Building A Champion

Kurt —  July 6, 2007

All the talk in Lakerland, and on this blog, whether it be about trades or free agents, is ultimately about building a champion. Commenter Reed sent along a detailed look at both what is the makeup of championship teams — and how the Lakers look compared to that. I pass along his very good and detailed thoughts.

All signs point to the Lakers attempting to placate Kobe by building an immediate contender. What exactly would this take? Looking back over the championship teams of this decade (Spurs, Heat, Pistons, Lakers) and even beyond that (Bulls, Rockets, Celtics), I believe it is essentially a two-step process: (1 Find 2-3 “stars” whose talents compliment each other, and; 2) Fill out the rotation with veteran role players who understand the nuances of the game, play defense, and whose skills supplement the stars. This seems obvious at first glance, but I think we (and several GM’s) overlook some of what it entails when analyzing roster moves.

To illustrate, listed below are the rotation players for the title teams of this decade. Some teams employed deeper rotations than others (rotation players are those consistently getting non-garbage minutes). In the parentheses I note: 1) the number of years that player has been in the league, and; 2) the age of the player — both at the time the title was won. The data on the three Lakers teams includes the principal role players from all three teams.

2007 Spurs

Duncan (10, 31)
Parker (6, 25)
Ginobili (5, 29)
Bowen (11, 35)
Oberto (2, 22)
Finley (12, 34)
Horry (15, 36)
Elson (4, 31)
Vaughn (10, 32)
Barry (12, 35)

2006 Heat

Shaq (14, 34)
Wade (3, 24)
Haslem (3, 27)
Walker (10, 29)
Williams (8, 30)
Posey (7, 29)
Payton (16, 37)
Mourning (14, 36)

2005 Spurs
Duncan (8, 29)
Parker (4, 23)
Ginobili (3, 27)
Bowen (9, 33)
Horry (13, 34)
Mohammed (7, 28)
Barry (10, 33)

2004 Pistons
Billups (7, 27)
Hamilton (5, 26)
B. Wallace (8, 29)
R. Wallace (9, 29)
Prince (2, 24)
Williamson (9, 30)
Hunter (11, 33)
Campbell (14, 35)

2003 Spurs
Duncan (6, 27)
Robinson (14, 37)
Parker (2, 21)
Ginobili (1, 25)
S. Jackson (3, 25)
Bowen (7, 31)
M. Rose (7, 28)

2000-2002 Lakers

Shaq (9, 29)
Kobe (5, 22)
Fisher (6, 26)
Fox (11, 31)
Horry (10, 30)
George (4, 24)
Shaw (12, 35)
Harper (13, 35)
Rice (10, 32)

Looking at these rosters, a couple common themes emerge:

1. Championship Teams Need 2-3 Stars that Compliment Each Other

We all know that it takes at least two legitimate, all-star players to build a contending team. What is often missed is that between them, these stars need to cover certain basketball skills at a high level and avoid serious redundancies. For example, the 2007 Spurs had three stars: Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Between them, those three players excelled at every important basketball skill: post offense (Duncan), interior defense and rebounding (Duncan), playmaking (Parker, Ginobili), penetration (Parker, Ginobili), perimeter shooting (Ginobili), perimeter defense (Ginobili), transition offense (Parker), etc. On all of the decade’s title teams, there have been elite players covering the key aspects of the game, with some teams using a concentrated two-star approach, and others a more distributed three- or four-star model. Listed below are the key basketball skills and the star players from each title team filling that need:

• Interior defense: Duncan, Shaq, the Wallaces
• Post scoring and ability to draw double teams: Duncan, Shaq, Rasheed Wallace
• Playmaker capable of creating own shot and distributing: Parker/Ginobili, Kobe, Wade, Billups/Hamilton
• Perimeter shooting: Ginobili, Wade (a little weak), Kobe, Billups/Rasheed
• Perimeter defense: Ginobili, Wade, Kobe, Billups
• Penetration: Parker, Wade, Kobe, Billups

The previous championship teams of this era followed similar models, with 2-4 stars covering these key attributes: Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Grant/Rodman), Rockets (Hakeem, Drexler), Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Scott), and Celtics (Bird, McHale, Parrish, DJ).

