Archives For April 2005

Welcome to all of the visitors from Instapundit, make yourself at home. This is a Laker blog but we talk all of the NBA here. Check out the links on the left for other great NBA blogs and sites as well.

That said, this is the wrap up post for another position on the Lakers (we’ve already done team management and point guard), and since there are more visitors here than ever let’s talk about who everyone wants to talk about: Kobe. These player-related posts will have players listed this way: Kobe Bryant (23.8/15.1/+2.8). Those numbers are: the player’s PER, his opponents PER for the season at his primary position, and his +/- averaged for 48 minutes. I stole this listing idea from Knickerblogger, and get the stats from his site and While none of these statistics is perfect, together they give a pretty good indication of what a player meant to a team.

Kobe must be a humbled man after the past two seasons he’s had — this was to be his team and it fell way short of expectations. He is taking blame for things both his fault and beyond his control, which comes with the territory of it being “your team.”

But on the court, the problems with this team were not all at Kobe’s feet. Kobe (23.8/15.1/+2.8) was very good — his PER was seventh in the league and down just slightly from last year (23.7). He had an eFG% of 48.2%, which is up from last season (46.8%) and back above his career average (48%). He had a career high in points per shot attempt, 1.13, largely because he got to the free throw line more than any year, drawing fouls on 16% of his shot attempts (10.1 free throws attempted per game this season, two per game more than last season). Kobe took more jumpers than ever before — 71% of his shots were jump shots, last year that was 66%. Kobe, in the face of being the main focus of the opposition, settled for the outside shot more often, he needs not to do that.

Some of those jump shots came because he was forced to bail out the shaky Laker offense way too much — 17% of Kobe’s shots came with three seconds or less left on the 24-second shot clock. That’s an insanely high percentage, but we saw it all season: After passing the ball around for 16 seconds, Chucky Atkins would find Kobe the ball with time running down and the rest of the Lakers would stand around while he was asked to create.

Certainly, part of the reason for those offensive breakdowns was Kobe himself. If there was one Laker who played outside of the offensive system this season (or should we say, both offensive systems), it was Bryant.

Then there was his defense, which started out strong but slipped as the season went along. Part of this was due to injuries — after the mid-season ankle injury his defense was never as good, his quickness just half a step slower. (Kobe played way too many minutes this season, averaging 40.7, which is one reason he played tired at times and never got healthy.) He finished the season with an oPER of 15.1, basically right at the league average (15) but much worse than last season (13.8). (As a side note, part of that was a lack of interior protection — if you beat Kobe off the dribble this season you could get to the hole, if you beat him last season Shaq was waiting for you.)

The big question with Kobe this season is: Did he, as the focal point of the team, make everyone around him better? That’s a mixed bag. Chucky Atkins (13.72/19.1/+1.6) and Chris Mihm (16.09/16.2/-2.1) had career years. But those are role players. The guy he needed to mesh best with, Lamar Odom (17.65/17.6/+1.9), played better with Kobe out — Odom deferred to Kobe and Kobe never did a consistent job of getting Odom involved.

Part of talking Kobe is also talking leadership — here is the one place I think he can grow. The reports out of practices were that he was more Bobby Knight than supportive mentor, and that aggressive style wears thin on many professional players. That said, at the end of the season he appeared to bond well with Caron Butler (16.1/20/-4) — it is possible Kobe is learning to use the carrot and the stick.

I’d grade Kobe out as a B this year, but hope that he takes it as would a driven straight-A student who earned his first B. He needs to assess what went wrong in his own mind and, hopefully, fully realize that he has to play within the offense (whatever it is), get teammates involved and lead by example first and foremost. I think he understands these things on an intellectual level, but doing them at a gut level with adrenalin flowing is another thing.

There is no question about Kobe’s work ethic — he will come back ready to play. He needs to come back ready to lead.

One guy who could take some of the minute load off Kobe next year is Sasha Vujacic (9.13/21.3/+5.2). There may be no player who had more written about him on this site this year than Sasha, and it’s because the rookie showed great flashes of potential (remember when he asked for a clear out so he could take Kevin Garnett one-one-one, then beat him to the hole for two). The problem was, those were followed by moments of indecision, poor defense and streaky shooting.

If it is Phil Jackson who coaches the Lakers next year, Sasha is the kind of tall guard he likes and that could mean more playing time. But first and foremost, Sasha’s defense must improve — he was solid playing the zone (which he played more in Europe) but struggled in man to man. He never really came close to figuring out how to get around a good pick — he lost his man almost every time. That said, he did show improvement as the year went on.

