he can bully anyone on the left block if you just feed him the ball. All the while, Steve Nash, who flourished under D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix, has remained quiet on strategic matters, and Kobe Bryant has largely turned the conversation away from a debate over tactics and toward a discussion about urgency.
For all the comparisons drawn between the Lakers and the Clippers -- their disparate histories, the organizational credo, even Clipper Darrell versus the Lakers Bros -- the most prominent contrast this season among basketball junkies in Los Angeles has been the strategic visions of each team. The Clippers have found harmony in simplicity, while the Lakers have butted heads over academic differences. The Clippers make plays, as Paul says, while the Lakers lock horns.
The great irony in all this? The two teams rank seventh and eighth in offensive efficiency. The Clippers score 106.1 points per 100 possessions, while the Lakers score 104.8. Over the course of your average NBA game, that amounts to approximately one Dwight Howard missed free throw.
The daylight between the two teams, who square off Thursday night in their third meeting this season, is on the defensive end, something that often gets lost amid the contentiousness surrounding the Lakers and whatever competing agendas exist in their camp.
Neither team features a hard-and-fast system on that end of the floor, but the Clippers rely on the same brand of simplicity that drives their offense -- maximize strengths like speed and athleticism, and communicate when a situation calls for clarity. Howard was supposed to be the Lakers’ defensive strength -- the Chris Paul of rim protection, the guy who when a defensive possession went awry could quickly erase the mistakes. Only it hasn’t played out that way -- there is no “Dwight Howard System” in Los Angeles yet.
Do NBA teams need systems to fall back on, as D’Antoni maintains? Can common sense trump organization on the court when the stakes are raised, as Paul and Del Negro believe? There’s probably a happy medium -- but right now, the Clippers are more happy, while the Lakers are more medium.
Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Opposing guards have been scoring over Steve Nash with ease.
For the Lakers it was yet another road loss on Wednesday night, this time to the Grizzlies. With that, just about everybody's preseason favorites to win it all, the Lakers, have fallen -- according to John Hollinger's automated playoff odds -- to just 18.5 percent likely to even make the playoffs.
The Lakers' offense, while nothing as effective as imagined, is good: Currently sixth best in the NBA.
But it's the defense where the team is stuck in the pack, tied for 19th, back in the territory where nobody is a threat to win any titles.
Barring a miracle comeback, whole books will be written about what has gone wrong this season. And any such book would need a chapter on Steve Nash's defense.
It’s the fourth quarter Monday night, and the Bulls are leading the Lakers 77-75 with six minutes to play. They need a hoop.
So they go to Kirk Hinrich.
Not because Hinrich is their best scorer.
Because Nash is guarding him, and the Bulls like to see Nash under pressure.
It’s a wise move. Nash has never been a defender with great strength or recovery speed. But despite his limitations he has long been graded, by Synergy, as average defending pick-and-rolls. The video shows that's because in Phoenix he collaborated with teammates like Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Robin Lopez to do just enough to take away the easiest looks. (In Phoenix, it was defending isolation plays where Nash really struggled.)
But Nash enjoys far less help from his teammates on the Lakers. Late in the game against Chicago, it hurt the Lakers repeatedly. On consecutive late-game possessions, the Bulls attempted a Boozer-Hinrich pick-and-roll on the right side. Hinrich scored twice.
That’s how it has gone all year. As a matter of course, Nash goes under just about every screen he can -- seldom fighting up and around the screens. He doesn’t have the length or leaping ability to disrupt a ballhandler from behind the play, so he tries to keep his chest between his man and the hoop as much as possible, even if it means giving him space.
In Phoenix, big men would do what they could to keep Nash's man from being all alone with the ball. Typically that meant hedging hard -- shuffling feet and body to guide the dribbler toward half court, giving Nash time to race under the screen and recover to his man.
They weren’t the most athletic bunch of pick-and-roll defenders, those Suns, but they looked like the 2008 Celtics compared Nash's current frontcourt teammates.
In L.A., when Nash slips under a screen, his help -- typically Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol -- stays firmly rooted in the paint, unwilling or unable to slow the oncoming ball-handler until he's nearing the basket. Gone is the hedging that sent Nash's man far from the hoop, lost is the time Nash once enjoyed to recover to the proper position.
