End of Season Report Card: Small Forwards

 —  May 4, 2005

This is the fourth in a series of season wrap-up posts for the Lakers (we’ve already done team management, point guard and shooting guards).Players in this post will be 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 82games.com. While none of these statistics is perfect, together they give a pretty good indication of what a player meant to a team.

For a position where the Lakers had more players than they could possibly use, they got very little production from the three. As a team, the PER for this position was an average 14.9, while the team opponents PER was 18.4. That -3.5 differential in PER was worse than any position on the floor except point guard.

Part of that was Caron Butler (16.10/20/-4.0) but he was really a man of two seasons — the vast majority of the season and the games after Lamar Odom went down.

For that first “season,” Butler appeared flummoxed while waiting in line for his shots behind Kobe, Lamar and Atkins. In spite of that he averaged 17.4 points per 40 minutes, the second best rate on the team. For the season Butler shot a pedestrian 46.4% (eFG%) and averaged 1.06 points per shot attempt.

All that changed when Odom went down late in the season. Butler suddenly was shooting 49.7% and averaging 1.12 points per shot attempt. The reason is Butler has to drive to the basket to be effective, and that role in the offense went to Kobe and Odom. Butler took 57% of his shots as jump shots and shot just 39.1% (eFG%) on those. But when he drove to the hole his shooting percentage jumped — 56% for shots inside 15 feet — and a much higher percentage on the 8% of his shots that were dunks.

For all the talk about how Kobe’s game didn’t mesh with Odom’s this past season, part of the offensive struggles of the Lakers this season was that it’s three best players all wanted to drive the lane.

Defensively, Butler, more than any other Laker, was someone who could have been a good defensive player but what hurt by the lack of defensive system. Butler is a good athlete, but opponent three guards shot 52.4% eFG while he was on the floor.

He hurt the team defensively, and for that reason I’d grade him a C for the entire season. If Odom were gone next season and a better defensive system were in place I think Butler could thrive. That said, Butler is a last-year contract and Odom is not, meaning Butler is more valuable on the trade market. (By the way, I’m lumping Odom in the power forwards review, even though he should play the three.)

The first Laker off the bench for much of the year was Jumaine Jones (13.35/17.7/+3.8), who turned out to be a pleasant surprise as part of the deal with Boston. For the first part of the year he led the team in +/- (he finished third) and provided a spark off the bench shooting 53.7% (eFG%), the highest percentage on the team. He is another Laker who fell in love with the three point shot — 53.7% of his attempts were from beyond the arc, where he shot 39%. His points per shot attempt were 1.11, third best on the team.

Jones’ ability to come off the bench hot, hit an outside shot consistently and grab some rebounds (12.3% of the available boards while he was on the floor) made him one of the few players on the Lakers this season to find and fit in a role. His defense is not spectacular and his efficiency went down when he was thrust into a starting role (and the amount of the offense that went through him went up), but he can be a solid sixth or seventh man for years in Los Angeles. I’d give him a B- (the minus only because he struggled on defense, too).

On the other hand, Luke Walton (11.62/18.1/-5.1) never found a role or seemed to fit on this year’s Laker team. Part of the reason is he has played out of position a lot — while the 6’8” Walton is a natural three, he played 72% of the time on the floor as a four. His rebounds did improve this season (he grabbed 10.4% of the available rebounds), particularly on the offensive end, but Walton is not a power forward.

While his points per game was up, Walton’s efficiency went down as he struggled with the three-point shooting Lakers early in the season — Walton shot 26.2% from beyond the arc. (On the 37% of his shots that were inside 15 feet but not dunks or tip-ins, he shot 52.2%.) Walton’s eFG% fell to 45.6% (from 46.7%) and his points per shot attempt fell to 0.98 (from 1.01). Neither of those are big drop offs, but in a season where Laker fans thought Walton would break out, a step backward, however small, was disheartening. For that, Walton gets a C-.

The Lakers need to make a decision about whether to resign Walton, who is an unrestricted free agent. That will be one of the first decisions for the new coach, whoever that is, and will likely depend on the offensive system run. We already know Phil Jackson liked how Walton worked in the triangle, but another coach might have other ideas. If the Lakers want to shoot a lot of threes, Walton is not the best choice. The other thing that could make Luke tough to resign is that he could fit very well in some systems and a smart GM may recognize that and offer a contract (say, $2 million per year) that the Lakers don’t want to match.

It’s almost impossible to give an accurate assessment of Devean George (10.89/18.6/-8.6), who played 15 games after coming off an injury. That said, his numbers in those 15 games were pretty comparable to his career averages — his PER was down slightly from last season’s 11.5, but not dramatically; his eFG% was 45.7%, right between last season’s 46.5% and his career 44.8%; his points per shot attempt of 0.98 is the same as last season and close to his career of 0.96; he grabbed 9.9% of the available rebounds, close to his career average of 9.8%. However, because of the short season I’d grade him an incomplete.

In my opinion, there is no player the Lakers can get more value in trading this off-season than George. Those statistics listed above for George are pedestrian, signs of a guy who should be coming off the bench somewhere — but that is not perception of George around the league. He is seen as long and athletic and a solid starter (he was when there were four hall of famers around him). Trading is about getting more value in return than you send off, and George is one player that gives the Lakers the chance to do that.