Sasha has amazing passing skills, but to really take advantage of those he has to become a more consistent threat to score himself. Sasha shot just 34.9% eFG% on jump shots this season, and that accounted for 79% of his attempts.

The limited number of minutes played by Sasha this season did not help his development — he needs to play summer league and in just about every pick-up game he can find. He needs to live in the gym. If he does all that, maybe next year he can become a more consistent part of the rotation — which would make we fans happy.

Carnival of the NBA

 —  April 28, 2005

There ain’t no Carnival like a playoff Carnival. The Carnival of NBA blogs has made a stop in Los Angeles, where the Staples Center sits as empty as Jennifer Aniston’s heart. If you don’t know what a carnival is read this (from Matt at Bulls Blog, who started the traveling roadshow), otherwise come along for the First Round playoff edition of the Carnival.

Out East, Crazy from the Heat is enjoying thrashing New Jersey and thinks a Little League-style mercy rule should be evoked before game three. He’s got a point — if you can’t stop Zo how you gonna stop a now-motivated Shaq? Also look for a big stats-based post on the site in the next couple of days about the Heat.

The other thrashing out East is Detroit over Philadelphia and that makes the Piston bloggers happy. While Knickerblogger may not have his horse in this year’s race, he likes Detroit and the Heat to battle it out in the Eastern Finals.

Jeff and his legions of commenters at Celtics Blog want to know where was Al Jefferson and the rest of the bench during game two? Good question. That said, game three is tonight and the words of the day for Celtic fans are ”don’t panic.”Meanwhile, the Pacer Nation is loving the last magical days of Reggie Miller.

After too long an absence, Bulls Blog is not only enjoying returning the playoffs but winning — just like the good old days.

In the West, Spurs Blog thinks everything is right with the world now that the series is even. A second loss and the sun may have set in the east. As you might expect, Nugget fans and bloggers are now the ones concerned.

The people over at Supersonics vs. The World want to know what has gotten into Jerome James? The good people at Supersonics Soul think they have the answer.

The bigger question in Seattle is what has gotten into Radmanovic’s hair?

Not everybody made the playoffs and that means plenty of non-playoff talk is out there on the Web. Everybody loves playing with bubblewrap, including the people at Hornets 24/7 who are looking back at the best quotes about the team during the year. (Warning, this may not be up until Friday, but it’s worth checking back for.)

Scott at Raptorblog feels like the more things change the more they stay the same. Father Knickerbocker is is rehashing the Knicks season in detail. The Timberwolves Blog is checking out the playoffs.

And Golden State blog The City can’t wait for next year’s playoffs to start because they think Barron can lead them to the promised land.

Thursday Morning Reading

 —  April 28, 2005

Two stories worth reading to pass along, although both completely different.

The first is the latest piece by Eric Pincus at Hoopsworld. He says that Phil is likely and there are several trade possibilities discussed.

Jonathan Bender and the 17th pick have been rumored to be on their way to LA for Devean George and either Slava Medvedenko or Brian Cook. What’s not clear is the picks LA has to send in return. LA probably sends over the 2007 1st round pick, but that’s speculation.

The Hoopsworld piece also talks mock draft and has the Lakers taking Jerrett Jack, the point guard out of Georgia Tech at 10. Personally, the way his draft broke, I would have preferred Fran Vasquez. That said, I still say all trade and draft talk is premature until a coach is signed on the dotted line — we need a team philosophy first, then we can get players to fit it.

Second, very interesting and disturbing story I found through Ben Maller, about youth basketballl:

Clark Francis, publisher of The Hoop Scoop, a Louisville, Ky.-based scouting service that has pushed the envelope on ranking young players, last spring pushed it to its lowest point yet: fourth-graders.

Kevin Ferrell, then a 10-year-old, 4-foot-10-inch point guard from Lakeside Elementary in Warren Township, has a crossover dribble, can hit a running jumper in the lane and snaps off one-handed bounce passes that hit teammates in stride. He topped Francis’ national list. And soon the pressure began.

The Three Phil Jackson Questions

 —  April 27, 2005

Update: Without getting into details, I spoke with a friend who has good contacts within the Laker organization and the word is the Lakers organization is very confident Phil will be the next coach. I made that call after reading the reliable Eric Pincus from Hoopsworld say in several message boards today that he is of the impression that a Jackson deal is close. Nothing is certain until papers are signed and Kobe and Phil talk, but this may be closer to reality than a dream.