Why? Howard was once one of the most nimble big men in the NBA, but since his back operation almost a year ago and more recently a labrum issue, he has been moving like a tin man in need of an oil change. Gasol is also recovering from injuries -- he has missed games with knee trouble and a concussion. It's no wonder both have generally opted to remain near the rim where their size might bail them out.
Nash has got his own problems guarding this action, and now it's compounded by teammates hanging him out to dry. Ball-handlers, Synergy says, are making a mighty 51 percent of their shots in pick-and-rolls against Nash. That places him in the bottom 12 percent of the NBA, despite the fact that only 16 percent of the shot attempts off of Nash-defended pick-and-roll have been layups.
Is Nash himself the problem? During the Suns’ best years (2005-2010), Phoenix never had a really good defense, but they didn’t get much worse on that end when Nash was on the court. And as Nash aged, the Suns used more zones to protect him. The whole team, from a schematic sense, was designed to cover up Nash’s flaws.
Contrast that with the Lakers, who have done little to cover for him on defense, other than switching Kobe Bryant onto the point guard when possible -- a move that has coincided with a severe decline Bryant’s offensive output.
As a result, Nash doesn’t help the offense nearly as much as he might otherwise, and the Lakers defense is significantly worse when he’s on the court.
Nash is said to be the ultimate team player, someone who cares deeply about the feelings of his teammates and enjoys their on court successes as much as they do. But the irony is that in order to help his team, everyone else on the court has to buy in to serving Nash’s style. That type of cohesiveness to any one style, let alone Nash's preferred system, is painfully absent in Los Angeles and it’s leaving Nash isolated, exposed and on many plays, especially on defense, hurting his team.
You can check out a visual of Nash's most frequent targets below, but here are some highlights:
- The player on the other end of the most Nash assists was, naturally, former pick-and-roll partner Amar'e Stoudemire, the only player to top 1,000 assists (1,155). That means Nash has more assists just to Stoudemire than his replacement in Phoenix, Goran Dragic, has in his entire career (1,124).
- Nash might still be most connected to Dirk Nowitzki (797), who checks in third after Shawn Marion (823). But because Nowitzki has the ability to create his own shot, he never got 200 assists from Nash in a single season, a mark Marcin Gortat reached last season despite the lockout-shortened season.
- The most amusing group might be the 10 players Nash assisted precisely once. It includes not only Dennis Rodman, during Rodman's short-lived stint with the Dallas Mavericks in 1999-00, but also Sam Cassell (who played 22 games in Phoenix before being dealt to Dallas as part of the package for Jason Kidd) and former Dallas and Brooklyn head coach Avery Johnson.
- Naturally, the list also includes one mayor (Kevin Johnson, six; not Fred Hoiberg).
- Lakers forward Antawn Jamison wins the award for longest period between Nash assists. He got 107 as a member of the Mavericks in 2002-03, plus two so far this season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
- Nash has assisted 27 All-Stars: Cassell, Jamison, Johnson, Kidd, Marion, Nowitzki, Rodman, Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Michael Finley, Pau Gasol, Tim Hardaway, Grant Hill, Dwight Howard, Josh Howard, Juwan Howard, Joe Johnson, Christian Laettner, Danny Manning, Antonio McDyess, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Redd, Clifford Robinson, Nick Van Exel, Antoine Walker and Metta World Peace.
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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant: Respective leaders of two teams whose identities were on full display.
The Lakers and Clippers entered Friday night’s matchup in entirely different moods. Even though the Clippers were coming off back-to-back road losses to Denver and Golden State, the feeling around the team was still rosy as it took the floor. Meanwhile, the Lakers entered the game winners of six of their past eight, but a sub-.500 record meant there was still a long shadow cast over them. The Lakers didn’t seem much closer to answering the hard questions, and the team’s struggles were every bit as stubborn as the Clippers’ success was exciting.
Live basketball has a way of confirming our broad perceptions of the teams on the court, and there was a brief sequence at the end of the third quarter that captured the contrasts with poetic symbolism.
