Lakers should coast before postseason wars, Jazz boast intriguing young talent (NBA Western Conference preview)

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SB Nation Chicago's NBA preview is underway. First up is the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

Lakers

The Lakers didn’t win the 2012 NBA offseason. They annihilated it. Steve Nash shocked the world the craziest segment of Raptors fans when he chose the Lakers over his loose Canadian connections in Toronto. The Orlando Magic surprised disappointed their own freaking general manager when team President Alex Martins went out-of-pocket and executed a trade that produced the worst for-a-superstar-big-man return the world has ever seen. Seriously. I’ve heard a rumor that if you look directly at the Orlando Magic depth chart, you turn to stone. Good thing nobody cares about the Magic anymore, right?

Pick-and-roll with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol? Potentially devastating. Pick-and-roll with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard AND with Gasol , Kobe and Antawn Jamison/Jodie Meeks waiting for the ball on secondary action? Good luck, NBA defenses. The "Kobe System" is going out of style and that much has been clear for a long time, but it’s not going to matter with so much talent on the roster. Kobe is going to torture everyone except Laker faithful with trollish ISOs that won’t cost LA games in the regular season. With regards to Kobe: imagine the Herman Cain super-slow-mo-pseudo-badass smile in basketball form. That’s what we’re up against on a nightly basis, folks. We are all Smush Parker.

The Lakers will win 50 games in their sleep, so the question is: can they beat out the Oklahoma City Thunder and get back to the NBA Finals? My answer requires me to backtrack a bit. The pick-and-roll combinations I described earlier looked unstoppable, didn't they? As it turns out, the Lakers coaching staff is (possibly) preparing to shut down Steve Nash pick-and-rolls. The team quietly added assistant coach Eddie Jordan during the offseason to implement the Princeton Offense -- a scheme predicated on constant motion, backdoor cuts, and wing or high-post entries as common points of initiation.

Eddie Jordan provided an in-depth breakdown of the offense in NBA Coaches Playbook: Techniques, Tactics, and Teaching Points, and he pointed out that there are three points of initiation in the offense: (1) pass and screen away from the ball, (2) pass and cut away or (3) pass and follow the ball for a high split handoff. In essence, the Lakers have actively pursued the installation of one of the only pro-level schemes (other than the Triangle Offense) that is designed to take the ball out of the hands of Nash in PnR. Weird, right? Here is what Jordan said about the fundamentals of the offense :

"The basic idea is to spread out the court with a high formation, keeping players above the free-throw area extended except when they cut to the basket. All five players are in constant motion, reading reactions of the defenders and determining the best manner of attack. This prevents the defense from providing weak-side help and leaves it vulnerable in many ways. A common result is that the defense tires over the course of a game, and we try to take great advantage of that extra step gained by the offense."

National Basketball Coaches Association. NBA Coaches Playbook: Techniques, Tactics, and Teaching Points (p. 111). Kindle Edition.

The Lakers probably expect to make things work under that system by using the scheme to get Kobe and Dwight more post opportunities where defenses can't double, while also allowing Nash to spread the court as a spot up shooter. At least that’s what Fort Wayne Mad Ants assistant coach and Grantland contributor Sebastian Pruiti predicted in his analysis of the new Lakers offense. Furthermore, there should still be chances for impromptu PnR with Nash because Jordan allowed Gilbert Arenas to do the same types of things with the Wizards.

Will Kobe, Nash, Howard and Gasol take to the Princeton Offense? Will the system enhance their abilities, or suppress their best talents? That’s the only question left for the Lakers. We might not find out the real answer until LA is deep in the playoffs, because they are good enough to beat most teams on most nights, regardless of what system they run.

Jazz

The Utah Jazz are a team with interesting pieces to a puzzle that probably can’t be assembled. As constructed, it’s hard to see the vision for 2012-13. I like the future for Utah -- Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are 22 years old or younger – but how can everyone maximize their value in the Utah frontcourt this season? Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Favors and Kanter populate an over-crowded group of bigs where each guy threatens to cannibalize the opportunities of the other. It’s hard to see a way for every member of that talented quartet to produce up to full potential. The Jazz are collecting intriguing prospects, but they don’t fit together.

Mo Williams, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are going to spend quite a bit of time together on the court, which means the Jazz had better be pretty damn good on offense. They’ve upgraded at small forward with 2006 NBA Draft bust Marvin Williams, but only because they set the bar low by playing Josh Howard and C.J. Miles at that spot the year prior.

The key for Utah is (naturally) a white guy. Gordon Hayward impressed me last season in extended action, and during the offseason he set a goal to make the 2012-13 Western Conference All-Star team. If Air Gordon clears that bar, the Jazz easily make the playoffs. If he doesn’t, it depends on how well they can jam ill-fitting puzzle pieces together until the path is cleared for the young prospects to take over in 2013-14 and beyond.

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