Slot Machine

Reed —  July 25, 2008

How much is a stubborn, awkward head-band-sporting Machine worth?

Unfortunately, that has become a complicated, perhaps even messy, question and one that must be answered by Mitch in the next few days. I’m not going to delve into the suddenly competitive Euro market issue, as that’s been covered deeply elsewhere. What I do want to look at is whether LA should pay Sasha what he’s asking – a reported $5 million a year over several years (4-5?).

The problem is that there is a fundamental disharmony between what Sasha is worth (i.e. what others would pay him on the open market) and what the Lakers can afford to pay him, given their payroll problems and the opportunity cost.

First, his market value. Sasha is undoubtedly worth the $5 million a year he seeks. Our feelings on this are tainted by the unfortunate (and similar) contracts recently given to Walton and the Vladrad. But, putting them aside for the minute, a player’s market value is best determined by what others with similar skill sets have recently been paid. And (as no doubt put out there by his agent in the recent news bites), players with similar skill sets consistently receive the money he now seeks. Comparable players:

• Posey, (2008 stats) 31 years old, 24.6 minutes per game, 12.08 PER, 4 years, $25 million.
• Pietrus, 26 years old, 20.0 minutes per game, 12.76 PER, 4 years, $25.1 million.
• Gibson, 22 years old, 30.5 minutes per game, 11.77 PER, 5 years, $20.8 million.
• Miles, 21 years old, 11.5 minutes per game, 14.30 PER, 4 years, $15 million.
• Kapono, (2007 stats), 26 years old, 26.4 minutes per game, 13.87 PER, 4 years, $24 million.

These 5 players comprise the most recent free agent signings that compare to Sasha in terms of skill set and team role when they hit the market. How does he compare?

• Sasha, 24 years old, 17.8 minutes per game, 15.06 PER, ? years, $?? million.

Sasha has the highest PER by far (Miles doesn’t really count given the low minutes and non-role) and is younger than the three highest paid (Posey, Pietrus, and Kapono). While he’s only had one good season, he is as “proven” as any except Posey. Furthermore, that line doesn’t really capture Sasha’s production and value to the team last year, as he was not given regular minutes until almost halfway through the season. (True, that might also be said of the comparables listed above to varying degrees, but none of them were buried on the bench early, only to emerge during the second half and playoffs with starter’s minutes and production). Sasha’s season in two halves:

• November-January: (34 games): 14.1 minutes per game, 6.8 points per game, 1.0 threes per game, 40.6 3fg%.
• February-April (38 games): 20.6 minutes per game, 11.7 points per game, 2.3 threes per game, 46.5 3fg%.

It took the Machine a little while to find his groove and the trust of Phil and his teammates, but find it he did. The second half stats are really remarkable. Only two players shot higher than 46.5% from three over the year (none making as many) and only five made more than 2.3 per game (none as accurate). You can argue there was no more proficient three point shooter in the league than Sasha during the second half of last year – when he finally had a defined niche and his teammates’ trust. Remember, this production came during perhaps the most competitive conference race we’ve ever seen. Every game counted.

This ability to spread the floor became particularly dangerous once Gasol joined the equation, providing consistent low post offense and passing to spot up shooters. Consider that the single most offensively efficient 5 man unit in the league last year was: Farmar, Sasha, Kobe, Odom, and Gasol, which had a mind boggling points per possession of 1.37, along with a dominant .99 defensive rating – by far LA’s single most effective lineup. The number three most efficient offense? Also Machine inclusive: Farmar, Sasha, Kobe, Odom, and Turiaf – at 1.28. By the end of the season and the playoffs, he was the de facto fifth starter, playing all of the key minutes instead of the Radman.

Defensively, Sasha was somewhere between very good and above average, holding opposing SG’s to a 14.9 PER. He might not possess Prince’s quickness and length, but he is tenacious, dogged, and annoying. Who can forget the time during the playoffs where he was floored while defending a screen and roll, bounced up to scream in the offender’s face with woodpeckery head movements, hairband almost coming dislodged, and then returned to pestering his man a little too closely. We remember painfully Allen beating him for the fateful score in game 4, but we also need to remember Sasha glued to Korver’s fortunate mug through screen after screen, severely outplaying him in an important matchup (Korver shot 37.5% from the field in that series and 33% from three, compared with Sasha’s 45% and 43% from three). Sasha may have been inconsistent in the playoffs, but he’s certainly proven that he plays with heart and is not scared of the moment. Of all our role players, he’s the one with the most “Rick Fox” in him. The one most likely to become an icy, arrogant, effective role player in title run after title run.

So, given the market and his production, Sasha is not being unreasonable in asking for $5 million a year over a few years. Something like 4 years, $22 million. Given that he hasn’t yet hit his prime and the cost of similar players in free agency (much less the ability to sign any at a comparable age given the nature of restricted free agency and the budding European market), why doesn’t LA just pay him, retaining a proven triangle performer and 6th man?

As we all know, the problem is Buss’s budget. While he’s notorious for being willing to go all in for splashy, high priced acquisitions (Shaq, Pau), Buss is (or should be) equally notorious for always trimming fat in often painful ways to make room for those stars. Yes, Buss is a golden owner and committed spender (and we can’t forget that given the only reason we got Gasol was because we were willing to trade straight expirings for his long term contract when Chicago wouldn’t), but he imposes limits. Remember how thin the Shaq-Kobe teams became with time. Remember Buss’s refusal to grab Pippen for peanuts when available during Houston’s firesale.

Right now, there are rumblings that LA’s bottom line budget (before taxes) cannot exceed $81-83 million. If you assume Karl is back for minimal salary, that is 11 players signed for $76 million. It becomes clear there simply wasn’t room for both Turiaf and Sasha, given the size of Turiaf’s front loaded offer. It also becomes clear that if Sasha is signed for $5 million, LA is stuck with the vet minimum or second rounders when filling out the other two roster spots, one of which needs to go to an insurance big. So, given that opportunity cost, what do you do? Pay Sasha and rely on something like Mihm and Mbenga as your backup bigs? A fairly reasonable plan given that Bynum is essentially taking Turiaf’s place on the front line. But, with Ariza likely leapfrogging Luke and Radman on the depth chart, bringing Sasha back probably relegates one or both of them to expensive non-rotation players. Or, do you divide Sasha’s money and throw $3 million per year at two players – something like Kwame and Evans? Thoughts?

(Permanent damnation to the first commenter to turn this discussion into another lifeless trade Lamar debate. Just kidding. Kind of.)

As for me, I agree with the always prescient Dwyer: pay the Machine.

–Reed

Update: This issue might be resolved very quickly… OC Register is reporting possible decision this afternoon.

Update:
The USA Today has confirmed it as a done deal.

Reed

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