With about 37 seconds left in the quarter, Kobe Bryant got a high screen from Pau Gasol. As DeAndre Jordan stood poised to corral Bryant, Kobe steered laterally across the court, left to right. Lamar Odom didn’t think twice about leaving Jordan Hill to pick up Bryant, who was now being pursued by both Odom and Matt Barnes. Gasol had a layer of space around him in the lane and Hill had sole ownership of the baseline, but Bryant twirled, stepped back and elevated for a fadeaway 20-footer -- which he drained.
The Clippers didn’t blink. Eric Bledsoe collected the ball as it went through the cylinder, inbounded to Chris Paul, who raced up the left sideline against an unsuspecting Lakers’ defense. As Paul steered in his direction, Hill moved away from Jordan to stop the ball, which was precisely what Paul was waiting for. With Jordan all alone on the far side, Paul flung a lob at the rim, which Jordan caught with two hands and slammed home.
Bryant manufactured a tough shot for himself, then six seconds later Paul found an easy shot for someone else. Both shots were successful, but there was absolutely no parallel to the respective processes.
We saw a similar dynamic at work defensively in the game’s final minute, with the Clippers leading 101-97 as the Lakers brought the ball up.
The Lakers got into a set we’ve seen them run a fair amount since Steve Nash returned. Nash dished the ball off to Bryant just beyond half court, then set a screen for Bryant. The Clippers willfully went into a switch, which meant Paul was now responsible for Bryant while Barnes picked up Nash.
The first reaction was skepticism -- wouldn’t you want the taller defender (Barnes) on Bryant, who seemed destined to step back and launch another bomb from distance? But as Gasol stalked to the top of the floor to screen Paul, Odom (Gasol’s man) joined Paul to blitz Bryant. Before long, Bryant was pinned against the time line. After desperately hurling the ball cross-court to Nash, Bryant eventually got it back and heaved a 25-footer, which spun in and out.
On the subsequent possession, the Clippers got into a 1-4 flat scheme, with Paul dribbling the ball alone at the top of the floor opposite Bryant. Griffin eventually arrived to offer Paul a step-up screen, but Paul told him to return low. During that sequence, Griffin had dragged Gasol with him and, had the Lakers wanted to, they could’ve trapped Paul with Bryant and Gasol -- much the way the Clippers forced the ball out of Bryant’s hands on the preceding possession by smothering him with Barnes and Odom.
But the Lakers chose not to. Instead, Paul crossed Bryant over behind his back, bought himself some space in the process, then drained a 20-footer to give the Clippers a six-point lead with 19.9 seconds remaining.
After the game, Mike D’Antoni explained the risk of sending a second defender at Paul in that situation.
“They’ve got some other good guys,” D’Antoni said. “Right in the middle of the floor, [Paul] is really good at finding the right guy, so you could try [double-teaming], but you’ve got one of the best defenders in the NBA on him, and [Paul] makes an unbelievable shot. After he makes it, you go, ‘Oh, Man!’ But you don’t know that he’s going to make that shot. You’ve got to give him credit. But to double the guy right in the middle of the floor is tough -- with him especially, because he passes the ball so well.”
D’Antoni made a legitimate point. There are about a dozen things that can go wrong by sending an additional guy at Paul. Had Gasol remained at the top of the floor, Paul could’ve split the defenders and the Clippers would’ve been playing 5-on-3, something we’ve seen a zillion times before over the course of Paul’s career. He could've made a heroic pass to a cutter or an open shooter.
Sure, there’s risk in doubling Paul at that juncture, but why not deploy some aggressiveness and exhibit some creativity? Why not take a chance by blitzing Paul with Bryant and Gasol, then have either Jodie Meeks or Metta World Peace, who were guarding Caron Butler and Lamar Odom well beyond the arc on the left side, rotate onto Griffin in the paint?
Maybe Paul can successfully sling the ball across his body to Odom in the left corner. And maybe Odom drains a wide-open 3-pointer before a defender can close. Or maybe Odom drives baseline against a hard close and ends up with an easy dunk at the rim.
But you’re a 15-16 team that can’t find itself defensively. Why not err on the side of ingenuity, especially if it means Chris Paul won’t beat you one-on-one, something he’d been doing for the better part of the night?
The Clippers are making those kinds of calculated risks almost every night -- something they didn’t do a lot last season. And that’s why they’re sitting atop the Pacific Division while the Lakers continue to search for answers and lament their lack of youth or footspeed.