The Lakers, as currently constructed, obviously do not have the requisite core of stars in place. They lack both a true second star, and first rate players that accomplish the various key skills. Kobe covers a great deal of ground by himself: perimeter scoring, playmaking, penetration, perimeter defense, and even post scoring. But the second star, Odom, is fairly redundant to Kobe. His main contributions cross over with Kobe’s: penetration and playmaking. He does fill a needed rebounding void, but he is not a skilled perimeter shooter and provides little true interior defense. Jermaine O’Neal and Kevin Garnett would be far, far better second stars. Not only because they are more talented than Odom (only mildly so with O’Neal), but because they better compliment Kobe by doing things he can’t do — namely, interior defense and post scoring.

2.The Role Players Must be Polished Veterans

The main point of this post is to recognize the types of role players that every championship team utilizes to compliment the core of stars. The lion’s share of our discussion has centered on which star to pursue and what price to pay. However, this overlooks the second, but equally as critical, step in building a title team — finding the right veteran role players. The Fisher story and Kurt’s post made us begin to think about what type of role players the Lakers need. I want to go a few steps further. For purposes of this post, I want to examine what role players we should pursue if we can bring in a better second star to compliment Kobe (Garnett or O’Neal). This puts the cart before the horse a little, but I think it is reasonable to assume the Lakers will attempt to placate Kobe by adding a bigger name.

Look back at the list of rotation players from this decade’s title teams, paying particular attention to the experience and age of the role players. What sticks out?

These players are OLD.

The vast majority of them are in their 30’s. They are savvy, polished, wise veterans who understand the nuances of the game. They are not high upside, uber-athletic, teenagers. In fact, most of the players are well on their way down physically.

Interesting observations from the role players on these eight title teams:

• Role players (non-“stars”) under 28 years old: 2007 Spurs (1); 2006 Heat (1); 2005 Spurs (0); 2004 Pistons (1); 2003 Spurs (1); 2000-2002 Lakers (2); Total: 6 out of 32 players.
• Role players over 30 years old: 2007 Spurs (6); 2006 Heat (3); 2005 Spurs (3); 2004 Pistons (3); 2003 Spurs (1); 2000-2002 Lakers (5); Total: 21 out of 32 players.
• Rookie role players: zero from all teams.
• Role players with less than four years experience: 5 out of 32 players.

The overwhelming majority of role players from these teams were over 30 years old and in excess of ten years experience in the league. Players like Horry, Bowen, Finley, Mourning, Fox, Harper, etc. These are players with diminishing athletic ability and low PER’s, but a wealth of experience and knowledge that bring subtle contributions not found in a stat sheet. When placed next to a sufficient core of superstars, these elderly role players are more valuable than their more talented, younger counterparts on other teams. For example, Bruce Bowen — he of the 7.12 PER that screams NDBL — is more valuable to the Spurs than someone like Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis would be. Or, look at it this way — Rick Fox was more valuable to the Lakers than Glen Rice. The flip side: a team made up of such role players, disconnected from the stars, would be simply awful.

