Over the past couple of seasons, Derek Fisher has been the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting point guard. This worked (well, sort of) because Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense didn’t demand much from his point guards. But Derek Fisher starting at the position required Kobe Bryant to shoulder a lot of the ballhandling responsibilities and to create many of his own scoring opportunities. Last season, Bryant had the ball in his hands on almost 70 percent of his possessions; that breaks down to 30 percent in isolation plays, 15 percent in the post, 15 percent as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, and 10 percent in transition.
For a moment, it seemed as if all that would change. The Lakers had all but sealed a three-way deal with New Orleans and Houston, and the Los Angeles offense would now begin with Chris Paul. We all know what happened next. But, just to satisfy our curiosity, let’s look at what could have been — how acquiring Paul might have changed the Lakers offense, and how he might have meshed with Kobe Bryant.
Yesterday, Angelenos were dreaming of Paul penetrating and kicking the ball to Bryant for easy jump shots. However, even if the trade had gone through, things may not have been so simple for the Lakers backcourt. Last season, Bryant spotted up on just 8.5 percent of his possessions, and he converted only 36.5 percent of those attempts. When he spotted up and shot without dribbling first, Bryant shot an even lower 30.3 percent. In Bryant’s defense, he was guarded on 67.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers. Paul might have helped him get better looks at the basket, and when Bryant is open he knocks down 50 percent of those catch-and-shoot attempts. But if we look at video from last season, we see that Paul’s penetration wouldn’t necessarily guarantee open jumpers for Bryant, who isn’t a pure spot-up shooter.
Bryant is more comfortable controlling the basketball for a while before he shoots, so when he’s put in catch-and-shoot situations, he doesn’t have the best technique. In this play, Fisher drives around a screen and then kicks out to Bryant. When he catches the ball, he has a lot of space. If he can catch, keep the ball high, and get the shot off, he’ll have an open jumper. But instead, Bryant receives the ball and then brings it down to his waist.
As per his routine, Bryant lowers the ball and then rises again to start his shooting motion. As this happens, Wilson Chandler sprints to close out on him.
Bryant’s extra motion may take only a split second, but in the NBA a split second is enough to turn an open shot into a contested one. Chandler gets to Bryant and gets a hand in his face. Here is the play in real time:
With shooters like Ray Allen, J.J. Redick, and Kyle Korver, the kind of space that Bryant had in that play would usually lead to an open jumper. Bryant is so accustomed to dominating the ball, however, that he doesn’t have the best feel for spotting up, and the hitch in his motion costs him open looks.
So what would this have meant for the Paul/Bryant backcourt that might have been? It means that Paul probably wouldn’t have created as many opportunities for Bryant as people expected. In fact, knowing that Bryant takes a little extra time to release his catch-and-shoot opportunities, defenders might have been able to help off Bryant to stop Paul’s penetration and still be able to recover in time to contest Bryant’s shots.
This isn’t to say that the two guards would have failed together. They are both great players, and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have found ways to be a devastating tandem. There are a few specific areas in which I think they could have found success. The first would have been allowing Bryant to continue dominate possessions while Paul played off the ball. Although Paul has played the point guard almost exclusively during his NBA career and he’s used to having the ball in his hands, he actually plays well off of the ball. In fact, in spot-up situations, Paul’s 1.202 points per possession put him in the top 7 percent among all NBA players. Paul is a master at setting up his defender with the threat of a jump shot and then using that to create better scoring opportunities:
Just as Paul would have created catch-and-shoot opportunities for Bryant, Bryant would also have been able to drive and kick to Paul on the wing. Once there, Paul is particularly good at using the threat of knocking down a jumper to create driving lanes for himself. Paul is a very good shooter, and most defenders are going to run hard to close out on him when he’s open and catches the ball. But Paul knows how to make defenders pay for closing out too hard, using hesitation dribbles and pump fakes to drive by them. With the Lakers, this would have meant easy driving lanes for himself, drive-and-dish plays for Andrew Bynum, and kick-outs to Bryant with so much space that he would still be open after his wind-up motion.
The trade would also have allowed Lakers coach Mike Brown to get creative. One of the things that instantly popped into my mind when I heard about the deal (before the NBA put the kibosh on it, that is) was the possibility of Paul and Bryant running the pick and roll together. Bryant rarely acts as the roll man; in fact, he did so only twice last season. Even so, Bryant setting ball screens for Paul might have worked brilliantly. Imagine the pressure it would have put on the defense. When Paul comes off of ball screens, defenders want to corral him, using the man defending the screener to jump out and take away Paul’s dribble penetration. If Kobe Bryant sets the screen, would that defender still leave him to hedge? If not, would defenses allow Chris Paul to come off of screens and attack the rim? It would have created a lose/lose situation for the defense every time they ran it. Just look at the one time Bryant scored as the screener in a pick and roll last season:
Here, Bryant sets a screen for Fisher, who attacks the baseline. Bryant starts to roll, but sees his man leaving to trap Fisher in the corner. Bryant reacts by popping out behind the 3-point line, and Fisher kicks him the ball for an easy 3-pointer. With all due respect for Derek Fisher, he’s no Chris Paul. And if a defense broke down with Fisher coming off of Bryant’s ball screen, imagine how it would deal with Paul coming off the same screen.
Finally, there is the issue of late-game performance. TrueHoop’s own Henry Abbott has felt the wrath of Lakers fans for saying what all the stats point out — that Kobe Bryant isn’t the most clutch player in the NBA. The team that Abbott points out as the most clutch in late-game situations is the New Orleans Hornets, thanks mostly to Paul and his ability to find open teammates and make the correct plays during crunch time:
Here, against the Lakers (oh, the irony), Paul shows that even late in games he is willing to make the correct play, passing to his teammate for an open jumper. I understand why Bryant often receives the ball in isolation plays at the end of games: If you try to free him up off of the basketball, you risk him not getting open. However, with Paul and Bryant playing together, that worry would have been gone. The Lakers would have had one of the best point guards in the world handling the ball, and he would have been willing and able to create openings for Bryant and then get him the ball. The “Who will take the last shot?” question that revolves around other superstar combinations wouldn’t have been an issue for Paul and Bryant.
Paul joining the Lakers may not have been as perfect a union as some fans thought, but it would have made them a better team. Thanks to the league’s decision to veto the trade, however, we may never know if Paul would have made the Lakers champions again.
Sebastian Pruiti runs the blog NBA Playbook. Follow him on Twitter at @SebastianPruiti.
Previously by Sebastian Pruiti:
How John Wall can become a Star in his Second NBA season
The Pros and Cons of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis
Thomas Robinson Grows Into His Role at Kansas
The Problems with Austin Rivers
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