Old Dogs, New Tricks: Working Kobe Bryant Off The Ball

You may have heard, but the Los Angeles Lakers added a couple of pretty talented players to their roster this summer. Last season, the team was overly reliant on Kobe Bryant’s ability to create for himself, and the offense often suffered on nights when he didn’t have it going, especially early in the season. With Steve Blake and Derek Fisher as the point guards for most of last year, much of the ball-handling duties fell on Bryant’s shoulders. Though a trade for Ramon Sessions provided some relief and kicked the offense into another gear, Kobe was still responsible for doing a lot of the orchestrating. This year, that won’t necessarily have to be the case.

The acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard will drastically alter the complexion of the Lakers offense this season, and as a result they will be less dependent on Kobe’s ability to go it alone than at any time since Shaquille O’Neal was donning the purple and gold. In particular, adding Nash to the mix takes the strain of having to be the primary perimeter ball-handler off Bryant, and it frees him up to do exciting new things working off the ball.

The best part about using Kobe off the ball more is that it will save his legs for the stretch run of the season and the playoffs. Though he is still in peak physical condition, there are realities that come with age, and Kobe has to face them. He’s 34 years old now and his body just can’t take the physical pounding that it did when he was in his mid-20’s. By working off the ball more often, he will still be able to get his touches, shots and points, and it will have the added benefit of minimizing the usual wear and tear his body takes throughout the course of an 82-game season.

This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea. Most everyone in NBA circles thinks/knows this change should be made. It’s mostly about Kobe’s willingness to change. And he should be willing. Contrary to popular belief, Kobe is actually a very good player without the ball in his hands. Though he does like to do a lot of his work in isolation, he’s excelled for most of his career when called on to operate as a cutter, come off screens or spot up along the perimeter. With Nash now at the helm of the offense, and with Dwight drawing even more attention from the defense on the low block and as a pick-and-roll player than Andrew Bynum did, Bryant can be even more successful in these areas.

Though the Lakers are making a much-publicized move to incorporate the Princeton offense this season, we have seen throughout the preseason that they will still be using a lot of the same plays they’ve used in the past couple of seasons under both Phil Jackson and Mike Brown. Even outside of the newer-looking opportunities he will get in the Princeton, the simple act of running Bryant in some familiar actions from the last few years more often will create easier looks at the basket because of the upgraded personnel on hand.

Cuts

According to mySynergySports, Kobe Bryant has registered a higher field goal percentage, drawn more fouls (as a percentage of possessions) and scored more points per possession (PPP) on cuts than on any other type of play in each of the past two seasons. Granted, most shots on cuts tend to come right around the basket, where all players generally shoot a higher percentage. Also granted, the sample size of shots is much smaller than on other types of plays because cuts have comprised just 3.3% and 4.5% of his total possessions in those two seasons.

But it appears that Mike Brown’s staff has already made a concerted effort to get Kobe cutting to the basket more often. Under Brown last season, Bryant ended plays with cuts much more often than he had the previous season under Phil Jackson. In the 2010-11 season, Kobe finished 76 plays with cuts in 92 games; about 0.82 per game. In 2011-12, that number jumped to 94 cuts in 70 games; about 1.34 per game, per Synergy. Game tape also reveals that Bryant is both a timely and savvy cutter, when he wants to be (there are of course times when he’s content to wait on the perimeter for his isolation chances). He knows where the open space will be before it actually opens, and knows when to shoot past defenders to get there. Between that and Nash’s ability to deliver pinpoint passes, as well as the high post passing of Gasol and the screening prowess of Howard, Kobe should be able to free himself for more easy looks around the basket.

Everyone knows that Kobe likes to post up. One way that teams have been countering that option is by having Kobe’s defender front him to deny the entry pass. This is where Gasol’s passing from the high post comes in. When Kobe gets fronted, Gasol can flash to the high post, and then hit Kobe on a backdoor cut to the basket. This is an especially useful strategy against teams like the Heat and Thunder, who routinely fronted Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe himself in the playoffs when they went to the mid post.

