When Ramon Sessions opted out of the final year of his contract, he was perhaps imagining signing a longterm deal with the Lakers. The Lakers' front office has, however, taken a hardline stance on these matters. Recall that Trevor Ariza was not satisfied with the value the Lakers placed on him (according to gossip, at least). The Lakers signed Ron Artest and went on to win a championship. So when talks with Sessions did not progress, it was no surprise that the Lakers explored their options. After some prompting by Kobe Bryant, Nash was apparently on board. It took the Suns' management's honoring their previous commitment to help Nash go where he wanted, even if it was to a team the Suns (but clearly not the Lakers) see as a rival.
Lakers fans are mostly ecstatic at the turn of events. At least for the moment, the Lakers would trot out an opening day starting lineup consisting of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum (For the record, that's 28 All-Star appearances, 3 MVPs, and a DPOY). There are certainly questions about Steve Nash: his age, his back injuries, his ability to coexist with a ball-dominant Kobe Bryant, and his ability to work with two bigs who tend to operate within ten feet of the basket. There are, moreover, questions about defense; namely, whether Nash and Bryant can defend Guards with any consistency at this point in their careers.
On offense, however, the benefits become obvious. In the first place, the Lakers began 2011/2012 with a new coach, a new offensive scheme, and several new role players. Coupled with a condensed schedule and a long lockout, the Lakers really appeared out of sorts for much of the season. Roles were not clearly defined, the Lakers traded away their starting Point Guard, more instability followed, and the team faded quickly in the second round of the playoffs. Many observers (myself included) are of the mind that the same lineup would do better next year, simply because they would be more familiar with the offensive scheme, their roles, and their coach. But changes have been made, changes whose impact is worth a look. What follows is a position-by-position look at the starter from last season compared with the projected starter this season.
Point Guard: Fisher vs. Nash
Fisher: 4.3 SCOFF (Scoring Efficiency), 3.3 PAFF (Passing Efficiency), 2.0 HUFF (Hustle Efficiency), 55 O-EFF (Overall Offensive Efficiency)
Nash: 5.5 SCOFF, 4.8 PAFF, 1.8 HUFF, 95 O-EFF
Derek Fisher is at this point in his career getting by (so far as he does) on passion, desire, and veteran savvy. He is a great leader, an incredible locker room presence, but he is clearly close to the end of his career. Although older than Fisher, Nash has not had the severe injuries Fisher has faced and overcome. Nash retains better speed and agility. He is one of the best shooters in the game. He is one of the best passers in the game. He is one of the best Point Guards in NBA history. This is such a massive upgrade its benefits cannot be overstated. While Fisher rated as one of the worst PGs in the league offensively (only Chris Duhon was worse in more than 600 minutes of play), Nash was fifth best. Nash was the most efficient passer in the NBA.
Shooting Guard: Kobe vs. Kobe
Kobe: 6.7 SCOFF, 3.1 PAFF, 2.4 HUFF, 96 O-Eff
Kobe will be a year older, a halfstep slower, and a bit closer to the end of his career. Fortunately, he seemed pretty spry at season's end. He somehow seems reinvigorated in general, but the condensed schedule did sap something from his legs. The hope is that a smart game plan could see a more productive Kobe: fewer minutes per night, a less densely packed schedule. Mike Brown has said that he couldn't afford to rest Kobe given the shortened season. I'll take that to imply he would be open to the thought in a longer seasons. Those are benefits that should have accrued to LA regardless of the PG situation. With Nash, expect to see Kobe perfectly happy to allow Nash to make things happen. Less stress bringing the ball up the court, less initiation duties could all mean a more productive Kobe.