The only way there could be more rumors swirling through the media about Phil Jackson is if he had something to do with Britney’s pregnancy.

He met with Jerry Buss, but not with Kobe Bryant. The Knicks think they have a shot, Cleveland hopes they have a shot. Some Laker fans think Phil is the team’s only shot and the respectable Eric Pincus said he could even be on board by Friday.

Before Jackson signs on the dotted line with the Lakers, three big hurdles have to be cleared, and I’m not sure all of them can be. None of this is new, but with all the hype I thought it should be restated. Here they are, in the order from least to biggest problem.

1) Phil wants to be paid about $10 million a year. This may be already decided — that’s a huge check for Buss to write, but if that well-publicized number were abhorrent to Buss I seriously doubt the conversation would have gotten this far.

There’s another way for Buss to look at this: Last year he was scheduled to pay Rudy T. about $6 million for the season, in Jackson’s last season with the Lakers he made about $6 million. NBA financial analysts say that every win earns a team about an additional $250,000 in revenue. By that math, if Jackson (and some new players) can bring the Lakers 16 more wins — turning the Lakers back into a 50-win team — the additional revenue would offset the increase in coaching salary. Not that getting to 50 wins would be doable, even for Jackson, but if you think he can do it the money is less of an issue.

2) Relationships need to be mended. When people talk about the fallout from “the book,” the assumption is we’re talking about Kobe. And that certainly needs to be dealt with. Has the last season been humbling enough for Kobe to work with Jackson again with an open mind? Is Jackson willing to put his past problems with Kobe aside and start fresh? The two men would need to have a clear-the-air talk, which may or may not be enough.

But it’s not just Kobe. I didn’t read Jackson’s book (and those that did may be able to speak better to this), but the impression is Mitch Kupchak does not come off well. Can he and Jackson work together again? Is Buss, who told Jackson the team needed to go in another direction, ready and willing to bring Phil back into the fold? There are a lot of relationships that need mending.

3) Does Jackson want to coach again? It’s one thing to be wanted, it’s another to want it yourself.

Jackson may enjoy the courting process right now, but does he have the fire back, the willingness to put in the hours needed prepare for the second night of a back-to-back in Toronto in February? Before the courting process started, friends of Jackson’s said it was 50/50 he would come back at all. Maybe the excitement of the playoffs starting and all the interest shown him has changed that percentage, but if his heart is not completely in it he needs to take a step back. Coaching in the NBA is an unbelievable grind, and if he is not physically and mentally up to it he is not going to do any team any good by taking the job just for the check.

That’s three big hurdles to get over. If they are cleared, Jackson might be back on the Laker bench next year and the team would be better for it. But we’re a long way from dreaming of next year’s playoffs now.

This is the second in a series over the next couple of weeks looking at this Laker team in depth and possible moves for the future. The first post looked at team management.

(These player-related posts will have players listed this way: Kobe Bryant (23.8/15.1/+2.8). Those numbers are: the player’s PER, his opponents PER for the season at his primary position, and his +/- averaged for 48 minutes. I stole this listing idea from Knickerblogger, and get the stats from his site and While none of these statistics is perfect, together they give a pretty good indication of what a player meant to a team.)

No position became the symbol of Laker frustration this past season, and no position took harsher critiques, than point guard. There’s a reason for that — they sucked. The Lakers got a PER of 12.9 as a team from that position, the lowest of any spot on the floor, but opponents PER was 18.9, making it also the Lakers worst spot defensively.

No player was more of a microcosm of the entire Laker season than Chucky Atkins (13.72/19.1/+1.6), and no player became more of a scapegoat for the team’s problems among fans.

Offensively Atkins fell in love with the three-point shot — 50% of his shot attempts this year were from beyond the arc. While his shooting was good — 52.3% (eFG%) and 1.12 points per shot attempt — he was not good at moving the ball around, averaging just 4.9 assists per 40 minutes. In fact, he needed to be set up — 60% of his baskets were off an assist. He settled for jumpers and penetrated little, drawing fouls on just 5.4% of his shot attempts.

Then there was his defense — Ole! Atkins opponents average 20.7 points per 48 minutes and shot 49.6% (eFG%). Those opponents blew past him on the perimeter and got 23% of their shots inside the paint. Atkins averaged just one steal per 40 minutes played. Nightly he was a liability on the defensive end, something evident whether you looked at the statistics or just watched with the naked eye.

Part of the problem was the Laker brass didn’t think there was a viable backup at point. Tierre Brown (9.71/18.7/-1.9) was certainly not the answer.

