Building a Champion: Redux

Reed —  April 1, 2008

Last July, when we were all frantically in GM and trade machine mode, I wrote an article called, “Building a Champion,” where I tried to analyze what went into the title teams of the last 10 years and how the Lakers matched up. The big picture points:

(1) Title teams need 2-3 stars who complement each other and collectively perform the fundamental basketball skills at the highest level;
(2) Title teams always have veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game and are willing to sacrifice personal glory for team success;
(3) The Lakers, as then constituted, were not built for immediate contention as they neither possessed a core of stars who covered the needed breadth of skills nor the veteran role players who understood the game’s intricacies. Kobe and Odom were the only “stars” and they were largely redundant in what they offered; the role players were overwhelmingly young and developing.

Fast forward to today and everything (miraculously) has broken right, leaving us as unquestioned grade A contenders, even in the midst of the most competitive landscape the league has seen in years. Fisher arrived. Bynum emerged as an all star producer. Farmar, Sasha, and Turiaf took steps forward. Radmanovic found his shooting stroke and showed enough (even if limited) focus. Slowly, Kobe believed and found it in him to trust his teammates. Cook became Ariza. Kwame became Gasol. Suddenly, we have the most talented team in the league, 1-12.

But, how do we compare with past title teams? Are we another complete Spurs title team or another Mavs/Kings false hope? Do we have the requisite skill bases covered or do fatal flaws remain that will haunt us against the best teams in big playoff series? Applying last summer’s championship blueprint to the present roster:

1. 2-3 Stars that Complement Each Other

The foundational ingredient of any title team is the presence of 2-3 stars that complement each other. This means that between them they perform the various fundamental basketball skills at an elite level. Look back at the last decade of title teams:

• Shaq, Duncan, and Sheed provided low post scoring
• Shaq, Duncan, and the Wallaces provided interior defense and rebounding
• Kobe, Wade, Parker, Ginobili, and Billups provided playmaking
• Kobe, Wade, Ginobili, and Billups provided clutch scoring down the stretch
• Kobe, Ginobili, Wade, and Billups provided perimeter defense

Obviously, this is shallow analysis, but the point is that you must have stars capable of doing the big work. Very talented teams with multiple stars have failed in the playoffs because their stars were either redundant or lacking in some key area. Nash, Marion, and Amare did not offer interior defense. Nash and Dirk did not offer post scoring or interior defense. Webber, Bibby, and Peja did not offer perimeter defense. The common theme of “almost” teams is that their stars seemed to do the same thing (usually scoring), leaving one key skill unaccounted for. That’s the beauty of Duncan – he dominates the areas of the game that are hardest to find – interior defense and post scoring.

This Laker team seems well positioned on this front – they have 3 legitimate “stars” in Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum and they are not redundant. Kobe handles the playmaking, penetration, perimeter defense, and clutch scoring. Bynum provides interior defense and rebounding. Gasol provides interior scoring and playmaking. Add in Odom’s (often) star quality rebounding and playmaking and you have a solid core of stars who perform all the basketball skills at the highest level.

Of the league’s other title teams, the Spurs (again, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili), Celtics (Garnett, Pierce, and Allen), Pistons (Billups, Sheed, Hamilton/Prince), and Hornets (Paul, West, and Chandler) seem to also have the bases covered, though some more than others. The Suns, Jazz and Mavs (when healthy) seem to have fatal flaws (Suns – perimeter defense, both by their wings and bigs; Mavs – interior scoring; Jazz – interior and perimeter defense).

2. Veteran Role Players

Look back at the title teams from this decade – they are filled with veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game. Horry, Fox, Finley, Bowen, Harper, etc., etc. 21 out of 32 rotation role players from this decade’s title teams were over 30; only 5 of 32 had less than 4 years experience. While young players often seem capable of filling starring roles (e.g. Wade, Kobe), they have traditionally been less adept at successfully filling key lesser roles on championship teams.

When I wrote this post last year many people objected that I overemphasized age and underestimated basic basketball intelligence. This is probably true. Some players get it earlier than others. Certainly someone like Udonis Haslem was able to come right into the league and play like a savvy veteran. The same is probably true of Luke Walton. What makes (many) older players valuable, despite waning physical tools, is their deep understanding of the game, from floor spacing to boxing out to fighting through screens to defending the pick and roll to fearlessness in big moments. For this reason, in the playoffs cagey veterans usually shine while more talented young players come up short (e.g. Barbosa, Doug Christie, etc.).

I have mixed feeling about where our role players stand in this regard. They are undoubtedly talented. In Farmar, Turiaf, Sasha, Radmanovic, Fisher, Walton, and Ariza we have the single most talented collection of 5-12 players in the league. But only Fisher and Walton (to a degree) are playoff tested. A constant complaint all year has been the inability of these role players to correctly play team defense. Do we trust that they will make the “right” play in game 7 in San Antonio? Will Farmar go under a screen too often when he should fight through? Will Radmanovic get burned baseline by a small forward consistently when the plan was to force him into the middle? Will Ronny get into foul trouble when we need him? Do we trust Sasha or Farmar taking the open 3 to decide a series? Do our role players have enough “Rick Fox” and “Robert Horry” in them? I suspect they need to try and fail once before they have the seasoning necessary to win four straight series against stiff competition, but we will see.

3. Other Notes

A few other random thoughts for discussion. First, point differential. This seems to be an even better predictor of playoff success than win-loss record. Here are the point differentials for the last six title teams: 2007: Spurs (+8.4, 1st in the league), 2006: Heat (+3.9, 5th), 2005: Spurs (+7.8, 1st), 2004: Pistons (+5.8, 2nd), 2003: Spurs (+5.4, 3rd), 2002: Lakers (+7.1, 2nd). The 2008 Lakers currently stand at +6.6, good for 3rd in the league. Given the excessive injuries we’ve faced and the late addition of Gasol, I think it is reasonable to say our real point differential is probably at least a point higher, which would put us second in the league and in about the same neighborhood as all the recent title teams.

Second, it simply cannot be overstated how much we have improved at the point guard and center positions with the replacement of Smush and Kwame with Fisher and Bynum/Gasol. In every aspect of the game: defense, scoring efficiency, rebounding, turnovers, etc. Last year, our point guards had the 10th worst collective PER and 4th worst collective PER differential (the difference between what our point guards produced and what they allowed opposing point guards to produce). Our centers were 7th worst in PER differential and 4th worst at PER allowed (defense). PER obviously has its limitations as a statistic, but PER differential is one of the most insightful stats out there because it measures net efficiency – how good were you at (1) creating points with your possessions and (2) creating/valuing possessions versus how good were you at stopping your opponent from doing the same. This year, we see a massive shift the other way. We are 13th in PG PER differential, improving by 13 spots, and 6th in C PER differential, improving by 17 spots.

4. Final Thoughts

Even with the improvement of Portland, New Orleans, Boston, and other teams, I believe we have covered more ground this year than anyone else. We have not necessarily gained the most in terms of wins and losses, but we went from the brink of trading Kobe and starting over with a fractured front office and angry fan base to having the best roster in the league for the next 5 years. No matter what happens this year, we should appreciate the good fortune and enjoy the ride. With the team finally having supporting stars around Kobe that do things he can’t (Odom is great, but he is too redundant to ever be a solid #2), the team is well positioned to fine tune the roster and compete for titles so long as Kobe can perform as an elite player. Though, our chances this year probably lie less with him and more with the ability of our role players to play like veterans – to avoid mistakes, play solid team defense, and hit big shots in the 4th quarter. When they learn to do that, this should be the most complete Laker team in 20 years.

— Reed


Reed

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