These instances aren’t about age. They’re about decision-making.
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Steve Nash's floater has been accurate since his return from a broken leg.
Since coming back from his leg injury, Steve Nash has helped the Lakers to wins over the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks -- the Lakers' best victories of the young season. Nash has averaged 14 points and 10 assists in those contests and infused the Lakers with a greater sense of organization and purpose on offense.
Here's a look at what Nash has been up to since his return:
Shooting running one-handed floaters
The Lakers’ first two points on Christmas came off a Nash running floater on which he picked up his dribble just behind the free throw line and casually, delicately lofted the ball in without ever touching it with his off hand. Nash has a way of performing trick shots like that one with an earnestness that suggests he’s practiced the shot hundreds of times.
Over the past few seasons Nash has lost some of his quickness, and he’s no longer the same threat he once was to take the ball all the way to the rim. He now relies on his expansive arsenal of in-between shots, including floaters, leaning jump shots off the wrong foot, and the occasional running hook shot to keep the defense honest.
Initiating the pick-and-roll early in the shot clock
Behold: the power of the early shot clock pick-and-roll!
Running high pick-and-rolls, often with Dwight Howard as the big man trailing the play, doesn’t directly lead to a hoop all that often. But what it does is to pull the defense out of position with around 18 seconds left on the shot clock, plenty of time for the Lakers to work for a good shot. And even when Howard doesn’t get the ball on the roll, the action helps him establish ideal post position near the basket.
Setting good screens
The Lakers have made productive use of Nash’s relatively unexplored powers as a screener, particularly when Pau Gasol has the ball in the high post. Nash will pass into Gasol and cut through, either to find his teammate’s defender in the corner or to sneak behind Howard’s defender to set up a lob pass. Gasol is a fantastic passer and is starting to develop better chemistry with Howard, in particular, on these sets. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks and Metta World Peace all scored against the Knicks -- the latter two on 3-pointers -- by coming off Nash picks out of this corner screen look.
Turning the ball over
Like many hyper-creative point guards, Nash has always been a bit loose with the ball and has a habit of jumping to pass (and a knack for getting away with it). But as he’s slowed down and become less elusive with his dribble, he’s also become easier to trap. The combination of age and weaker teammates sent his turnover per possession rate skyrocketing last season. Though he's kept his turnovers in check in the few games he's played this season, how he responds to serious ball pressure, something that’s troubled him more than it used to over the past couple of seasons, is still something to monitor.
Playing the two-man game with Kobe Bryant
The Lakers haven’t yet had opportunity to explore this look fully, but the Nash-Bryant two-man game has the potential to be absolutely devastating. Defenses will often switch when these two run pick-and-rolls, leaving the point guard on Bryant, who excels at punishing smaller players from the post. In response, the defense will usually send a double-team. If the double comes from Nash’s man, Bryant can kick it out and let a great decision-maker attack a 4-on-3. If the double comes from the weak side, Bryant will have two massive targets in Gasol and Howard cutting toward the basket.
Nash is also great at feathering in a post entry pass, and can hit Bryant without forcing him to relinquish his position to catch the ball.
Giving the Lakers a new go-to play
With the Knicks within a few points and the game entering the last five minutes, Nash and Howard ran the high pick-and-roll on six of the next nine Lakers possessions. The result:
- Howard dunk on the roll
- Howard fouled on the roll, makes one free throw
- Nash creates a driving gap for World Peace, who loses the ball at the rim.
- Howard fouled on the roll, makes both free throws
- Nash makes 10-foot jumper
- Nash misses floater
Seven points on six plays isn’t cause for a parade, but it’s worth noting that Bryant was not involved in the majority of Lakers possessions in the last five minutes.
Getting hung up on screens
Whether he’s defending a point guard in a pick-and-roll or chasing someone such as Klay Thompson around picks off the ball, Nash has trouble navigating screens. On the ball, he lacks the quickness to recover if he gets out of position, and he’s too small to much bother big, jump shooting guards when they're running off screens.
