The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2014-2015 NBA season with numerous unanswered questions, from the health status of certain players such as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, to which players will crack the starting line-up. One of the few things that are not in question is that Bryant will be the leader of this team; leading both on the court if physically able to play and verbally from the sidelines and in the locker room.
When on the court, there is no doubt that Bryant will be the offensive focal point and will dominate the offensive production for the Lakers. This is apparent for a few reasons; mainly, Kobe, even at the age of 36 and coming off two serious injuries is still the most dynamic offensive player on the roster.
Also, Kobe has never been a player that would take a back seat to anyone on the offensive end. Even a young 20 year old Kobe playing along side a dominant Shaquille O’ Neal in his peak didn’t acquiesce on the offensive end. Case in point, In the 2000-01 season, a 22 year old Kobe led the Lakers in both field goal attempts per game (22.2) and usage percentage (31.8) in a season that followed their first of 3 straight championships and Shaq’s MVP season which was the most dominate of his career. Following Shaq’s departure after the 2003-04 season, Bryant has been the offensive domineer every season, leading the league in usage percentage 3 times and ranking below third only once in those 9 seasons.
This one thing is clear, Kobe will be the Lakers number 1 guy on offense this coming season. The question remains, which player will step up and be Kobe’s number 2?
Carlos Boozer is probably the best candidate to be that number 2 guy offensively. While Boozer is coming off a career low in shooting from the field and lowest scoring output per game since his rookie season with Chicago last season, much of that is attributed to the fact that the Bulls as a whole were a poor offensive team that did not have a significant offensive threat to help create space for him or others on the floor. The Bulls ranked dead last in points per game at 93.7 and were 2nd to last in pace at 90.2 last season which were the main contributors to Boozer’s sharp decline.
Another factor to Boozer’s drop in numbers last season was due to the Bulls lacking any semblance of offensive talent which prompted the focus to be placed almost exclusively on the defensive end, even more than a typical Tom Thibodeau coached team. Defense not being Boozer’s strong suit, he lost playing time to Taj Gibson, the better defender. Boozer’s 28.2 minutes per game average last season was the 2nd lowest of his career, only averaging less playing time in his rookie season.
When the circumstances have been just right for Boozer, he has excelled offensively. Playing along side a dynamic and aggressive perimeter player, Boozer has shown he can produce with the extra space that is made available by way of the attention being placed elsewhere on the floor. It was just 3 years ago, prior to Derrick Rose’s devastating knee injury that caused him to miss all but 10 games over the last 2 seasons, that Boozer put up numbers of 17.5 points per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. He followed up that season by shooting 53.2 percent and averaging 15 points per game in 2011-12.
In Utah, playing along side Deron Williams who was at the time playing like one of the best point guards in the game, and in a superbly efficient and potent offense, Boozer had his best seasons. Boozer posted a career high 11.7 rebounds while scoring 20.9 points per game in the 2006-07 season. Boozer followed that season up with a career high 21.1 points per game in the next season. As a result to those two great years, Boozer was named to the Western Conference All-Star team in 2007 and 2008.
Boozer is looking again at playing along side some dynamic perimeter players this coming season. Of course there is Kobe Bryant who will command the most attention, but Boozer will also have other offensive players that can attract attention and do a multitude of things on the offensive end, namely, Nick Young and Jeremy Lin. The attention being taken away from Boozer will open up space for his favorite spot up shot at the elbows and 10 feet out in the baseline. It should also open up driving lanes to the basket. He will also see more pick and roll and pick and pop plays with both Bryant and to a higher degree, Lin and Steve Nash.
Boozer won’t dominate, or even be effective as a focal point of an offense, but as an afterthought, playing off of another talented perimeter player, he has shown to be both efficient and productive. For this reason I see Boozer as the best candidate to be that number two offensive player for the Lakers this coming season.
Young is coming off a career year where he posted career highs in points per game, free throw attempts per game, PER, true shooting percentage and usage percentage. Young led the Lakers in scoring last season with his 17.9 points per game. The increase could be attributed to playing in Mike D’Antoni’s offense which ranked 2nd last year in pace and encouraged the launching of the deep ball which Young averaged 5.5 per game, knocking them down at an efficient 38.6 percent.
The problem that Young will face this season in terms of being able to duplicate or improve his offensive numbers from the previous season is that he will be playing for a coach that is the antithesis of Mike D’Anotoni in terms of coaching philosophy. That brisk pace that D’Antoni employed will be replaced with a much slower, more methodical approach where scoring opportunities take time and precision to develop in the half court. Scott coached teams have ranked in the top ten in pace only once (9th in the 2001-02 season with Nets) and are typically in the middle of the pack to lower third of the league in scoring per game. The slower pace of the game will lead to a drop in Young’s scoring opportunity.
Scott’s history of emphasizing defense will likely lead to Young having to split minutes at the small forward position to a player like Wesley Johnson who has more defensive ability, or at least potential. Most are projecting that the starting line-up will include Johnson or Henry and having Young come off the bench as that burst of energy offensive weapon that seems to suit him very well. Young averaged 28.3 minutes per game but those minutes should go down a shade with the more defensive focused coach.
