Archives For August 2011

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site, Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been dishing out tremendous historical pieces and today follows up on his first historical piece for FB&G with another look back. You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

College basketball has always been able to sell itself, and will continue to do so in the future. The single elimination tournaments, the coaches, the pride of the alumni and obviously the players make the NCAA wildly attractive. Nonetheless, there is nothing quite like seeing future professional stars perform during March Madness.

Indeed, if evidence is needed to validate this point, think back to March 2003, when a sensational freshman (this would be the spot where Dick Vitale screams DIAPER DANDY BABY!) by the name of Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title. Prior to Melo’s hijacking of the tournament, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played in arguably the most famous college basketball game ever, when Michigan State defeated Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA title game.

Part of what made the game so compelling was the talent level of both teams, but more so than anything; it came down to the stars. Johnson and Bird met in the first of many meetings that would come to define their professional careers.

The beauty of both stars was their ability to literally do everything on the basketball court: scoring, passing, rebounding and defense. Hence, both players going head-to-head meant that the world would get the opportunity to watch the two best players in the game compete against the other with the opportunity to determine who was truly the better player. Also, whether we want to admit it or not, the racial component also made the match up that much more intriguing.

Thus, when both players joined the NBA, they invigorated the league by making it appealing for casual fans, which took the National Basketball Association to new heights.

Prior to Magic and Bird though, there were two stars that the NBA could have capitalized on immensely but failed to do so due to their inability to market the league as a whole.

Two decades prior to Michigan State and Indiana State facing off for the NCAA title, college basketball as well as the NBA had the almost the same exact opportunity to elevate both the college and pro game to a new level. The Final Four would feature these universities: California, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

Cincinnati faced off against California while West Virginia played versus Louisville. Think about this: the 1959 championship game could have pitted Jerry West and his West Virginia Mountaineers against Oscar Robertson and his Cincinnati Bearcats.

Make no mistake about it, Robertson and West were the best players in college basketball. Fans and experts all had an opinion on which one of these forwards (yes, both players played forward in college) was the best in the game.

Oscar Robertson was an astounding scorer, terrific rebounder and great set up man. He was also a good defender, although his focus on that side of the ball wavered a bit during games. During the 1958-59 collegiate season, The Big O averaged 32.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game on 50.9 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West on the other hand was a superb scorer, impressive rebounder and decent set up man. Also, he was a far superior defender than Robertson given his willingness to consistently put in effort on the defensive end. Steals were not tracked at the time, but West had a knack for regularly coming away with the ball at the expense of his opponents. During the 1958-90 campaign, the Logo averaged 26.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 51.8 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were both fantastic players that were both equally intelligent on the basketball court. One would assume that Oscar’s ability to affect multiple facets of the game would have him ranked as the better player (he was after all selected number one overall in the 1960 NBA draft while West was selected second), but such is not exactly the case. Roland Lazenby obtained this quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his book Jerry West:

Oscar always got the credit but Jerry got a lot of credit too and deserved it. I wouldn’t say that Oscar was absolutely the better player. They were like neck and neck, and they neutralized each other.

Also, Sports Illustrated wrote in 1972:

There has been a groundswell for West the last few seasons, so that now he is often accepted as the equal, or superior, of Oscar Robertson as the finest guard of all time.

And finally, Bill Simmons ranked Oscar Robertson ninth in his Hall of Fame Pyramid while Jerry West was listed as eighth (basically meaning that Oscar is the ninth best player of all time while West occupies the number eight spot) and he added this passage:

[…] if your life depended on it and you could only pick one franchise player from 1960 to 1974, but you had to win at least three titles during that span how could you not pick West? Even at his peak, teammates lived in fear of letting Oscar down. They walked on eggshells with him. They struggled to connect with him the same way a group of musicians would struggle to connect with someone who resides on a higher plane and blames them for being inferior. On the flipside, we have copious amounts of evidence to suggest West elevated his teams—he didn’t just make them better, they wanted to win for him, and not just that, he connected with them the right way. Jerry West had a better handle on The Secret than Oscar Robertson, that’s why West was better. By a hair, but still.

Needless to say, these guys were franchise players in the pros, but prior to joining the big leagues, these athletes were the kind that transformed basketball programs.

