Winning Now, Part I

Kurt —  May 6, 2007

“That’s one of the things when I re-signed here, they promised they would build a contender and build a contender now. I don’t want to have to wait any more than I already have.”

    —Kobe Bryant after his exit interview

When the Lakers decided to pay Kobe and trade Shaq, everyone was clear the plan was to rebuild a contender around Kobe. Three years into that experiment, well, Phoenix is a contender and as a benchmark it’s pretty clear that the Lakers are more than a few steps behind the Suns.

And now Kobe’s patience has worn thin, which is a season or two behind when a lot of Lakers fans patience went away.

This summer Lakers management has to decide what to do: Continue with the plan of building for the future or building to win now. It can’t do both, that has led to a mismatched roster. In the real world there is only one option, they need to build for now. That means a new willingness to make moves that could hurt five years from now to win today. That’s really the only option, because if you’re building for the long-term future the move is to trade Kobe, and that is not how the Buss family works (and would lead to a fan uprising).

As Nate Jones pointed out in the comments, the problem is that championship contenders are not built overnight. Look at the four major title contenders left in the playoffs — San Antonio, Phoenix, Detroit and Chicago. Each of those teams took years to build through the draft (remember the Suns drafted Shawn Marion back in 1999) and picking up the right free agents to fit the mix.

The good news is some of the moves the Lakers have made in the last couple years put them in position to make aggressive moves now. And some pieces are in place — this Lakers team was not as bad as it looked against Phoenix in the playoffs, but neither are they as good as they looked in December.

The bad news is that the way the roster structured, the aggressive moves will have to be trades. Those are a lot harder to pull off. All the Lakers can offer a free agent is the mid-level exception of about $6 million a year, which is not going to garner a big-time player (and that could go to Luke Walton). And drafting 19th they’re not going to get a difference maker.

Rather than do a “he gets an A” season review it’s time to look forward. I’m going to do a series of posts talking about what needs to be done to win now. Today’s first installment is simply about guiding principles, the big picture concepts behind what should be done. We’ll talk about specific players and other steps in future posts, but winning organizations start with a plan and with guidelines, then get the players that fit inside that design. Some of the Laker moves the last couple years make you questions how closely that concept is adhered to.

So, here are some suggested guiding principals for this summer.

1) Defense first.
Despite the rash of key injuries, the Lakers still had the seventh most efficient offense in the league last season, scoring 110 points per 100 possessions. The flipside is they gave up 110.5. That makes you basically a .500 team. Or, look at it this way — you win a lot of games scoring 103.3 points per game, as the Lakers did to finish fifth in the league, unless you give up 103.4.

Every roster move this summer must be made with improving the defense as the goal— every player brought in must be a good defender. The Lakers score enough to win with the roster they’ve got, if they could stop anyone.

It should be noted, this was the concern last summer and the Lakers signed Radmaovic and Mo Evans, only one of which was a signing made with defense in mind. That cannot happen again.

2) Improve the point guard position. Opposing point guards took 28% of their shots against the Lakers close to the basket. Think about that — the smallest guys on the court were still taking more than one in four shots as basically lay-ups. This was the root of the entire defensive problems the Lakers had, the perimeter defense broke down against anyone who could drive the lane even moderately well, and that led to guys scrambling trying to cover and rotate.

Offensively, all the triangle really asks of its point guards is to be able to help bring the ball up and hit threes. If they can do more, great, but as item number one mentioned defense at this position is first and foremost.

3) Consistency in the paint. With Lamar Odom living on the perimeter mostly (when he was healthy) and the combination of Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum anchoring the paint, the Lakers were incredibly inconsistent inside this season.

Opposing power forwards scored 21.2 points per 48 minutes, grabbed 11 rebounds, shot 51.5% and has a PER of 18.7. Opposing centers scored 18.8, grabbed 14 rebounds, shot 51.6% and had a PER of 18.4. Think about it this way, opposing point guards only had a PER of 17.

The loss of Chris Mihm for the season was part of the problem, but because he returns from a year off and a major injury means he cannot be relied on for a huge upgrade. I’m not suggesting trading Odom, he brings a lot to the triangle. But if Odom is going to spend more time as the initiator or out on the wing in the triangle, the Lakers need a more consistent presence in the paint. At both ends of the floor.

4) Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream. In the wake of the second elimination by the Suns in as many years, there have been some calls for major, philosophical changes. To site an example, the usually smart JA Adande came out in the LA Times the day after the Lakers loss and said the Lakers need to rebuild into the Suns style.

Teams that struggle long term are teams that change styles every couple of years, trying to find the right formula. They bring in new coaches on a seeming carousel and never form a team or franchise identity. There is no one right formula — it can be a variety of systems, but you have to have the players to fit that system. The triangle clearly can win titles; there are nine to its credit. The Lakers have some of the key pieces to win in that system. To remake the roster into a Suns-style contender would require a major overhaul that would take years. The Lakers don’t have those kind of athletes right now, nor a point guard who can run that kind of offense. (And how many of those PG’s are there? Nash, Chris Paul, Baron Davis when healthy. None of them are available. And those kinds of talents don’t grow on trees.)

The Lakers are a triangle team, and that can win. The key is finding players that fit the system.