Young’s offensive skills are conducive to scoring in a variety of offensive systems. Young is an above average outside shooter, can put the ball on the floor, slash and finish around the rim with his very nice combination of size, length and athleticism. Young can play effectively in a half court system that will focus on player movement, screens and ball movement which the Lakers are likely to utilize with Scott running the offense. The issue here for Young is a numbers game; the Lakers have a few perimeter players that can do what Young does so there is a duplication of skill set. Bryant, Lin, Xavier Henry and Nash can all score in multifaceted fashion and someone has to do the other things from one of the perimeter positions in order to round out a team, such as defend, provide energy, rebound, do the dirty work to name a few.
Playing time being lost to other players due needing other skills on the court other than scoring is the main reason why Young will see a drop in his production and will not be that number 2 guy for the Lakers this coming season.
The player that has the most upside to explode offensively this coming season for the Lakers is Jeremy Lin. We know he has potent offensive potential by having seen his feats during the Lin-sanity period in New York. In the height of Lin-sanity, starting with his coming out game on 2/4/2012 against the New Jersey Nets and the following 9 games, Lin was spectacular. In that 10 game span, Lin averaged 24.6 points per game, 9.2 assists, 2.4 steals and 49.7 percent from the field. You will find very few players in the NBA that can boost putting up numbers during any 10 game stretch as Lin did that season.
Lin’s production fell a bit to close out the year, but the evidence was there that Lin had the tools to be a big time offensive player in this league and that was at the age of 23 and it only being his 2nd season in the league. Lin now having just turned 26 two weeks ago and having 2 more seasons in the NBA under his belt, he’s a better, smarter player.
Lin has made great strides since the Lin-sanity days, improving his defensive play, shooting touch from the outside and cutting down on turnovers. LIn has improved his 3 point shooting percentage each season he has been in the NBA, reaching a career high of 35.8 last season with the Houston Rockets. Lin also posted a career high from the charity stripe, shooting 82.3 percent; this efficiency from the line will serve well in his offensive production considering he is adept at getting in the lane which should prompt a rise in his free throw attempts this coming season.
The improvement in Lin’s game has not resulted in better production. Lin has never averaged more than the 14.6 points per game he averaged in his one year with the Knicks or more averaged more shots than 10.9 per game. The lack of eye-popping production from Lin can be attributed to circumstances with the roster. Lin’s production petered out in New York once their offensive focal point, Carmelo Anthony, returned. In Houston, the same year he was signed as a free agent the Rockets made the blockbuster trade to acquire James Harden. Harden who is a high usage percentage player, took the ball out of Lin’s hand and reduced his role on the team. The following year, Dwight Howard came in taking even more shots and touches for Lin.
A lot of the same difficulties that Lin faced in New York when Anthony returned and then in Houston with James Harden and Dwight Howard could be seen in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant; except its not quite the same situation as his time in either spot.
Bryant’s game has shown to help other skilled offensive players get an opportunity to score along side him: Shaquille O’ Neal, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard all averaged at least 17 points per game playing with Kobe. Lamar Odom had his best and most efficient years playing with Kobe Bryant. While having the reputation of a ball stopper that rarely passing to teammates, Bryant routinely ranks in the top 5 in assists at the shooting guard position. In Bryant’s most recent season of 2012-13 he ranked 3rd in assists for shooting guards at 6 per game, only behind Monte Ellis and Goran Dragic who are both more known as point guards than off-guards. Also, Bryant’s career 4.8 assist per game average compared to Anthony’s 3.1 bodes well in Lin’s favor to have more scoring opportunity than his tail end run in New York.
Unlike Lin’s time in Houston, he will be the clear cut favorite to start and take the bulk of the minutes at the point guard position. In addition, the Lakers do not have the depth on offense as the Rockets did last season with Harden, Parsons and Howard. Looking at the offensive talent of the Lakers roster, the amount of touches and scoring opportunity will definitely be there for the taking for Lin.
The biggest advantage that Lin will have to become that number 2 scorer to Kobe over both Boozer and Young is will be what he brings on the defensive side of the ball which will turn into more playing time. As it stands now, Lin is the best defensive player at the point guard position on the Lakers and is by far the most disruptive. Lin has the ability to get his hands on a lot of balls and nab a few steals a game which will have coach Scott favoring Lin over the other options.The Lakers working primarily in the half court and taking up a lot of shot clock to get their points, easy baskets by way of fast break and points off turnovers will be vital and Lin provides the best opportunity to add that element to the offense over the other point guards. Lin has a career steals per game average of 1.3 which is higher than any other point guard on the Lakers roster and only behind Kobe Bryant in terms of all perimeter players.
I can see Lin’s season going one of two ways next year: either he has a break out season where we see his production spike, becomes that number 2 guy behind Kobe Bryant and reminds us of what we saw during the days of Lin-sanity or we see the Lin that we have seen these last two season which is still very solid and provides dependable production along with decent point guard play, but doesn’t arouse much excitement. I think it will hinge on Lin’s approach to the season and if he decides to assert himself in the offense and take that number 2 role alongside Bryant. History has shown that Bryant is not one to coddle his teammates and needs tangible proof on the court from a player in order to earn his trust. Once that trust is earned, like it was by Gasol, Odom, Fisher and in quick fashion with Metta World Peace, Bryant will look to feed that player, opening up the floodgates of scoring opportunity. Lin will get his chance to be that number 2 guy, unlike other situations in his past, this time around it is completely up to him to capitalize.