California eliminated Cincinnati in the 1959 national semifinal, which prevented Robertson from playing against West and his West Virginia teammates in the championship game. The prospect of their respective teams meeting for the national title might have changed the landscape of the NBA in the 1960s, but the truth is we will never know.

What we do know however is that West needed Oscar in order to become one of the greatest players ever. Indeed, Jerry West looked at Oscar Robertson and saw what he thought was the best player in the game. And knowing what that looked like, the Logo wanted to surpass him. Hence, every college game, every practice and every summer workout by 1958 became about the game within the game: winning at all costs, but also showing the world he could compete with Robertson.

The Bearcats’ inability to reach the title game disappointed West very much, given the fact that it robbed him of the chance to see how he measured up against The Big O. But then again, lost opportunities can occasionally lead to new challenges.

And in the case of West, Cincinnati’s inability to make it to the championship game meant that the West Virginia star would have to raise his game the following season to be considered as good or better than Robertson since he did not get a shot at the star Bearcat.

If there is one thing that all NBA legends seem to have in common, it is their motivation to be the best by taking down those they believe are at the mountaintop. And believe it or not, the Logo’s fire to surpass Robertson burned even when he joined the Lakers.

Considering the career that Jerry West had, one would have to say that the time spent thinking about The Big O was time well spent. Wouldn’t you agree?

-J.M. Poulard

There’s a reason his nickname was Big Game James. In one of the biggest games of his career and the contest the Lakers needed to win the NBA’s first back to back championships since the Celtics dynasty, Worthy was a monster.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: It goes without saying Tina Thompson is a women’s basketball icon. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, she has been a member of the league since the 1997 inaugural season. But she’s also a Los Angeles basketball icon. The Culver City resident was slated to attend Palisades High School, but the desire to play elite basketball prompted a transfer to the famed Morningside High School in Inglewood. (“When I tell you they’re worlds apart,” says Thompson of the schools and the demographics, “they’re worlds apart.”) She enjoyed a storied career — right on the heels of fellow legend Lisa Leslie — after which she graduated as the 1993 California AAA Player of the Year, with over 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds in her pocket. At USC, teamed with Leslie for one campaign, her four seasons concluded with her as the fourth-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in Pac-10 history.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: Lakers guard Trey Johnson is heading to Italy to play basketball next season. Johnson, a late-season call-up by the Lakers from the D-League last year, signed a one-year deal with Teramo Basket of the Italian League on Wednesday. Johnson’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told that his client’s contract does not include an opt-out clause to return to the NBA should the lockout be resolved in time for the league to hold all or part of the 2011-12 season. Johnson averaged 25.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 39 games with the Bakersfield Jam before the Lakers signed him for the end of the regular season through the playoffs to provide backup point guard depth to the roster while Steve Blake was sidelined with the chicken pox.

From Jonathan Abrams, Grantland: There is only one outcome that really matters when sports and work stoppages collide. With apologies to tales about decertifications and labor lawsuits, play-by-play simply isn’t as invigorating in the court room as it is on the court. Pundits will pretend to care about lawsuits and sports talk hosts will call lawyers to kill time, but all anyone really cares about is when the dispute will end and play will resume. Tuesday’s courtroom activities included an unfair labor practice charge and a federal lawsuit against the players’ union, which the league alleges is not negotiating in good faith. (See? Even with all the drama, it’s just inherently uninteresting …) Both actions signal the end of bargaining. At this point a fingers-crossed, best-case scenario is the NBA and the union reaching a resolution in time to preserve a handful of regular-season games.

From Ben R, Silver Screen and Roll: For the past decade, Kobe Bryant has borne the weight of the hopes and expectations of the Lakers, providing the most definitive bridge between the two most recent Laker eras of championship excellence. Time and time again, he has answered those calls with fervid and dominant play that has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a basketball court. It is for this reason that last season was jarring to many Laker fans, as they were treated to a painful display of Kobe’s mortality, or at very least, a growing image of how the career of an all-time great enters its twilight stages. Naturally, comments to the effect that Kobe is finished at the moment are grossly exaggerated, as his competitive spirit, diverse skillset, and expansive basketball mind will keep him among the league’s best performers for the next few years. Nevertheless, it is a given that those same years under Mike Brown, in which Kobe will have to adapt to a new system and his declining physical skills, will be a transition period that will determine the nature of the team as it moves forward.