The Lakers will do what they can to hide him defensively, and Nash is a responsible team defender who will be in the right position off the ball. Against the Warriors’ three-guard lineup, there was nowhere to stash Nash that Golden State couldn’t exploit. But he did better against the Knicks when New York played three guards and Nash could focus on staying attached to Jason Kidd along the 3-point line.
The Lakers improved to just 9-9 in Mike D'Antoni's tenure as head coach, but they've won the last five games. In this one, they looked the way they were expected to look, with a healthy big three that included point guard Steve Nash.
Nash had his best game and the Lakers had one of their better efforts. Here's a look at the key stats to know:
1-- Bryant broke the NBA record for most career points scored on Dec. 25, passing Oscar Robertson. Bryant had his ninth straight game with at least 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in his NBA career. He’s the first player with a nine-game streak since Amar’e Stoudemire had one for the Knicks two seasons ago.
Bryant was 8-for-8 on shots taken in the paint, a significant improvement from the meeting with the Knicks two weeks ago at Madison Square Garden. He was 3-for-8 on shots in the paint in that game.
Bryant improved to 24-13 in head-to-head matchups against Carmelo Anthony, combining the regular season and postseason.
2-- Nash had a season-high 11 assists for the Lakers. Mike D’Antoni improved to 230-83 (.735) as a head coach in games in which Nash played for his team, compared to 167-265 when Nash didn’t play (.387 winning percentage).
Six of Nash's 11 assists came on baskets inside the restricted area, matching his total for his previous three games this season combined.
3-- Led by Bryant’s dominance inside, the Lakers outscored the Knicks in the paint, 46-26. In the two games against the Knicks, they outscored them 80-58 in the paint. The Lakers shot 61 percent in the paint in this game, compared to just 42 percent for the Knicks. The Knicks were 10-for-23 on shots taken from inside five feet.
The Knicks were hurt by Raymond Felton's 4-for-12 shooting in the paint. Felton is now shooting 45 percent in the paint this season.
4-- The Knicks lost despite committing only 11 turnovers, which is unusual for them. They are 16-2 this season in games in which they commit 11 turnovers or fewer. They also dropped to 3-3 in games in which Carmelo Anthony has scored 34 points or more.
5-- Our "Stat of the Game", courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau: This was the third matchup of the NBA’s top two scorers to take place on Dec. 25.
On the previous two occasions, the player who was No. 2 in scoring was on the winning team (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the 1972-73 Milwaukee Bucks and George Gervin for the 1977-78 San Antonio Spurs).
The No. 1 scorer was on the losing end (Tiny Archibald for the 1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings and Pete Maravich for the 1977-78 New Orleans Jazz) in both of those games.
But in this contest, the No. 1 scorer topped the No. 2.
ESPN Stats & Information
Holiday, who will lead the Philadelphia 76ers into their division matchup with the Boston Celtics on Friday (ESPN, 7 ET) is averaging career highs in points per game (18.2), assists per game (9.3) and player efficiency rating (18.5) this season.
If he keeps up this pace of 18 points and nine assists per game, he would be one of four players since 2000 to have those averages along with Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams.
Even though Holiday is leading the NBA in turnovers with more than four per game, the 76ers as a team have the second-lowest turnover percentage (12.6). With a career-high usage rate percentage of 26, the turnovers are expected to be high. At his current averages, Holiday would join Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas (1986-87) and Magic Johnson (1988-89) as the only players with 18 points, nine assists and four turnovers per game for a season.
No team is dependent on one player to create their offense as much as the 76ers are on Holiday. He has been responsible for 43 percent of his team’s total points this season, which leads the NBA. The “points responsible for” statistic includes offense generated from assists and points scored.
Holiday also leads the NBA in efficiency on isolation plays with a points-per-play average of 1.17 (minimum 30 plays), up from .89 last season.
Holiday is creating high-percentage opportunities for himself and his teammates. Last season he had a 47 effective field goal percentage (gives extra weight to 3-pointers) on isolation plays. This season he’s at 59 percent.
The pick-and-roll is a big part of every point guard’s repertoire to go along with isolations. Holiday is no different, as 59 percent of his offense either comes from the pick-and-roll or isolations, compared to last season when 46 percent of his offense came from those plays.
With high usage rate in those play types Holiday has made drastic improvement in his shooting percentage from 42 percent last season to 46 this season on pick-and-rolls and isolations.