MWP vs. MWP
MWP (Pre All-Star): 4.0 SCOFF, 2.7 PAFF, 2.6 HUFF, 48 O-Eff
MWP (Post All-Star): 5.2 SCORR, 2.7 PAFF, 3.0 HUFF, 70 O-Eff
When Metta World Peace said that he thought the Lakers were a better team than the Thunder, few believed him. Perhaps he was suggesting that the talent of LA was being swamped by a slow star and the shortened season. Clearly Metta is not getting any younger. There is, however, hope for a rebound year. By his own admission, Metta entered last season heavy and out of shape. By his own admission, he worked himself into shape as the season progressed. Statistically, there is strong evidence supporting his assertions: prior to the All-Star break, Metta was an abysmal .335-.239-.511 shooter, averaged 4.9 points, 2.8 boards, and 1.9 assists. After the break, those numbers jumped: .430-.331-.691 shooting, 10.7 points, 4.0 boards, 2.5 assists. In 13 regular season April games, he averaged 14 points, 4 boards, and 3 assists on even better shooting numbers. His D was also good to excellent in the playoffs. So here's to hoping World Peace stays in shape. Known for his defense, if Metta can play at close to his post All-Star level on offense, he is a huge boon to a team.
Gasol vs. Gasol
Gasol: 5.8 SCOFF, 2.9 PAFF, 3.2 HUFF, 94 O-Eff
There is talk that Gasol may yet be moved. If not, Gasol could benefit in a huge way from Steve Nash. Nash transformed Phoenix into a perennial playoff team, disguised the holes in Shawn Marion's game, and helped Amare Stoudemire reach levels of offensive production that he would never again match in his career. Nash also helped Marcin Gortat make the move from a backup to a 15-10 player. Gasol's intelligence and shooting ability coupled with Nash's intelligence and passing threaten to make them one of the most lethal pick and roll duos in the league.
Bynum vs. Bynum
Bynum: 6.2 SCOFF, 1.9 PAFF, 3.5 HUFF, 99 O-Eff
Andrew Bynum is only 24 years old, but he is now widely regarded as the second best Center in the NBA. In missing only six games, Bynum played career high minutes and established career bests in points and rebounds. After never averaging more than 15 points or 10.2 boards, he flirted with 19 and 12. The biggest struggle for Bynum was the regularity with which he faced double teams. He turned the ball over 152 times, more than twice what he had in the previous season and the highest rate in his career. This all came with LA's dreadful outside shooting. LA shot .326 on threes, 26th best in the league. Steve Nash shot .390 from the arc and .532 from the field. His ability to hit open shots and to create shots for himself and for teammates means that doubling Bynum opens up Gasol for a jumper, Nash for a three, or Kobe to create. The threat is considerable.
If the Lakers begin the season with this lineup, they will have four players with an Offensive Efficiency of 94+ (95 is the average of the top five players at a position). I don't believe any other team can claim the same. In fact, finding three players with a 90+ Offensive Efficiency is difficult. The Lakers still have some holes on the bench, but their starting five is one of the best ever assembled.
While Offensive Efficiency measures a player's individual contributions, Synergy measures the number of points a player creates per possession consumed, reflecting his ability to capitalize upon the talents of his teammates and use their strengths while concealing their weaknesses. The Lakers' Point Guards were for the most part low consumers of possessions. Steve Blake and Derek Fisher consumed an average of 15.4 and 15.3 per 36 minutes. They produced 1.23 and 1.19 points, respectively, per possession consumed. While both these numbers were better than the other starters' numbers, they were not as impressive as Ramon Sessions's numbers. Sessions was more active, consuming 23.8 possessions per 36 minutes, accounting for 1.29 points per possession.
LA's Point Guards from last season (per game):
23.96 Possessions Consumed
29.7 Points Produced
Steve Nash does consume possessions at a rate slightly higher than Sessions did. Nash consumed 27.9 possessions per 36 minutes. He produced 1.45 points per possession though, far and away superior to any Point Guard on the Lakers. What this amounts to is an improvement of about .16 points per possession Nash consumes compared with the best PG on the roster last semester (Sessions). Over the course of a game, Nash and Blake would post startlingly better numbers than LA's PGs from this past season.
LA's Point Guards for 2k12/2k13
31.8 Possessions Consumed
44.1 Points Produced
Admittedly it is difficult to project how the Lakers' possessions will be distributed. Just knowing that each possession Nash consumes brings the Lakers roughly an extra .16 points compared to the best Point Guard from last season. This suggests good things. Kobe doesn't have to work as hard to create shots, Bynum doesn't have to worry as much about the double team, Gasol will find passes hitting him when he is in scoring position, and whoever the fourth player on the court is should see open looks at the perimeter.