Another way the Lakers liked to free Kobe on cuts was to have the point guard again enter the ball to Pau in the high post, and then cut through the lane to set a cross-screen on Bryant’s man. Using a point guard to set the screen rather than a big man allows Kobe a size advantage in the event of a switch. At 6’6″ and just over 200 pounds, Kobe has a strength and length advantage over nearly all point guards in the league.

There is also an additional wrinkle to this play that would make it work even better with Steve Nash than it does here with Ramon Sessions. As you can see, immediately after setting the screen for Kobe, Sessions receives a (lethargic) pin-down screen from Andrew Bynum and pops up for an open jumper around the 3-point line. If Bryant is covered on the cut, Nash should be wide open for a 3-point shot, which he has hit at a ridiculous 42.8% clip throughout his career, far exceeding the averages of Sessions (33.3%), Blake (38.7%) and Fisher (37.3%). Nash’s ability to hit from the outside can open up even wider cutting lanes for Kobe on plays like this. These are basic flex cuts out of a horns set, but they can be devastatingly effective when run precisely with the personnel now in Los Angeles.

Off-ball Screens

Like he did with cuts, Kobe used more off-ball screens last season under Mike Brown than he did in the previous season under Phil Jackson. According to Synergy, Bryant finished plays with a FGA, TO or drawn foul 167 times in 92 games in 2010-11; about 1.82 times per game, accounting 7.1% of his total possessions. In 2011-12, that number jumped to 229 off-ball screens in 70 games; 3.27 per game, accounting for 10.9% of his total possessions. He also got slightly more efficient with his off-screen chances during the 2011-12 season, shooting 46.2% for 1.0 PPP compared to 43.1% for 0.95 PPP in 2010-11.

As with cuts, Kobe’s new teammates can help free him more easily for shots off screens. Howard is one of the best screen-setters in the league. While Bynum is often a good screen-setter as well, there were times (like in the play above) where he was lackadaisical and/or late in setting those screens.

A situation like this gives Kobe three options: he can straight come off the pin-down screen from Howard and take a catch-and-shoot jumper near the elbow (44.6% from the right elbow last season, 4.6% better than league average per NBA.com); he can flare out off the screen into the corner for a jumper (39.7 on deep right wing jumpers, 0.9% worse than league average; 46.2% on short right wing jumpers, 7.7% better than league average) or pump fake his way into a dribble-drive if his defender closes hard; or he can curl around the screen into the lane and head toward the basket (64.2% at the rim, 4.2% better than league average). Any one of those options gets Kobe more open than he would be trying to break his man down off the dribble on-one-one, which happened far too often (notice how much more often Kobe took shots that were pressed, guarded or contested than LeBron did) last season.

The odds of him coming open increase even more this season because Howard’s man isn’t extremely likely to jump out on a Kobe jumper, for fear that Nash will hit him with a backdoor lob to Dwight. Bigs could jump out on Kobe for a split-second last season even despite the presence of Bynum, because the threat of a Laker point guard being able to make that quick-hitting lob pass wasn’t nearly as prevalent. Nash will consistently make you pay for defending Kobe too aggressively. If Dwight’s man does jump out on Kobe, that draw Gasol’s man into the lane to help on Howard, and Pau gets an open 15-footer. Nash is able to see all of these options and instantaneously make the right decision nearly every time, something that can’t definitely be said of Sessions, Blake or Fisher.

This was another favorite set for the Lakers last season. While running a 1-4 pick-and-roll on one side of the court, Kobe would come off a double-screen on the opposite side, coming free for a jumper around the elbow or just outside the arc. Here’s how it looked last season with Sessions getting the screen from Gasol, and Bynum and Devin Ebanks setting the double-screen for Kobe.