The 76ers are 10-8 without a single former All-Star active on their roster. Key offseason acquisition Andrew Bynum is still not healthy enough to suit up. However, Holiday almost singlehandedly has kept the 76ers in the playoff hunt.
It will be interesting to see how Holiday fares with a national audience against a superstar point guard, Rajon Rondo, who is also top five in points responsible for and leads the league in assists at nearly 13 per game.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
Mike D'Antoni: The revolutionary idealist.
Name: Mike D’Antoni
Birthdate: May 8, 1951
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
D'Antoni doesn't involve himself in the granular X's and O's of the game so much as he's engaged in a campaign to revolutionize basketball with his tactical principles. Few coaches of this era have influenced today's NBA to the degree D'Antoni has. His contemporaries -- even the most accomplished ones -- deal in battlefield strategy, while D'Antoni is much more of a game theorist. His teams craft their offenses around a few simple sets designed to produce quick results, and the principles guiding those schemes like tempo and spacing are more vital than the minutiae of the plays themselves. Stick to those principles, make smart reads, and you'll be successful.
Many revolutions have anthems, but not D'Antoni's, which features few rah-rah speeches or rallying cries. D'Antoni motivates his players by offering them a system that's fun.
Is he intense or a "go along, get along" type?
Although he's a notorious sideline kvetch, D'Antoni usually carries himself with a loose, casual air, although New York clearly tested his temperament. He projects calm around his team and will rarely rip a guy except behind closed doors, but he is also intensely competitive.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
Throughout his career, D'Antoni has demonstrated a fundamental devotion to his system, one that preaches attacking immediately, spreading the floor and forcing defenses to react instantly. Players who can't shoot, move the ball, make quick decisions or aren't in condition to run the floor won't see big minutes for D'Antoni, who isn't all that interested in compromising his system to accommodate these shortcomings. For instance, it's nearly impossible to imagine a Mike D'Antoni team playing a power, inside game. It simply isn't in his nature to build an offense around posting up a traditional big. Post-ups become isolations, and isolations breed stasis, which defies the principles of what's popularly known as Seven Seconds or Less.
If D'Antoni wants to post a guy up, he'll do it off pick-and-roll movement, or by running a flex screen way, way off the lane. But you won't see any hulking big men with their paws in the air asking for a simple entry pass from a wing stationed on the perimeter. That simply isn't why Mike D'Antoni got into this business.
Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
His fierce belief in his system and his ego make him The Decider, unless, of course, the star player subscribes unreservedly to the system, as was the case with Steve Nash in Phoenix, but clearly not so with Carmelo Anthony in New York. D'Antoni tried to sell Anthony on the notion that the system makes the game easier than BullyBall does, that it allows a player like Anthony to be more efficient, and that it would tax his body less. Did this pitch make Anthony feel as if his coach didn't believe in his game? On a conceptual level, D'Antoni might not have. These were real artistic differences between Anthony and D'Antoni. Anthony was a conventional basketball player playing for coach who sees shattering convention as a personal mission. Even if you believe D'Antoni was right all along, is it possible he defended the ideal at the expense of problem-solving? The dynamic that materializes between D'Antoni and Kobe Bryant will inform this question a great deal once everyone settles in.
Executive decision-making aside, D'Antoni needs players who can make decisions -- and fast -- because his system requires so many instantaneous reads.
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
The explosive scorer, and shooters more than isolation scorers. D'Antoni has traditionally believed his team's best chance of winning occurs when it's putting up 110 points. His allergy to defense is overstated, but he can't accomplish what he wants to as a coach unless there's offensive versatility on the floor. In particular, bigs need to be able to shoot the ball, because that will draw opposing shot-blockers away from the basket, thereby creating space in the middle of the floor for everyone else.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
D'Antoni prefers a set rotation. He believes in the guys that he believes in, and during the halcyon days in Phoenix, that often meant no more than seven players, each for heavy minutes. His teams don't overpractice and are given a fair amount of rest. So far as game situations, they rarely take precedent over doctrine. Let the other team adjust.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his grizzled veterans?
