Season Review: Point Guards

Kurt —  May 15, 2006

Here comes the first in a series of pieces over the next few weeks breaking down aspects of the team’s players and management, looking at both last season and the future.

There’s something compelling about Smush Parker that makes you want to like him. Maybe it’s his name — or that he named his SUV the “Smushcalade.” Maybe it’s the story of playing on the playgrounds of New York as a kid. Maybe it’s the drive and effort, a willingness to work on his game overseas while looking for a way back to the NBA. Maybe it’s the come-out-of-nowhere to start for one of the league’s most legendary franchise story arc. Then again, it’s probably the name.

But as much as we like him the problem remained that point guard was the weakest position for the Lakers last season. Opposing point guards shot 48% (eFG%) against the Lakers all season long, plus averaged 8.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. Opposing point guards average a PER of 17.1 against the Lakers, higher than at any other position. Those are not the point guard numbers of a team going far in the playoffs (unless you can score like the Suns).

As much as I like him much of this falls on Parker, the starting point guard. Against Smush, opposing point guards shot 52.4% on the season and had an average PER of 18.7 (the equivalent of having the opposing point guard play as well as Sam Cassell or Jason Kidd every game). Because I like him, I’ll add that he was a defensive upgrade over Chucky Atkins last season (opponents averaged a PER of 19.1 against the human pylon, but actually didn’t shoot as well as against Smush this year). To Smush’s credit, he helped the Lakers create more turnovers, he averaged 2 steals per 40 minutes. Most importantly, the Lakers were better with Smush on the court than off, to the tune of +3.4 points per 48 minutes. But the flaw of +/- data is that it can say as much about a players backup as him, and the Lakers had a drop off behind Smush (the Lakers defense got better by 2 points per 100 possessions when Smush sat, but the offense dropped off by 3.4).

In the triangle, the classic point guard almost plays a two-guard role — he’s asked to play stingy defense and be a good spot up shooter. And while Smush felt streaky as a shooter his numbers at the end of the year were solid — he hit 36.6% of his three point attempts and had a true shooting percentage (think points per shot attempt) of 54.8%, which is better than the league average. He shot 45.3% on his jump shots but, importantly, he got 35% of his shots in close to the baskets (on penetration, fast breaks and inside cuts). Still, overall, when you factor in rebounds, assists, turnovers and more, his PER was 13.3, slightly below average. And, in the playoffs, he disappeared, shooting just 15.4% on threes and 36.1% overall.

His offensive game is not so overwhelming as make up for his below-average defense. Might he get better? Yes, and I’m rooting for him to do so, but the Lakers can’t gamble next season on Smush’s improvement. What I like is the idea of Smush in the backup roll, where he has room to improve without carrying the burden.

Right now that backup roll is Sasha Vujacic’s, and he is under contract for next season (for $160,000 more than Smush, which is unfair, but welcome to the NBA where salary and worth are all-to-rarely tied together). He finished the season with PER of 8.3 (the kind of number that usually means “Hello Italian League”).

Sasha improved at using his length to bother opponents and at times seems to have played better defense than Smush, and the numbers bear that out to a degree — opposing point guards shot just 44.4% against him and had a PER of 14.6 (basically right at the league average of 15). However, remember that Sasha played almost half as many minutes as Smush and not all against point guards, so Smush spent more time covering the Nash/Parker/Bibby/Davis guards of the world, you had to expect his numbers would be higher.

What hurt Sasha was his offensive numbers were less than impressive. He shot a decent 34.6% from three-point range (which accounted for 55% of his shot attempts). The problems were: 1) He shot just 35% from two point range (meaning he’s basically as good from beyond the arc as inside it); 2) He doesn’t create his own shot — 92% of his jump shot attempts were assisted; 3) Along those same lines, he doesn’t drive the lane much, leaving his true shooting percentage at 47.9%, well below average; 4) He didn’t make up for these deficiencies with good rebounding (only slightly better than Smush in terms of percentage of available rebounds grabbed) or anything else.

Bottom line, Sasha does not appear to be panning out — there was not a lot of meaningful growth from year one to year two. He will be on the roster next year with the final year of his rookie three-year deal, but I’d be surprised if the Lakers pick up the option for the next two years.

So now what? When the Lakers go looking on the free agent market or at trades, getting a veteran point guard that fits the triangle has to be priority number one. There are other needs (a big who can consistently hit the 15 footer and pass out of the high post) but none as pressing as out top.

But whoever they get has to fit the role — Steve Nash, as great as he is, would hate the triangle. The Lakers need three key things in the point they are looking for: 1) A good man defender; 2) A good spot-up shooter from beyond the arc; 3) Can play without the ball in his hands and is comfortable as a role player, not the primary initiator of the offense.

That’s a tall order for likely just the mid-level exception. But as much as we love Smush, he is not ready now to be the man out top.