From Mark J. Spears & Adrian Wojnarowski: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is engaged in far more substantive contract talks with teams in China than he is Turkish team Besiktas, league sources told Yahoo! Sports. Besiktas coach Ergin Ataman tweeted Sunday that the team made an official offer to Bryant last week and plans to meet with Bryant’s agent in Los Angeles this week. However, a source close to Bryant said he hasn’t had conversations with the Turkish team in two weeks, and labeled Bryant’s chances of playing with Besiktas at “zero percent.” Bryant, sources said, is still listening to offers to play overseas during the NBA’s lockout, and considers China a more likely option. He has exchanged proposals with Chinese teams, and one source said it’s unlikely Bryant would accept any deal that pays him less than $1.5 million per month. Bryant would be free to rejoin the Lakers as soon as the lockout ends.

From Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie: Nearly 20 years after learning that he had tested HIV-positive, and 20 years after his initial retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson has a major regret. He wishes he hadn’t retired from the Lakers directly after learning of his diagnosis. And, knowing what we know now about the virus, he’s probably right. Magic could have kept playing. Two things are important to remember, 20 years later. First, to the uninitiated, testing positive for HIV back in 1991 seemed like a sure death sentence. I recall sports-talk radio hosts, not shock jocks, hoping Magic would survive long enough to see his NBA friends play in the 1992 Olympics some 10 months later. Even though a goodly chunk of the public knew that, with proper attention, Magic wasn’t putting teammates or opponents at risk by playing NBA hoops with HIV, retirement seemed like the only possible step after a diagnosis like this.

From David Murphy, Searching for Slava: It’s easy to point out the millions of dollars paid to NBA ballers and dehumanize them as a result, making the argument that they’re getting paid plenty and what about the average Joe?  I don’t find it convincing, it’s too easy.  Money and respect are married, everyone’s getting divorced. How many ways can one human being look at another and say, “fuck you.”?  As many ways as there’s hours and minutes in the day. There are unexpected friendships and support. There is disappointment. And sometimes, a time to move on. Everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows that the good guys lost. Not necessarily. The other side wants you to believe that you have no recourse, that they own you and can discard you. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Every time talk centered on the current Lakers or the ongoing NBA lockout, Magic Johnson simply flashed his signature smile. It turned out to be an effective defense mechanism. See, Johnson may have sold his 4.5% ownership stake in the Lakers to billionaire season-ticket holder Patrick Soon-Shiong last October, but he kept his title as vice president. So that means he isn’t immune from the NBA’s wrath of issuing petty fines for team officials discussing players or personnel during the league lockout. The issue angered plenty of fans Saturday at Loyola Marymount University in a one-on-one conversation with Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who warned the crowd he couldn’t ask specific questions about the current Lakers thanks to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

On a day when the NBA has fired the first volley of legal action against the Players Union, there’s a lot of talk about who is to blame and who is holding up negotiations. One of the biggest issues at hand is the Hard Cap.

Many of us are probably fairly knowledgeable of what a hard cap entails, but a little refresher seems in order. In the previous CBA (the one that just expired), the NBA had a “soft cap,” where teams could sign whoever they wanted up to a certain limit (a little over $58M last season). However, once teams reached that limit, they could only sign players in excess of the limit using various exceptions, including the Mid-Level Exception (once a year, each team can sign a player at the average salary of the league), the Bi-Annual Exception (once every two years, each team can sign a player to a nominal amount of money (around $1-2M per year, for max 2 years), Traded Player Exceptions (when they make a trade in which they take on additional salary), and various “Larry Bird” Exceptions (whereby teams are allowed to re-sign their own players to larger contracts that put them over the cap). To prevent teams in bigger markets from continually accruing salary and simply outspending other teams, the CBA included the luxury tax, which forced teams to pay an extra dollar for every dollar they were over the luxury tax limit (somewhere around $70M last season). This served to limit a number of teams from overspending, the San Antonio Spurs being a prime example of a team that was very leery of exceeding the luxury tax limit for many seasons.