Despite being an outside-the-box coach, D'Antoni tends to trust the vets because they’re more likely to comprehend a system and make smart decisions on the fly. Yet his most successful teams in Phoenix were populated with a bunch of young guys. The starters on the 62-win 2004-05 team were 30 (Nash), 26 (Shawn Marion), 24 (Quentin Richardson), 23 (Joe Johnson) and 22 (Amar'e Stoudemire). And three of the six 30-minute-a-night players on the 61-win team in 2006-07 were 24 years old, while Marion was still only 28.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
A basketball possession is best maximized early in the shot clock. It's during this narrow window when the defense is most vulnerable to attack and the offense controls space on the court. Once the defense gets set, it controls the layer of space around each offensive player, the passing lanes and the basket area. But during those first few seconds, it's squatter's rights in the half-court. If as an offensive player you can stake claim to the corner, it's yours -- and the ball will find you there before a defender can close. If you're a rolling big man, then set a drag screen early while the defense is backpedaling, then dive to the basket. The defense will either collapse, allowing the point guard to find any number of open perimeter shooters, or the ball will be delivered to you with your momentum carrying you toward the basket against a disoriented defense. By pushing the ball, a team can find mismatches, and keeping the middle of the floor open creates all sorts of vectors for drives and cuts. As D'Antoni's players move with purpose at high speed on offense, they must think about the most logical place to run.
In the half court, D'Antoni's offense often generates movement by having the ball handler dribble sharply at a teammate to whom he'll either hand the ball off or use to rub off the pursuing defender to get just enough space to launch a quick-release jumper. Since the defense is stretched thin and constantly lured to the arc, the interior is open for back door cuts (see Marion, Shawn).
These seem like logical precepts, but prior to D'Antoni's success in Phoenix, few NBA staffs adhered to them. D'Antoni is fiercely proud of the system he's popularized, an offense that features interchangeable parts, delights spectators and inspires players. One gets the impression that as much as D'Antoni wants to win a title, he could retire happily knowing he left a profound imprint on the game he loves.
What were his characteristics as a player?
Italian fans nicknamed D’Antoni “Arsene Lupin,” the debonair thief of French crime fiction and cinema who worked deceptively, but as a force of good. As a point guard with Olimpia Milano, D’Antoni was a showman who became the team’s all-time leader in points while leading the team to five Italian League championships.
Which coaches did he play for?
D’Antoni’s coach for 10 of his 12 seasons in Milan was American Dan Peterson, a luminary of the game in Europe who imported the tactical philosophies of Red Auerbach, John Wooden and Ray Meyer to the continent. With D'Antoni running point, Peterson eventually rolled out a run-and-gun offense that provided the inspiration for D'Antoni later in Treviso and the NBA. D'Antoni's coach during the first 20 games of his brief NBA career was none other than Bob Cousy, but D'Antoni played most of his NBA games for Phil Johnson, a Kings fixture during the franchise's nomadic years. D'Antoni also played briefly for Rod Thorn and Joe Mullaney on the last Spirits of St. Louis team.
What is his coaching pedigree?
In Milan, D'Antoni went straight from the court to the first chair. He built an illustrious career as a head coach in the Italian League, where he launched then refined his system. D'Antoni landed in Denver to coach the Nuggets during the strike-shortened 1998-99 team, which ranked sixth in the NBA in pace factor and posted a 14-36 record. In 2002, he joined Frank Johnson's impressive assistant corps in Phoenix that consisted of Tim Grgurich, Marc Iavaroni and Phil Weber. D'Antoni took over the reins in Phoenix midway through the 2003-04 season and immediately pushed the pace. After several seasons of success in Phoenix, D'Antoni became frustrated with new management and ownership and departed for New York. After nearly four seasons of drama with the Knicks between May 2008 and March 2012, D'Antoni resigned. Less than a year later, in November 2012, he assumed head coaching duties for the Lakers.
If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Subverting the dominant paradigm in the art world.
The spirit of the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract was summoned for this project.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesDwight Howard and Steve Nash likely will be critical in Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll attack.
After firing Mike Brown on Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers announced early Monday that Mike D’Antoni will be their next coach. It is D’Antoni’s fourth NBA head coaching job. While Jackson has won 11 NBA titles as a coach, D’Antoni has five playoff appearances – four with the Phoenix Suns and one with the New York Knicks.