While quicker and more willing to penetrate — 35% of his shots came in the paint — Brown also turned the ball over 2.8 times per 40 minutes, the third worst number on the team (and the worst number belonged to Kobe, but he handled the ball the most). Brown did not shoot well, shooting 39.7% on the season and averaging just .87 points per shot attempt. His defense was slightly better than Atkins, but not enough to make a difference — against Brown opponents averaged 19.7 points per 48 minutes and shot 45.7%. He averaged just 1.2 steals per 40 minutes.

Overall, I give the Lakers a D at the position this past season. And it is one position the Lakers absolutely must to address in the off-season — but how to go about that will depend on the preferences of the new coach. While the league may be trending toward smaller, quicker guards, Phil Jackson has long been partial to taller guards.

One answer may already be on the roster in Sasha Vujacic (9.13/21.3/+5.2). He showed flashes this year but also plenty of immaturity (a more detailed breakdown of Sasha will be part of the shooting guard recap, since that’s where he played most of his time). Whether he will work depends on: 1) The offensive system being run; 2) Sasha getting better at man-to-man defense, particularly his footwork; 3) Becoming a more consistent jump shooter.

There are a number of veteran point guards available via free agency whatever direction the Lakers choose — Earl Watson if you want to go small, Marco Jaric if you go big. It may be difficult for the Lakers to afford either of those or an Antonio Daniels. Also available as unrestricted free agency are Jeff McInnis from Cleveland and former Laker Tyronn Lue (Lue’s statistics per 48 minutes this season compare well with Akins, but Lue made just $1.65 million, which is a much better price for someone in a back up role).

This is also considered a deep draft for point guards. The Lakers will not get Chris Paul from Wake Forest without a lottery miracle, however someone like Raymond Felton from North Carolina or Deron Williams from Illinois could be around. If you want a someone who comes defensive-ready, there’s Georgia Tech’s Jarrett Jack (but not at #10, that’s too high for him).

The Lakers need to make changes at the one, but don’t assume Chucky is gone. For all his flaws, Atkins could be a spark off the bench with his shooting — he hit 38.7% of his three point attempts. He just needs to play 12-15 minutes a game, not the 35.4 he averaged this season. Another reason to keep Atkins is he is in the last year of his deal, earning $4.5 million, making his very good trade bait.

But that trade could happen this summer as well, and no Lakers fans are going to shed a tear if Atkins is gone. Brown likely is gone to make room for whoever is coming in.

Notes From The Weekend

 —  April 25, 2005

I watched some NBA playoff games, read what I could about the Lakers and went to the LA Times Festival of Books. Here are some thoughts:

• Phil Jackson Watch: The Lakers are meeting Tuesday with Jackson to talk coaching, according to Joel Meyers. Phil also is scheduled to talk to the New York Knicks in the next week or so. Personally, if I were Jackson I would meet with everyone I could, even if I knew where I wanted to coach, just to drive up my price.

• Do you really think Isaiah Thomas would give up the roster control Phil Jackson would demand?

• Kobe’s wrist, which bothered him the last couple weeks of the season, does not have anything seriously wrong with it.

• I guess what Laker play-by-play Paul Sunderland will be doing next fall depends on whom you ask. As passed along here, Bob Kaiser in the Press Telegram said a few weeks ago that he was toast. Then last Friday Larry Stewart in the Times said no decision would be made until May. My guess is management is looking to see who is out there before making a decision. Stewart also said:

Word is the Lakers are considering a change because the ratings are down. Earth to Lakers: Maybe the team’s performance had something to do with that.

• How ‘bout those Nuggets? I still have to like San Antonio over seven games, but what if this were a five-game series like the “old” days? Same thing with the Houston/Dallas series, I think the Mav’s depth will win out in seven but if this were a five-game series Mark Cuban would and should be a lot more nervous.

• By the way, the rest of my playoff picks (based on my first round selections) are: Western Conference, second round, Dallas over Phoenix in seven, San Antonio over Sacramento in five. Western Conference Finals: San Antonio over Dallas in six.

Eastern Conference, second round: Miami over Chicago in five, Detroit over Boston in five. Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit over Miami in six.

NBA Finals, San Antonio over Detroit in seven.

• There are T-shirts on sale in the Miami arena that say, “Thank you, Kobe.” That’s pretty funny.

• My wife and I got to the LA Times Festival of Books early Sunday so our daughter could see Bob the Builder. Turns out he’s just like a real contractor — he show’s up late and only works for about half as long as expected.