However, if teams could pay the extra money, they could just keep spending and spending away. Teams like our Lakers and Dallas paid out over $90M each this past season, 3 times more than the Kings and Nuggets have on their current payrolls for this season. Thus, a lot of small market teams (and fans of those teams), have started to call for a hard cap. A hard cap would make the salary cap limit absolute: there would be no exceeding the salary cap, regardless of the circumstances. The NFL currently has a hard cap system, and many attribute the parity of that league to the hard cap.

Tim Donahue of Eight Points, Nine Seconds, a Pacers blog, recently wrote an article claiming small markets need a hard cap. Donahue makes the case that a hard cap rewards disciplined spending and good management, something that many small markets have (such as Portland and Oklahoma City). Since large market teams can’t simply outspend the small market teams, the performance of the team would depend entirely on whether the team’s management could put together a cost-effective group of players that fit as a team.

That sort of argument seems to be the norm. Royce Young, however, a blogger for the Daily Thunder as well as CBSSports, makes a strong case that a hard cap could make keeping stars in small markets very difficult. One of the most useful parts of the past CBA were the various forms of Larry Bird Exceptions, allowing teams to keep their own players, even if doing so meant they would skyrocket past the cap. While this didn’t prevent Lebron James from bolting Cleveland, it did help Dallas keep Dirk Nowitski (and then win a championship at our expense… #anti-coping). However, if a hard cap is instated, a team like the Thunder may have a lot of trouble holding onto their good young players, like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. If all of those players want extensions, the Thunder will be extremely strapped for cash under a hard cap, considering Westbrook will almost certainly be a max level salary player and Ibaka will also command a high salary as a quality big man. Thus, even if teams draft smartly and make good decisions, it may become impossible for teams to hold on to their star players.

So does a hard cap hurt small market teams or large market teams? It certainly hurts dumb teams more than it does smart teams; any team willing to give Rashard Lewis $120M or similarly for Gilbert Arenas will get severely punished by their own cap inflexibility. Most would say it prevents large market teams from outspending small market teams, and for the most part, I agree. The Lakers would certainly have to give up one of Bynum, Gasol, or Odom to be under the salary cap, and it would have to be for almost nothing in return. A hard cap would definitely level the playing field in terms of spending power not dictating team strength.

However, a hard cap would produce a new imbalance in the NBA landscape, being that some teams are in states with low or no state income tax. California, for instance, had a state income tax of 11% for people making over $1M. Compare that to Florida and Texas, which have no state income tax, and it becomes clear that tax policies have a strong effect on where NBA players want to sign. A player could sign in Orlando for $9M and make the same amount as if he signed in LA for $10M.

As for whether a hard cap hurts the players or the owners, it definitely saves the owner’s from feeling forced to overspend on players. But as Henry Abbott points out in this very insightful post on TrueHoop (rare, I know), the NBA already has a de facto hard cap in the form of BRI sharing. In the previous CBA, the players received 57% of BRI, and that’s it. If 57% wasn’t enough to cover all player salaries, the players would simply receive less money (taken out ahead of time in the form of escrow). So while a hard cap may limit the value of some contracts, the CBA still dictates how much of BRI the players will receive, and in turn how much they are paid.

But you know who the real loser is in all of this hard cap business?: The NBA Trade Machine aficionados. A hard cap would make trade conditions extremely stringent, salaries having to match almost dollar for dollar, given that teams won’t be able to exceed the cap. And I don’t buy any of this “flex cap” crap the owners are pushing, because once you reach the flex cap limit, it becomes hard cap, plain and simple. Gone will be my days of somehow finagling Andre Iguodala onto the Lakers roster (and with it, my hopes and dreams!). In this respect, I think a hard cap hurts the NBA, because trade scenarios and MLE signings are some of our favorite topics of discussion (no matter how speculative they become). Yet the hard cap will almost certainly level the playing field for small market teams. Thunder fans just shouldn’t come complaining when they have to give up Serge Ibaka for nothing.

Kobe Breaks Silence

Phillip Barnett —  August 2, 2011

After the hiring of new head coach Mike Brown and Kobe’s subsequent silence, there was lots of discussion about whether or not Brown would be able to command the kind of respect need to, for a lack of a better word, control the Lakers super star. Because of the well documented history of Kobe’s career, a lot of these assumptions were taken as fact without the Lakers playing a single game, much less Brown coaching a single practice.

