End of Season Report Card: Center

 —  May 18, 2005

This is the last (finally!) of a series of season wrap-up posts for the Lakers (we’ve already done team management, point guard, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards). 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.

Laker fans, we can all admit it: As much as we were frustrated with the unmotivated Shaq in Los Angeles his last couple of years here, we knew there was going to be a big drop off once he left. Fat Shaq had a PER of 24.4 his last year in Laker colors, still higher than any Laker this year.

That’s why the grades at the center are somewhat based on perception — no one was going to replace Shaq, the question was simply how far the drop off was going to be.

Due to injuries, much of the burden fell on the shoulders of Chris Mihm (16.09/16.2/-2.1) and he handled it surprisingly well. Mihm played a career high 24.9 minutes per game and his usage rate (percentage of the offense run through him) went up from last year — usually when that happens a player’s efficiency goes down but Mihm’s went up. That said, with each positive with Mihm it is easy to find an area he still needs to improve.

For example, Mihm shot a career best 50.7% (eFG%), and inside of 15 feet shot 58.7%. His points per shot attempt was 1.10, the third best rate on the Lakers (behind only Kobe and Jumaine Jones). That said, he has a glaring weakness shooting — he took 31% of his shots as jumpers from more than 15 feet out and on those he shot 32.8% — he needs to be near the basket or develop a consistent jumper.

Mihm’s rebound rate this season was a respectable 15.1 (percent of available rebounds grabbed), second best on the team this year (Odom was the best). He also was the team’s best offensive rebounder, averaging 4.2 per 40 minutes. His rebound rate is down from his career numbers — 17.6 last season and a very good 19.8 the year before — but I think that decline in percentage is due more to scheme and playing time more than anything: This season he started 75 games, far more than any other season, meaning he was playing against better rebounders and talent; he also had no real help down low, with the rather thin and perimeter play of Lamar Odom at the four; the Lakers infatuation with the three-pointer early in the year led to longer rebounds that, while statistically count in his rebound rate, were not real opportunities for him due to longer rebounds.

One other concern about Mihm was his Roberto Duran-like “manas de piedra” — he averaged 2.4 turnovers per 40 minutes compared to just 1.1 assists. He dropped a lot of balls inside and needs to work on reducing turnovers inside (turnovers that come from the center position are killers).

Mihm showed a lot of potential this year, flashes (particularly at home) where he looked like he can be a solid center for the Lakers for years. Maybe the biggest problem was that he was a starter playing less than 25 minutes per game — minutes that were cut short because of his foul trouble. Mihm averaged 6.1 fouls per 48 minutes this year and it was frustrating to watch him pick them up — there were a lot of fouls on the offensive end going over the back or a loose ball foul; fouls picked up trying to stop point guards driving the lane past questionable perimeter defense; and just fouls picked up in the course of play. Mihm has always been a foul sponge — for his career he averages 6.9 fouls per 48 minutes and in the 2003-04 season it was 7.7. One way to look at this is that Mihm’s unimpressive 6.1 per 48 this year was his best ever — he is getting better. He needs to keep doing that.

Based mostly on perception, I’d grade Mihm a B- for the season. His defense needs to get better and the Lakers need to use him better — he needs a strong inside presence along side him to remove some of the burden (opponent centers shot 50% against him). He can be a solid complimentary player, but he cannot hold down the middle himself.

The problem is that when Mihm left the floor the level of play really dropped off.

Brian Grant (10.19/18.9/-4.6) has played most of his career out of position, a natural power forward forced to be a center — he used to be good enough to overcome that, but not anymore. Grant hurts the offense because he is not a threat to score — he averaged just 7.4 shots per 40 minutes, which meant about three a game. When he did shoot he was efficient, hitting 49.3% (eFG%) and with a points per shot attempt of 1.08, he just didn’t shoot much.

Grants rebound rate was 9.0. Think about that for a second — with 100% of the rebounds available and 10 players on the floor, an average rebounder can grab 10, or have a rebound rate of 10.0. Now, it doesn’t work out that way, you don’t expect your point guard to mix it up and pull down boards, but you do expect your big men to do that and pull down a higher percentage. Grant is theoretically one of those big men, but he pulled down just 9 rebounds out of 100 when he was on the floor. Defensively, opponent centers shot 50.2% against Grant. I’ll be generous and give Grant a D.

Grant is coming back next year — his $14.4 million a year contract is not going anywhere (he might be able to be packaged for a trade during the 2006-07 season at the trading deadline, with a team looking for a big expiring contract, but I doubt he could be moved before then). The key for the Lakers is to find a role for him that works — 10 minutes a game backing up the four might work. He can’t do much more than that.

One of the big off-season decisions for the Lakers will be what to do with Vlade Divac (10.74/20.5/-7.7). While his raw numbers for the season are actually worse than Grant’s, Vlade had a small sample size of just 15 games and playing an average of 8.7 minutes in those games. But, he played more in the Lakers final seven games of the season, working in the triangle (where his passing skills from the post would be a good fit) and in those games he averaged 7.7 assists per 48 minutes, 14.45 points per 48, 11.9 rebounds with 6.2 offensive rebounds per 48. All good numbers.

If the new Laker coach is Phil and the triangle is going to stay, Divac could be a good fit as a backup center (if not, Divac may be gone for sure). He is due $5.4 million next year but can be bought out for $2 million. There are two big questions. First is his health — if you are just going to get 13 games out of him he has to be let go, but if he can play an average of 15-18 minutes a game for 70+ games in the backup role, that may be a good deal. The other question is who can you get to replace him — if you buy Divac out then can you get someone as good for $3.4 million to fill in that role? Those are some of the first questions that must be answered when the new coach comes in.

There is no doubt the Lakers need a stronger presence inside, particularly defensively. That does not necessarily mean a new center — if a strong four can be brought in, I think you’ll see Mihm’s game take another step forward as he is asked to do less. Mihm is still young and could be a solid center for years to come, which is the wake of Shaq leaving is more than I expected this season.