The Inbounds: Nash, Howard, and an impossible sword

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Last year, on a team where Marcin Gortat was the second-best player on the team and the rest of the roster was at best inconsistent and at worst a hot mess, Steve Nash’s passes out of the pick and roll lead to scoring 59.5% of the time, which was best among players with 100 possessions, according to Synergy Sports. So he was literally the best pick and roll passer in the leauge.

Last year, on a team where Jameer Nelson had injury issues, the entire team has chemistry problems related to the ongoing drama, and the offense was primarily geared around perimeter shooters (oh, and he was injured), Dwight Howard scored as the pick and roll man 73.7% of the time, which was best in the league.

So they have literally paired the best pick and roll passing guard with the best pick and roll finisher in the league.

Ready for some more crack analysis?

As a result, the Lakers are going to be pretty good.

The Nash-Howard dynamic on the floor is the most dangerous element the Lakers will have in play. Kobe Bryant is still an elite scorer. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash will have a fantastic mastery of the pick and pop set. But Nash-Howard, long before the Lakers entered the picture, was the perfect combination. A point guard who can deliver the ball to any point on the floor combined with the most athletic big man with excellent feel for the pick and roll spacing. If you cover the roll, Nash shoots, and he shoots 55 percent from that situation. Bring help and either Gasol has a mid-range jumper or Bryant is open on the cut or catch. It’s the BFG of offense.

And it’s indicative of the real reason this team will be so dangerous. It fits together better than any superteam in recent memory.

The stellar combinations of talent that have accumulated over the past five seasons have all been dynamic, impressive combinations of ability. But the Celtics, with a high-usage self-creating small forward, a spot-up shooter wing, and a hyper-versatile combo forward? The Celtics’ were dominant precisely because they were willing to commit themselves to something greater than their original talents. They sacrificed for a greater concept. It was a good offense, but not an elite one. The Heat? They’ve learned to play together, but the reason they’ve struggled over the past two years is because versatile combo-point-forward mixed with ISO slashing shooting guard, and traditional stretch four? It’s not a perfect mix. The Knicks…. yeah, the Knicks. The Lakers bring something entirely different.

Nash fits well with Gasol’s ability to spread the floor, and can create open looks for Bryant, something that he doesn’t do on his own. But Nash with Howard maximizes both of their abilities. They only way to properly defend it is to bring help defenders, and at that point you’ve got Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol (or Metta World Peace or Jodie Meeks or Steve Blake) with enough space to allow them to make a sandwich before they shoot.

But all that’s on paper.

There’s a million ways the Lakers can fall apart. Chemistry, injuries (Howard’s back, in particular), good ol’ fashioned age, the simple fact that despite all the evidence to the contrary, things on paper don’t just go together. Mike Brown’s coaching is widely held as suspect, and Bryant’s willingness to let go of the reins is not exactly something you can count on. The lesson from the Heat should be that it isn’t that simple. That it does take time to click, and that talent isn’t everything.

But the formula the Lakers have put together isn’t one built on just raw talent. It’s a special combination of skills. Bringing in a player that can pass like Nash is one thing, but pick and roll is his bread and butter. And Dwight Howard’s one big piece of toast.

The trick here is to not overestimate what the Laker are capable of, to not overstate their ceiling by talking about nonsense like 72 wins or a title right off the bat, but to also recognize and respect the brilliance of what the Lakers have put together. They could have gotten sub-stars at redundant positions, or shuffled the same pieces. Acquiring just Nash and you have a dominant team that still is trying to find the right ways to go together. Just get Howard, and you have size but nothing to figure out how the pieces fit together.

But instead, this combination is going to bring something more dangerous than anything else the Lakers have. Let’s be clear. If Kobe Byant were to vanish from existence tomorrow like in “Back to the Future,” just vanish into nothing, the Lakers would still be dominant because of the strength of how much better Nash makes every player around him and how strong Howard is as a finisher and defensively.

There’s room to admit that the Lakers have a lot of challenges and risks, including Howard’s back, their age, and to acknowledge just how good this team will be, and why.

If the Lakers are healthy, and there’s no personality conflict, the league is in trouble. Because if they’re not unguardable, they’ll be as close as it gets.

Dwyane Wade signs ‘lifetime’ deal with Li-Ning

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MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade has signed a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning.

Wade made the deal official at an event in Beijing on Wednesday with the company’s CEO and namesake Li Ning, who is revered in China for his gymnastics success.

Wade’s relationship with Li-Ning began in 2012, after he previously was an endorser for Converse and Jordan Brand. In addition to the continued production of basketball and lifestyle apparel, the new deal calls for Wade to take “a greater role” in youth developmental camps and basketball clinics in China and other parts of the world over the coming years.

Wade finished last season with the Miami Heat. He has not decided if he will return to the Heat next season, which would be his 16th in the NBA.

New Bulls forward Jabari Parker: ‘They don’t pay players to play defense’

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Jabari Parker never found his footing with the Bucks. Parker’s injuries and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ascension left Parker – a top recruit then No. 2 overall pick – trying (and often failing) to to fit into a complementary role he clearly never envisioned for himself.

After signing a contract to become the Bulls’ highest-paid player, Parker is unapologetically embracing a new mission.

Parker, via 670 The Score:

I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two people historically that play defense. I’m not going to say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. Because I’ve scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense.

If you know the game, you also know that everyone’s a pro, right? And you know that certain guys have an average. No matter what you do, they still get that average. They pay people to score the ball, and I would hope that somebody scores the ball on me if they pay them that much. So, I’m not saying that to cop out or nothing. It’s the NBA. We’re professionals. Everybody scores. It’s just about limiting them as much as you can, trying to contain them.

A better offense wins a championship.

Parker is generally right. Scoring is rewarded far more than defense. If NBA teams don’t want to encourage that attitude, they ought to pay players more for other skills. Until then, players like Parker – who has no salary guarantee beyond this season – will continue to be drawn to scoring.

Parker is also correct that certain players get their points-per-game average no matter what. What he fails to explain: If that player needs too many shots to get it, he hurts his team. Good defenders force inefficiency from their opponents.

But, again, players who get theirs in the points column are often rewarded in salary.

So, expect Parker to hunt his points during his upcoming contract year.

These quotes only reinforce what we’d already seen from Parker. He showed glimpses of strong defense during this year’s playoffs, but that was rare for him. His skill set and approach are offense-first.

And great offense probably beats great defense. But offenses are rarely reliably great. Defense more often can be. The Warriors, as exceptional as they are offensively, are also elite defensively. I’m not sure Parker grasps that.

It’s on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to convince him, but managing this issue is easier said than done. Not only does Parker bring years of habits to Chicago, he’s playing to prove himself next season. The Bulls have a team option on him for 2019-20.

Parker will most positively affect winning by trying hard on both ends of the floor. He might most positively affect his bank account by saving his energy for offense.

You might not like him saying it, but it’s also reality.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.