A couple days ago, David Brickly of Laker Nation pointed out that Kobe addressed the Mike Brown hiring for the firs time during his interview with ESPN.

Bryant was asked about new head coach Mike Brown and the level of communication the two have had:

We’ve talked. We’ve met, we’ve talked several times, met several times. We have been in dialogue there has been an open dialogue.”

George Smith then asked Kobe’s thoughts on Brown as the Lakers new Head Coach:

He just seems like the type of coach that buttons everything up, so I think as players we’ll all be happy.”

While Bryant didn’t offer much to the discussion and there is little to be read into those words per se, Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball talk made an interesting point about Kobe’s silence and the Lakers future:

But in the end, he and the veterans on the Lakers will get behind Brown. Because they have no choice. Their window is nearing an end, they have a couple more years and then it’s time to rebuild. They don’t have time to waste a year bickering with a coach. Fall in line or watch the window close. You don’t have to like Jim Buss working hard to divorce the Lakers from the Phil Jackson era — to assert his authority over sister Jeanie, even if it means kissing a system that wins goodbye — but you have to accept it.

Despite the coaching change, this is still a Lakers team built around an aging Kobe Bryant, which means this is a team built to win championships now. Any time spent not buying into Mike Brown’s system is time wasted by a team that has the right pieces to contend for a championship (point guard upgrade or not). We’re several years removed from the days when Kobe was bickering with Phil Jackson, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that he’s matured enough to understand that he has no choice but to work with Coach Brown to the best of their collective abilities to try and bring Larry O’ Brien back to Los Angles.

Because of these reasons, I think getting Kobe on his page will remain the least of his problems. As I’ve before, bringing this team together as a whole might be Brown’s toughest job come next season, if there is a next season. The Lakers will still need to make some minor roster changes, figure out ways to best utilize the talent that they do have and find a defensive scheme that works for all. There is going to be a lot of work to get done for this team before they start playing any meaningful games. Both Brown and Kobe have said that they have been in communication, and it’s hard to imagine that communication being anything less than productive as they’re both brilliant basketball minds. At this point, I don’t see much to suggest that Brown is going to have trouble corralling Kobe. I could be proven wrong, but it seems highly unlikely.

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: Silence can speak volumes. When Kobe Bryant refused to talk about the hiring of Mike Brown, it had less to do with the hire than how it went down. First, Kobe was on record as a Brian Shaw backer. Second, he wasn’t even consulted or told about the hire — a consideration top stars all around the league are given (even Minnesota is consulting with Kevin Love). Jim Buss later admitted this was a mistake. All that doesn’t mean Kobe and Brown can’t work together. Talking with ESPN, Kobe said nice things about Brown (hat tip to Lakers Nation). “We’ve talked. We’ve met, we’ve talked several times, met several times. We have been in dialogue there has been an open dialogue. He just seems like the type of coach that buttons everything up, so I think as players we’ll all be happy.”