What do these aged wonders bring to the table? Why do title teams almost exclusively rely upon them to the exclusion of younger, more talented players? They bring an understanding of the intricacies of the game. They understand proper floor spacing on offense and how to make the extra pass; they make the pass that leads to the assist. They defend the pick and roll. They pick up penetrating guards without fouling. They understand how to set meaningful picks; and how to fight through screens to avoid unnecessary switching and mismatches. They make intelligent cuts and defend the backdoor. They box out and generate offensive tip outs. They understand how to use pump fakes; and how to avoid being tempted by them. They know how to feed the post without picking up the dribble. They stay out of foul trouble and avoid putting the team in the penalty too early. They make open shots and force their opponents to shoot with a hand in the face. They draw charges. They move intelligently without the ball and do not get lost tracking their men through a flurry of screens. They have mastered the concepts of team defense, knowing when to double, when to stay home, and when to sag into the paint. They know when to shoot and when to defer to the superstar. They create perfect spacing on three on one fastbreaks; and are deft at disrupting such attacks. They are not scared of pressure, having been there before. Off the court, they encourage an environment of respect for authority and the coach. They promote unity, good practice habits, and discipline on road trips.

Think back on the glory role players of the Laker title teams. Think about Rick Fox roughing up Peja Stojakovic and cutting to the basket for a pass from Shaq (getting about 2 inches off the ground for an ugly left handed finish). Think about Derek Fisher being perfectly spaced on the perimeter to make an open three pointer after a double team on Shaq or Kobe. Think about Robert Horry frustrating Tim Duncan and Chris Webber with his post defense, despite being physically overmatched. Now, these players were not perfect, of course. They were seriously flawed. But they understood the subtleties of the game, didn’t make mistakes, were calm under pressure, and knew when to get out of Shaq and Kobe’s way. They were consummate role players.

The Current Laker Roster

Where is the current Laker team in this process of building a contender? The Lakers are not positioned to immediately contend. They have neither the right core of stars nor a stable of veteran role players. They are a young, developing, up and coming team. Aside from Kobe, Odom and Walton, their key players are still very raw. Bynum is 19, Kwame 25, Farmar 20, Crittenton 19, Turiaf 24, Radmanovic 26. With Kobe only 28 and Walton and Odom 27, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The team is full of talent, with a dynamic young center, two promising young point guards, two veteran, versatile forwards, and the best player in the league with a few years left in his prime. The team also showed signs of being well ahead of schedule last year, with a 26-13 start (despite missing Odom and Kwame for significant stretches of those early games). With another year or two of growth, especially from Bynum and the point guards, the team might be well positioned to overtake the Western powers as they age (Nash and Duncan are on the wrong side of 30). However, this is likely irrelevant. Kobe refuses to wait; he is convinced his window is fast closing. The fans call for immediate change. Prudent or not, big changes are coming.

The point of this post is that the Lakers are two big steps away from contending. Even if they bring in a Garnett or O’Neal, the stars will be surrounded by young, raw, inexperienced role players. As shown above, this is not how teams win titles. Farmar, Crittenton, Turiaf, and Radmanovic may all have great potential, but none of them understand the intricacies of the game. None of them have been playoff tested. They would be eaten alive by the Spurs cagey veterans in an intense playoff series (see Barbosa against the Spurs). Reflect back on Bynum and Turiaf fouling every guard attacking the lane; Smush taking miscalculated risks for steals; Radmanovic spacily roaming around on offense, destroying triangle spacing; Kwame trying to generate pick and roll after pick and roll on the triangle strong side with Farmar or Evans (can you think of a worse pick and roll duo than Evans/Kwame?); Sasha dribbling around mindlessly; Cook refusing to box out; etc., etc. These players are not ready.

So, if the Lakers are committed to immediately contending and bringing in a second star for Kobe, they must also address their youth and bring in a few older, veteran role players. Whether by the midevel or trade, they need a few Bowen’s, Horry’s, and Fox’s. Fisher has suddenly appeared as one possibility. Does he have anything left? Is Blake ready? What about Posey (a favorite of mine — his defense was key to the Heat defeating the Mavs two years ago)? Who else is out there? Is it worth it to trade away most of our prized young assets both for a second star and older, less talented role players? I propose that if the Lakers are sacrificing the future for Garnett, they must go “all in” and also seek the right mix of elderly supplemental players. It seems hasty to make such a drastic course change, so quickly. But unless Kobe softens, caution is not likely to be the watchword of the summer.