Lakers must form offensive identity without Bryant

It’s difficult to find the silver lining in a first-round sweep and consecutive 20-plus point losses at home, but the Los Angeles Lakers can tip their hats on a hard-fought, albeit short, series without five key rotation players.

As San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after San Antonio’s 103-82 victory, “It wasn’t a fair fight.” And he’s right. It’s not as if the Lakers weren’t trying out there; it’s that even when they did try, it didn’t make a difference.

The harsh reality is that a banged-up Spurs team is still eons better than the crop of players the Lakers had available to them in the 2013 playoffs, and the results -- four straight double-digit losses -- showed as much.

No matter how well Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol played, or how much help they received from the severely depleted supporting cast, the Lakers never stood a chance against the Spurs. Once Kobe Bryant went down, the Lakers’ hopes of advancing deep in the playoffs were essentially over.

The only takeaway from this series, and the final six games, is the potential blueprint for how the Lakers can play without Bryant next season, regardless of his health. The Lakers have a size advantage over virtually every opponent they face, and should be able to leverage their strength more effectively.

At about the midway point of the first quarter, Earl Clark made an entry pass into Gasol, who was battling Matt Bonner for position near the right block. As Clark cut to the opposite side of the floor, Gasol jab-stepped, observed the defense, and then starting backing down Bonner toward the paint.

A quick hedge by Kawhi Leonard didn’t faze Gasol, and neither did a late double-team attempt by Tony Parker, who left Chris Duhon wide open at the top of the key. Once he got into the middle of lane, Gasol lofted up a gentle left-handed hook shot that barely grazed the front rim and dropped in.

The Lakers’ spacing on the possession was almost perfect: Darius Morris, Duhon and Clark were spread out evenly and spotting up along the 3-point line, while Howard stayed ready on the weak side to either cut or attack the offensive glass.

Without Bryant in their final six games, the Lakers became more of an inside-out team, often posting up either Howard or Gasol and then stationing the other four players on the weak side and around the 3-point arc to provide ample spacing.

That way, if teams choose to double down low or aggressively help, the Lakers would counter with a barrage of open 3-pointers.

In an effort to preserve their sacred spacing, head coach Mike D’Antoni tried staggering Gasol and Howard’s minutes, so one would be accompanied by floor-spacer Antawn Jamison, although that caused defensive issues.

Over the course of the season, post-ups accounted for only 14.4 percent of the Lakers’ plays. Since Bryant went down, however, post-ups accounted for at least 16.2 percent of the Lakers’ offense in each game, and topped 18 percent in five of the six contests.

In Game 4, Gasol scored on seven of his 10 post-up opportunities. For the game, the Lakers scored 1.05 points per play (PPP), which would best the Miami Heat’s league-leading .92 PPP on post-ups over a full season.

The prevailing concern in retrospect is that D’Antoni played Bryant too many minutes down the stretch of the season, thus increasing the potential for an injury, because he didn’t trust the rest of the team to remain competitive without him on the floor.

Come next season, though, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue, assuming the roster is reasonably healthy and somewhat bolstered through free agency.

The Lakers should be able to go at least 10- to 12-minute stretches throughout a game without Bryant and muster enough offense through post-ups for their All-Star big men and open 3-point looks for their shooters.

There’s no telling what the offseason holds for the franchise -- including which players and coaches will remain – but it’s clear that when Bryant finally returns at some point next season, the new incarnation of the Lakers will have formed an identity and playing style all their own.

Stats used in this post are from NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.