• Other highlights from the Festival include getting a book signed by Gore Vidal (I had to get his new book, but also had him sign my copy of Lincoln) and a very funny speech by Eric Idle. By the way (and not that anyone organizing the festival reads this), but at the large political panels (such as the one we saw in Royce Hall), don’t let the public ask questions. People at the mike either give a speech, plug some other book or just generally spout nonsense — you’re lucky if one out of 10 people actually ask a good question. I came to hear the people on the panels, let them talk.

• Mike G. over at the APBRmetrics board posted recently this chart showing the Lakers true shooting percentages as compared to points per game — and it showed that the Lakers who took the shots pretty much were they guys who should have taken the shots. I’d like to see Odom and Butler getter a higher TS%, but all in all this isn’t that bad. That said, the offense wasn’t the problem.

TS% . . player . . . . . . PPG
.563 Bryant,Kobe . . 27.6
.558 Atkins,Chucky . 13.6
.556 Jones,Jumaine .. 7.6
.552 Mihm,Chris . . . . 9.8
.539 Grant,Brian . . . . 3.8
.539 Odom,Lamar . . 15.2
.528 Butler,Caron . .. 15.5
.522 Cook,Brian . . . . 6.4
.437 Brown,Tierre . . . 4.4

(True Shooting Percentage is half of points per shot attempt, a stat that credits people for three pointers and free throws in addition to basic made baskets. Some stats people prefer TS% to PSA because they see the stat as more “digestible” as a percentage. I don’t have a preference. The league average this season was about .529.)

• Wild, unsubstantiated rumors of the day: The Lakers sending Devean George, Slava and both our second-round picks to Indiana for Jonathon Bender and the 17th overall pick. There’s also the rumor the Lakers are trying to revive the Carlos Boozer deal with Caron, Chucky Atkins and more going to Utah — I’d love to see that, but I’d also love to see myself driving a Porsche. Both seem highly unlikely.

The Playoffs: Round One

 —  April 22, 2005

Normally at this time of year in Los Angeles Laker flags start popping up on cars like cherry blossoms in Washington DC. Everywhere you turned people were wearing Laker gear, talking playoffs and showing some civic pride. This year we get the “news” that Phil Jackson is a viable coaching candidate. Shocking.

Today, I’m wearing my Dodger jersey (and if I had one, a “DePodesta was right” T-shirt, something the entire LA Times sports staff should be forced to don). At the gas station this morning two people were wearing Dodger hats. Last night at the grocery store I saw people wearing Dodger shirts. It’s great to see — if we don’t have the Lakers at least we have one team overachieving.

That said, I’m still going to be watching the NBA playoffs. Here are some first round thoughts and predictions. Please feel free to contribute your own.

Western Conference

Phoenix and Memphis. Jerry West is brilliant, but for the past two years Bryan Colangelo has been better. Phoenix in four.

San Antonio and Denver. This is going to be interesting, if San Antonio were healthy it would be one thing but they are not. George Karl will try to exploit this — he has enough big bodies (even if they don’t play defense) to throw at Tim Duncan, then Manu Ginobili will get run until he drops. San Antonio catches a break with the number of days off in the first round. The franchise that produced the greatest first-round upset in history will come close again, but I’ll take the Spurs in seven.

Seattle and Sacramento. Paging Hawkeye Pierce. We may even need Frank Burns to attend to the walking wounded in this series. All season long the Sonics were the darlings of we fans of the new thinking in NBA stats, but injuries and more have pulled the team apart. Sacramento is not better without Chris Webber, but they’re not worse either. Seattle is 2-8 in their last 10 games, with teams shooting 55% (eFG%) against them. I can’t pick a team that cold, so I’ll take the upset of Sacramento in six.

Dallas and Houston. I like Houston, but I like Dallas more. The Mavs are a solid all around team and Houston, with its average offense (15th in the league in offensive efficiency) is not there yet. I’ll take Dallas in six.

Eastern Conference

Miami and New Jersey. The Nets come in playing their best basketball of the year, 8-2 in their last 10 and Vince Carter averaging 39.75 points per 48 minutes in that span. On the other side of the ledger, Shaq is not 100% and it may take a couple of games for the team to gel around him again. You think that means I’ll call an upset? Miami in six.

Detroit and Philadelphia. There may be no team playing better right now than Detroit. The Sixers come in hot as well, having one 8 of their last 10, but Tayshaun Prince can shut down Iverson. Detroit in five.

