Mike D'Antoni and the Los Angeles Lakers have found success by butchering the head coach's offensive system.
It didn't take long to see that the uptempo style of play D'Antoni is known to preach wasn't suited for a team with two prolific big men and an absence of athletically inclined wings. Still, the Lakers put the ball in Steve Nash's hands and were forced to believe that everything would be fine.
But everything wasn't fine.
At the season's midway point, Los Angeles had won just 17 games and was rapidly falling out of the Western Conference playoff picture. Both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard appeared lost, and Kobe Bryant was still hoisting up shots like he was allergic to passing.
Just when you thought the Lakers were done for, that Howard was preparing to bolt in free agency and the team itself about to implode, everything changed. And I mean everything.
To the surprise of, well, everyone, Los Angeles didn't just tweak or manipulate its offensive blueprint, it massacred it.
The ball is still moving, and you can see the footprints of a sense of offensive urgency. Yet aside from that, the Lakers have looked nothing like a D'Antoni-coached faction.
Not only has the ball run through the post more than D'Antoni himself would care to count, but Nash has assumed the role of a scorer, not playmaker. He's averaged 16 points per game over the last two but just 3.5 assists.
Well, get ready to be baffled.
With Nash attempting to play off the ball more, someone has had to step in, distribute the ball and facilitate the team's offense. That someone is neither Chris Duhon nor Darius Morris. It's Bryant. And I kid you not.
In the last two games, Kobe has averaged just 17.5 points, which is more than 10 points below his season average of 28.7. Most could consider this cause for concern bordering on panic. Whenever Bryant drops less than 25 points the world just doesn't seem right.
Or does it?
Kobe dished out 14 assists in each of those two games. No, that's not a misprint. He has combined for 28 assists over the last couple of contests, assists that come amidst him attempting just 22 total shots. And no, the "Land of Make Believe" isn't crumbling as a result—it's improving.
Los Angeles has won both of its last games, bouts that have come against a playoff candidate in the Utah Jazz and a championship favorite in the Oklahoma City Thunder. That those victories coincide with an out-of-system performance is no coincidence.
And before you attribute such performances to happy accidents or inadvertent instances, know this: It's all being done on purpose.
Per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, the Lakers have shifted roles and dismantled the system as a part of their new methodology:
Thought Mike D'Antoni's offense was a bad fit for these Lakers? Guess what. They're not running it.
This shouldn't be a huge secret, considering that the person best fitted for running D'Antoni's sets, Steve Nash, has been playing off the ball the last two games.
When the Lakers hit their breaking point this week with a pathetic 0-3 road trip that brought them eight games under .500 at just past the midway point of the season, D'Antoni was taking just as much heat as anybody for being unwilling to change his system.
Well, playing Kobe Bryant, one of the top shooting guards ever to lace them up, at point guard is as drastic a change as they come.
Staring down the barrel of obscurity, the Lakers needed a change. They needed to adjust to their personnel and implement an offensive design that caught defenses off guard. Tasking Kobe with passing the ball is about as radical a alteration as there is.
But it's also a logical one.
With their win over the Thunder, the Lakers improved to 8-4 when Bryant dished out seven or more assists and 3-0 when he dropped 10 or more. His ability to draw defenses in with every step he takes opens things up for his teammates, and now instead of jacking up contested jumpers, he's deferring in favor of uncontested ones.
Defenses are never going to be able to relax on Bryant. Even at 34, he is one of the most dangerous scorers in the game. Whether he's a threat to pass or not, the opposition has to respect what he's done for nearly two decades—score.
Though Bryant doesn't receive enough recognition for his court awareness and vision, what makes him such a lethal passer is his scoring. Teams won't hesitate to double-team or triple-team him, because he's never met a shot he didn't like—or one he couldn't hit.
By Kobe essentially trusting his teammates more and passing out of said coverage, it forces the defense to pick its poison. Does it double-team the Black Mamba and leave guys like Nash, Howard and Gasol, or even Metta World Peace and Earl Clark open? Or does it attempt to guard Kobe one-on-one?
Neither of those options is ideal. And that's the point.
D'Antoni's offense is nearly structure-less, but what the Lakers are running now embodies an untamed attack. They don't have set plays or designated hot spots, they now just put the ball in Kobe's hands and trust he'll make the right decision.
And you know what? It's working:
"This isn't necessarily any offense," Nash said after the Lakers' 105-96 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. "This is bringing the ball down, calling over a pick and playing the game and because we have good players on the floor, when (Bryant) distributes we can make them pay for leaning too much to Kobe. When they lean too much to us, he makes them pay."
Nash couldn't be more on point. Los Angeles' offense is chaotic—in a good way. It's built on instinctive trust and unconditional freedom; its success is predicated upon effort, not organization.
Do the Lakers still look to move the ball? Push the ball? Do they still look to shoot quickly?
Absolutely, but such parameters are no longer mandatory—they're optional. This entire blueprint is now built on options. With so much talent in one lineup, the Lakers have the luxury of putting the ball in Kobe's hands and saying "go," which he has.
Of course, it's been just two games, and reading too much into a small sample size is both premature and futile.
Yet these weren't just any ole' two games. They were a testament to the Lakers potential as a collective, to the dominant nature of their very existence. Purposely destroying one offensive design in favor of a system-less attack has proved bold, beautiful and effective.
It has reminded Los Angeles that there is an identity to be found within this counsel of superstars. It has promoted progress through deviation, self-sacrifice and individual evolution.
It has allowed the Lakers to win, which they will continue to do—so long as they continue to embrace the dominance and stability that has come with housing an impulsive dynamic.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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