Mama There Goes That Meme: Lakers Hang a Banner in August

Beckley: No small market pity party here, this was an awesome moment for the NBA. The Nuggets, Lakers and 76ers all get more interesting, Andre Iguodala finally gets out of Philadelphia and we get to stop caring about what happens in Orlando. Whoohoo!

Now on to Showtime. The Lakers now have two former MVPs, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-foot Spaniard with the skill of a guard and deft touch of a spinal surgeon.

Aside from the age of the parts, what strikes me about this roster is how seemingly conventional it is.

Steve Nash is pointiest guard of the last decade. Defenses must now duck for dunking PGs, but it’s flightless Nash, not Derrick Rose, who defined the position within the modern NBA offense because of how adroitly he ran the pick-and-roll.

Kobe is the team’s and league’s shooting guard. He took more shots than anyone in the NBA last year … SHOOTING IS RIGHT IN THE JOB DESCRIPTION.

At Pau-er Forward (wince), Gasol! He’s excellent around the rim and can make midrange shots. He’s not a stretch four, he’s just a tall 1990s power forward.

And in the middle, Howard is a proto-futuristic defender and an effective blunt-force weapon on offense.

Where’s the weird small lineup? The non-traditional positionality?

This isn’t what great NBA teams in 2012 look like, is it?

No explanation. (By @AnthonyBain)

Ethan: Traditionnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Tradition! Tevye approves of this Lakers roster, as it conforms to a century of what we thought ideal basketball should be. He’s further enthused that the trade makes life difficult for the NBA’s Russian-owned franchise.

I sense that the Twittering classes are overreacting to this deal a bit. Is it probably awesome for the Lakers? Duh. Does it make Los Angeles a prohibitive favorite? Unjerk that knee, please. This squad would indeed be THE favorite for the 2008 championship, no doubt there. While the Lakers are a title contender today, I can’t believe the incredible exuberance vested in three old guys and a young guy coming off major back surgery.

You point out L.A.’s strategic allegiance to the past, but I’ll harp on our sentimental allegiance to older athletes. Kobe Bryant is not “Kobe” anymore; He’s a good player who siphons from his positive contribution by using a 2006 shotchart. Pau is not his Grizzly self, though it’s hard to tell because he continues (and will continue) to play out of position, out of role. Steve Nash is now clocked at eight seconds or less. And like the phrase “seven seconds or less” we make allowances for nice sounding names. After all, who dares point out that the correct version is “seven seconds or fewer”? As Gregg Popovich might say, I’d be quite unconfident to do so.

But if you want some more nasty, here it is: This team has one superstar and he’s returning from injury. Time has eroded the others down to ersatz status, but for some reason, the knee jerkers don’t react so quickly to such a slow development.

I am being too negative, but that’s only to emphasize the ignored downside of all that’s being celebrated. This roster has the potential to work wonderfully, and I wouldn’t be wholly shocked if it all ended in a championship parade. It’s also a volatile concoction. The Lakers made the necessary moves for a shot at the title, which isn’t the same as playing from a position of immense strength.

Beckley: NBA brands tend to endure long beyond their use, even minor ones like Gerald Wallace’s.

The Lakers will have a great shot at a championship, but everyone should keep in mind that the four best players on the Thunder, the team that savagely Batum’d the Lakers in the playoffs last year, will be better next season simply by virtue of their youth.

I’m bullish on LA, but after crashing and burning behind the wheel of the “Heat in 2011” bandwagon, my kneejerk no longer has full mobility. That Heat team needed to sort out the on-court relationship between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an extent I didn’t anticipate. In the end, James took up residence in the mid-post and Wade has decided to focus on becoming an improved spot up shooter. The two best players in the league when they joined forces had to alter their fundamental hoops identities. This is no small feat, even for a player with as much versatility as LeBron James.

So what’s going to happen in LA, when Nash, Kobe and Howard — three players who over the last decade have existed almost exclusively in environments constructed specifically to suit their games — share the same terrarium?

I don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Nash and Howard don’t thrive together. Pau is something of an awkward fit with those two unless he develops a reliable 3-point shot. Ditto for Bryant, though if he can operate the Howard pick-and-roll to find Steve Nash spotting up, life will be good in Lakerland.

Here’s the thing. For years two points of near consensus in the NBA have been:

1) Any offense directed by Steve Nash will score tons of points at an incredibly efficient rate.
2) Any defense anchored by Dwight Howard will protect the paint and pressure 3-point shooters, taking away the two best options of efficient offenses.

Now they are on the same team, and it feels good. My concern isn’t that the players aren’t good enough, it’s that they are so old they have such a small window to coagulate and win a championship. The margin for error seems too slim for them to be an overwhelming favorite.

Ethan: I have the latter, “they aren’t good enough” concern. I defer to few men in my Steve Nash appreciation, but my fan-fueled observation has led me to conclude that his skills have suffered a subtle, recent erosion. Last year, I witnessed Nash get blitzed on PnR traps some. It could be all-too-subjective memory, but the old Steve (meaning, the relatively younger Steve) was more elusive. The pushing-40 version can get hung up and helpless out there. Arnovitz once described the Shaq era Phoenix offense as restricting Nash like a “hummingbird in a paper bag.” Nowadays, the opposition brings the lunch sack. Also, what kind of sick monster puts a humming bird in a paper bag? It sounds like some kind of hideous French-style ortolan preparation.