D’Antoni’s success with the Suns depended largely on one man – Steve Nash, who happens to be his point guard again. When Nash returns from his leg injury, the 38-year-old will run D’Antoni’s uptempo offense. From 2004-08, the Suns led the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions).
One look at D’Antoni’s win percentage with and without Nash shows how valuable the two-time NBA MVP has been to the coach.
Another signature of D’Antoni’s time with the Suns was the pick-and-roll. Phoenix led the NBA in pick-and-roll points per 100 possessions three times during D’Antoni’s tenure. They ranked seventh in 2005-06, a season in which the “roll” man – Amar’e Stoudemire – missed 79 games to injury.
In Los Angeles, Dwight Howard could play the role of Stoudemire. During his time with the Orlando Magic, Howard was one of the league’s premier “roll” men, excelling especially the past three seasons. While he has struggled in that spot this year, Nash only has played in two games.
One area in which D’Antoni is constantly panned is his defense. His Suns teams consistently finished near the bottom of the league in points allowed per game, but those numbers were somewhat skewed by the team’s furious tempo. Taking pace into consideration, Phoenix was near the league average defensively in D’Antoni’s last four seasons there, ranking 16th three times and 13th once.
Considering his history, D’Antoni is a surprising hire by the Lakers. He has a .534 career winning percentage as an NBA head coach. The last time the Lakers hired a coach with a career winning percentage that low was Del Harris (.493 in 8+ seasons) before the 1994-95 season.
D’Antoni also has a pedigree for leading his teams to terrific regular seasons only to fall short in the playoffs. He finished first or second in the Western Conference from 2004-07 with the Suns. He is one of three coaches since the 1996-97 season to not reach the Finals over a three-year span despite finishing number one or two in the conference (Flip Saunders and Pat Riley were the others).
Speaking of Riley, D’Antoni will join him as the only men to have served as head coach for both the Knicks and the Lakers, according to Elias. Riley recorded a 533-194 record with the Lakers from 1981-82 to 1989-90, winning four NBA title. He then moved on to the Knicks, where he went 223-105 from 1991-92 to 1994-95 with one NBA Finals appearance.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireThe Lakers are looking to avoid their first 0-3 start since the 1978-79 season.
This is the first time the Lakers have started 0-2 in consecutive seasons since the 1956-57 and 1957-58 seasons. Including the preseason, the Lakers are 0-10 and going back to last year’s playoffs, have lost 12 straight and 16 of their past 18 games.
Only six teams have won the NBA title after starting 0-2 and only one team -- the 1990-91 Bulls -- started 0-3 and won the championship.
Knowing that it’s only been two games, let’s take a look at a few things that have gone wrong for the purple-and-gold in the early going.
• The Lakers have run pick-and-roll on just six percent of their offensive plays this season, by far the lowest percentage in the league, and a number that would have ranked last by a big margin last season.
One of their offseason acquisitions was point guard Steve Nash. When he ran the pick-and-roll last season and passed to the roll man, his teammates led the NBA in points per play and field-goal percentage.
He did leave the last game with an injury, but 10 players have more plays as the pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, including non-point guards Jordan Crawford and Vince Carter.
• The Lakers’ starters -- Kobe Bryant (14), Nash (8), Dwight Howard (6), Pau Gasol (4) and Metta World Peace (1) -- have combined for 33 career All-Star selections, but that lineup has outscored opponents by just four points when on the floor together in the first two games of the season.
• They shot 38.7 percent (12-31) from the free-throw line Tuesday, the worst performance by any team with at least 30 attempts since 1985. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was their lowest free-throw percentage since 1969 and their third-lowest in a game in the shot-clock era (min. 30 FTA).
They did rebound to shoot 81.3 percent the next night.
• The Lakers have one field goal in transition this season and fewer than eight percent of their plays have been transition plays, both the lowest marks in the league.
• They’re averaging 16 bench points per game this season, second-fewest in the league, after averaging an NBA-worst 21.3 bench points last season. They don’t match up well with tonight’s opponent in that department.
Jamal Crawford scored a game-high 29 points off the bench in the Clippers’ season opener, and despite playing in one fewer game, he's nearly outproduced the entire Lakers bench combined.