Again, the new personnel on hand for the Lakers can make this play even more effective. With Nash and Gasol running the pick-and-roll/pop on one side of the court, the defense is already in a world of trouble. Nash scored 0.92 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, good for 28th in the league. He shot a ridiculous 53.6% out of the pick-and-roll. Basically, you just cannot afford to leave him open when he gets a screen. If you do, there’s a better than even chance he’s going to score.

Though Gasol hasn’t performed particularly well out of the pick-and-roll the past two seasons, he did not have Nash delivering him the ball in those situations. Pau has routinely been a mid-to-high 40’s percent shooter from mid-range (both 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet) over the course of his career, even occasionally sneaking into the low-to-mid 50’s. He’s also finished between 64.0 and 74.0 percent of hit shots at the rim over the past seven seasons. With Nash delivering him the ball, he’ll be an extremely dangerous pick-and-roll player this season.

There is also the added threat of Howard on the weak side to deal with. After setting a screen for Kobe, Howard can simulate a pick-and-roll action by cutting through the lane when Gasol runs a pick-and-pop with Nash. This draws a help defender away from Kobe, who again, took far too many shots with far too many hands in his face last season. Drawing the defender to the other side of the court gives Kobe a quick opportunity for a jumper, and if it’s not there, he has the isolation opportunity he likes so much. If he doesn’t have an opening right away, he can quickly swing the ball back to Nash, who can reset the play and get the Lakers into their next option.

The play becomes even more dangerous if Howard is the roll man. Howard ranked 2nd in the NBA with 1.36 PPP as a roll man last season, converting on 74% of his shots. This was after ranking 1st in the NBA with 1.43 PPP and making 81.7% of his shots in the 2010-11 season. Quite simply, Howard is the best pick-and-roll finisher in the league. With Howard rolling, Nash attacking, and Gasol stretching the defense with his excellent mid-range jumper, there will be plenty of weak side opportunities available for Kobe.

1-2 Pick-and-Roll

This is a play that became somewhat of a Laker favorite down the stretch, though it was usually used to create a switch and get Kobe a post-up opportunity on a point guard. They ran this action a bunch in their playoff series against the Nuggets to get Kobe post-ups on Ty Lawson, for example. However, we can also see here that it works as a traditional pick-and-roll play. The Lakers ran this set against Nash and the Suns last season.

Kobe only officially took nine shots as a roll man last season (largely due to the opportunities he had against Denver being categorized as post-ups), but he made four of them (44.4%), and he was open more often than not. With Nash as the man with the ball in his hands, he’ll be even more open. Again, Nash shot 53.6% from the field as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, and is one of the best pick-and-roll passers the league has ever seen.

Spotting up

This is something Kobe hasn’t really done all that much of in the past few seasons. He averaged just 1.9 spot-up opportunities per game last season after averaging 2.28 per game the season before. He scored 0.92 and 0.95 PPP on those opportunities, ranking 177th and 185th in the league, respectively, in 2011-12 and 2010-11. Again though, Kobe’s teammates will likely help alleviate this relative struggle.

The threat of Nash shooting out of the pick-and-roll, Gasol rolling to the hoop or popping out for a jumper or Howard crashing in from the weak side stretches the defense to its limits, and forces defenders to rotate to cover easier options. This will often leave Kobe open for a spot-up jumper on the weak side, as it did during the Lakers’ preseason game against Sacramento a couple nights ago on a Nash-Dwight pick-and-roll.

As we saw in the study earlier, the difference between a contested shot (one where a defender gets a hand up on the attempt) and a pressured shot (one with no hand up) can mean nearly a 10% difference in FG%. The Lakers’ new personnel can be used to get Kobe Bryant – already one of the best scorers in the history of the league – more open shots, if he’ll allow for it. Working off the ball can be the key to Kobe both increasing his efficiency and extending his longevity. Though he’s said he plans to retire in two years, it’s still a good idea for him to minimize the wear and tear on his body over the next few seasons so he can stay fresh for playoff runs. The Lakers can help him do that, and get his usual compliment of shot attempts, simply by running plays they already ran for him, more often.

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