In Kobe Bryant, we have the ultimate brand. Behind the brand, Bryant has posted his worst win share average since his rookie year and the worst true shooting percentage of his career. Kobe’s also shooting with an action hero’s restraint for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. He will be 34 when the season begins. At what point is he a merely good player, whose quest for greatness undermines his ability to help?

And then there’s Dwight, a top-3 player coming off major back surgery. The heralding of Howard has drowned out nagging concerns like that balky back. In his introductory press conference, Dwight refused to give even a vague timetable on his return, which was strange. The press conference was a celebration of his arrival, but he wouldn’t even reveal when and if that arrival could arrive. “No timetable” makes his on court play an open question for the season, which seems somewhat important when the Lakers just traded the NBA’s second best center for Howard’s services. Speaking of which, fans are treating this as though they just traded Kwame Brown, not Andrew Bynum.

But I want to return to your thoughts on an un-traditionally traditional lineup. Los Angeles appears to be the perfect “team,” because they fit positional archetypes. But doesn’t the ideal team boast versatility? There’s been so much made of how the Heat are weak at center or point guard, but Bosh, James and a slew of 6-8 role players allow Miami to be court chameleons. In a hypothetical Finals matchup against L.A., LeBron could occasionally harass Nash on defense. When James plays the four spot, Bosh at the five pulls Howard away from the hoop.

I’m not sure as to what the Los Angeles counter moves are. They appear to be built perfectly for an era in which everyone agreed on what basketball should look like. It’s a beautiful machine, but will it break on new terrain?

Beckley: It does appear to be something of a clunky contraption, this Tall Ball line up with a point guard who thrives in a spread offense. It’s a functional ideal to control the paint the way that the Lakers could with Howard and Gasol, but I wonder if it’s pragmatic given the type of teams they will face at the top of the league.

"No hay revolucion sin pick-and-roll D" (via Basketball Jones)

How often has a team actually succeeded with this sort of thing?

Duncan and Robinson spring to mind, but after that the list of “twin tower” lineups that were truly effective is surprisingly short. That might be a function of the scarcity of talented giants — they rarely end up on the same team — but even in LA’s champion years, Phil Jackson liked to play super-stretchy Lamar Odom in the crunch to give them more speed and versatility.

Such speed and versatility, as you point out, are the calling card of the two teams at the top of the league. The Thunder, in particular, smothered the Spurs with their team speed to reach the Finals. That same Spurs team raced circles ‘round the Lakers like throughout the regular season.

But what if the Lakers, with their conventional positionality, are the new guerillas?!

Dwight Howard could really be the keystone to the Lakers defense. He could, like he has so many times in the last few years, push the great wing players outside of the paint (James, for example, always attempted far fewer shots within five feet against Howard’s Magic than his average)?

But is Howard, the diamond drill bit on this hulking Laker machine, is hurt? Why didn’t he give himself a timeline for return? Just trying to manage expectations, or is it more serious than the health issues facing departed center Andrew Bynum?

And why do I think, whatever the answer, you’re licking your chops for the drama sure to follow?

Ethan: Oh I love it. The league is better for grand, precarious experiments, and this Tall Ball might be all the retro rage.

Subjectively, it concerns that these big Laker additions are framed as fixing problems. In regards to an offense that must balance Dwight’s needs with those of Kobe’s and Pau’s, I keep reading that “Nash will figure it out.” The tacit message is that there’s a flaw that must be transcended by the (thirty eight year old) physical manifestation of Steve’s brilliance. Somehow, the Howard pick and roll will wring all that should be wrung from Gasol and Bryant off the ball. I hope they both have been practicing those threes.

Dwight Howard is tasked with macro problem solving on the defensive side. While I believe that Dwight will improve the Lakers on that end, defense is more collaborative than offense. And while Howard’s value is derived from being one of basketball’s few individually influential defenders, we’ve only seen his best work in one system. Somewhere in the collective subconscious of writers and analysts, there’s the concession that Los Angeles has the kind of slow perimeter D that concedes to the point of requiring compensation. Does Dwight–by himself–blot out the problems associated with slowish Tall Ball’s defensive issues?

There I go, being negative again. When the last two title winners played perimeter stars at the four spot, it’s hard for me to wholly endorse the Tall Ball zombie. Maybe this rendezvous with the recent past isn’t all that revolutionary. Maybe the speed-and-threes NBA is a blip and the Lakers are restoring a protracted order. And maybe I’m unthinkingly just raising questions, hoping that Steve Nash will figure it all out for me.

Related posts:

  1. Steve Nash to the Lakers, Suns to the bargain bin
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  3. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 11: LeBron is Most Villainous Player
  4. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 2: Beat those Heat!
  5. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 3: B-A-N-A-N-A-S!
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