Boston and Indiana.
If there is one series I have no feel for it’s this one. Whose star is going to hit the bigger clutch shots — Paul Pierce or Reggie Miller? I’ll take Pierce. Celtics in seven.

Chicago and Washington. If Deng and Curry were healthy this would be a no-brainer, but instead we get the battle of the backcourts. I think the difference here is defense — on the season Chicago has been the second most efficient defense in the league (97.4 points per 100 possessions) and in the last 10 games, without Deng and Curry, that has fallen to 96.5. Meanwhile Washington on the season gave up 103.9 and in the last 10 — with their playoff lives hanging in the balance — it was 110.4. It’s still close, Arenas will have some big games, but give me Chicago in seven.

There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure to take one with a heart.

-Lao Tzu

I was worried at first when I heard Mitch Kupchak say there was no set blueprint for the rebuilding of the Lakers. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw a Zen-like wisdom in the idea of being flexible — there is not one path back to the championship. It can be done running or through Phil’s slowed-down triangle, and with Kobe as the core player you have options because his game has so many facets.

I’m less concerned with what specific actions Mitch takes than that there are actions — he is on the clock.

I’m not sure we’ve ever really seen what Mitch can do. When he took over for Jerry West it was Phil Jackson that ultimately had the say over player moves. Mitch was the guy in charge when Karl Malone and Gary Payton to put on Laker uniforms — a move we all thought guaranteed a championship — but again that was more about Phil, Kobe and Shaq than it was Mitch. Then, after last season, owner Jerry Buss tells Mitch to trade Shaq and make sure he did it fast enough to resign Kobe, tying his hands to make a good deal and forcing him to take the best of bad options.

The Mitch/Jerry Buss tandem did make one big mistake this past off-season — saying they wanted a running team then hiring Rudy T. As was pointed out during the season, the penetrate-and-dish-for-three offense of Rudy T. was exactly what should have been expected. Rudy T. was an odd coaching choice for what the Lakers’ stated goals and talent were — with a point/forward like Lamar, plus Kobe, Butler and Mihm this is a team that could have run.

That said, Mitch and no one else expected Rudy T. would have no apparent defensive system and then would need to step down because the stress of the job was too much.

So my grade for the past season is an Incomplete.

Now they have to retake the class — they have the chance to start the rebuilding and do it right. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy.

As I and many others have preached since day one, this rebuilding must start with a coach and a team philosophy. In a radio interview on 570 am yesterday afternoon, Mitch said that Phil Jackson’s name was at the top of the list of candidates, although that was the only name on the list he discussed.

Whether it’s Phil or someone else, who is the coach and what offensive and defensive systems will be run will determine Mitch’s next moves — the point guard Phil would want for the triangle is different than what Flip Saunders would want if he wants to make the Lakers a running team. Or, in another example, Phil very likely would want Luke Walton back, other coaches may be lukewarm.

Whatever moves the Lakers make, Mitch said to look more for trades than free agent signings. This makes sense — the Lakers already have more than $69 million in salary committed for next year and this is not New York, they aren’t just going to add salary.

The big question with trades is: Do you break up the trio of Kobe, Lamar and Caron? To get something in a trade the Lakers are going to have to give up something, and if they want a significant trade Lamar or Butler will have to go. The end of the year play between Kobe and Caron has many Laker fans thinking it is Lamar who should go — but it is Butler that is by far the more tradable asset. Odom will make $10 million next year and is signed through 2009, Butler is in the last year of a deal paying him $2.4.

Last year contracts are the coin of the realm for trades in today’s NBA, and unlike at last year’s trading deadline Mitch has several at his disposal now — Atkins, Butler, George, Vlade, Slava and Jumaine Jones. Slava and Vlade have little trade value, but the rest could be moved more easily — certainly more easily than Odom.

Kupchak also will have his best draft position ever — likely 10th. By the way, if you’re dreaming of Chris Paul running the point for the Lakers, know that they have a 1.4% chance of the top pick and a 4% chance of landing in the top three. It’s not going to happen — can you imagine the outcry and wailing that the system is fixed if the Lakers got the top pick?

The best mock drafts out there have the Lakers getting someone like Chris Taft out of Pittsburgh (an Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh at the four — $1 million body and a 5¢ head). Most likely the Lakers will get a guy who can contribute off the bench but not be a starter or star.

All of this is a lot to ask of Mitch, to rebuild this team back into a good playoff team in just one year, especially in the very deep Western Conference.

But that’s the job he signed up for, and if he wants to keep it he’s going to have to get a passing grade next year.