From Brian Kamentzky, Land O’ Lakers: Short of the proverbial offer he can’t refuse — huge money version, as opposed to something from The Godfather — for Kobe Bryant to suit up for Besiktas in Turkey, not exactly the most esteemed of European clubs, seemed a long shot. Still, talk persisted, fueled in part by Kobe’s connections to Turkish Airlines and reports of a meeting scheduled for Saturday afternoon between Bryant, his representatives, and folks from Besiktas. But as Dan Feldman reports for ESPN LA, Kobe says he “hasn’t spoken to Besiktas in weeks.” Doesn’t sound like that meeting was very productive.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: It is both possible and imperative that the respect Fisher commands in this league, even from those owners – some of whom wanted to give Fisher his latest new contract for more than the Lakers were offering – makes a difference in this game. You know he believes he can do it. It’s why he prepares so thoroughly. It’s why he can be so clutch on the court. If there is a knock on Fisher, it’s that he’s not as great as he thinks he is. Well, if you stand a relatively normal 6-foot-1 in sneakers and come out of Arkansas-Little Rock as the guard not named Kobe Bryant drafted by the Lakers in 1996, you’d better think you’re great if you want anyone else to think you’re any good and last in this league. What Fisher, who turns 37 next week, is doing now off the court will go down as one of the final chapters in a wholly unexpected NBA career. Too many other people live their lives trying to avoid responsibility. They prefer to exist instead of impress … as we too often see, actually, in NBA players not living up rightly to their guaranteed contracts. Fisher must serve those losers now, though he also represents the workers and the winners, too. It’s a tough job. But someone wants to do it. And someone can do it. He’s a role player like most of them. He’s revered as Kobe’s five-time-champion brother by the superstars. We always focus on whether the big shot is made or missed – and in this case it’s all about getting a deal done – but there’s something to be said for being the guy who earns the trust. Fisher has, again, made himself more important than anyone could’ve ever fathomed.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen & RollTo say Odom had a good season would be the understatement of the year. His career has been defined by the peaks of his undeniable talent and versatility followed by the valleys of frustrating disappearances. When Odom is playing to his full potential one could make a case for him being the best player in the league. But as often as those performances are, there are just as many games in which he plays so passively you hardly know he’s on the court. That finally changed this year. Odom brought the great performances far more often than the disappearing acts and as a result won Sixth Man of the Year. In our analysis he contributed an amazing 11.6 win shares. He had 10.1 win shares in the regular season alone. Only 14 other players in the league finished with more regular-season win shares. To get that elite production from a sixth man and either third or fourth option is the sort of thing that makes other teams envious. The Lakers received a discount when they re-signed Odom after winning the title in 2009. He took an almost 50% pay cut, having made $14.1 million two years ago compared to only $7.5 million last year. In 2010-11 he played to a level that was roughly equivalent to his prior contract if it had been extended with standard annual salary increases. As a result, Odom was the best “bang for the buck” player on the Lakers and, ignoring guys on rookie-scale contracts, probably the best in the league. Dr. Buss could not be happier with the All-Star caliber production he got from Odom, especially at a price that was just under $3 million more than he paid Luke Walton.

From Alex Kennedy, HoopsWorld: Matt Barnes was nervous in the days leading up to his game in the San Francisco Pro-Am League. It was the first time that Barnes had played in an actual game since the Los Angeles Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in May, and he was curious to see how his surgically-repaired right knee would hold up. Last Thursday, Barnes took the floor and didn’t encounter a single problem. He scored 28 points and played the majority of the game, which went into overtime. He didn’t experience any pain on the court or in the days that followed, and he’s looking forward to playing two more games next week. “It felt good,” Barnes told HOOPSWORLD. “That was the first time I had played since we got beat by Dallas. But even then, in the playoffs, my injury was lingering and I didn’t really play much. It was really the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to go out there, be pain free and not limited. There were times where I felt like I didn’t have my legs, but that’s just from not running for so long. There was definitely no pain.”

From the Eye On Basketball Staff, CBS Sports: Oh, Ron. Crazy, crazy, crazy Ron. Just a few years ago, Artest was the difference-maker in the Rockets finally getting out of the first round. He was a hero to the people. He was the big 3-point maker in the last Lakers championship. Then, just as mysteriously, the most likely scenario of Artest trying to fit in with Phil Jackson occurred: things came unglued. Artest registered a career low in nearly every statistical category and lost the confidence of his coach, who moved him further and further from his minutes. Artest enjoyed a career year for his image, winning the Walter J. Kennedy Award for Citizenship and having an art gallery open an exhibit inspired by him. But he never did find his location in the Triangle. His defense, however, didn’t really slip much. He held opponents to 29.8 percent in isolation situations, and opposing small forwards averaged only a 13.8 PER against him. That should be enough to keep him on this list until we can see what Mike Brown can do with him.

From Melissa Rohlin, LA Times Lakers Blog: In between hugging his fans and protecting his head from falling objects, Johnson ebulliently reminisced about his playing days before sitting down for an interview with Times columnist Bill Plaschke on Saturday at Loyola Marymount. Johnson said his favorite all-time memory with the Lakers was when they beat the Celtics in 1985. If he could relive a moment from his playing days, it would be when the Lakers trailed the Celtics by a point with three seconds remaining in Game 4 of the NBA Finals in 1987 and he made a 12-foot sky hook to give the Lakers a 107-106 victory. “It was just a great moment for us, being on the road, playing against the Celtics,” Johnson said. Johnson had a hard time deciding who was the worst at catching his impossible no-look pass. “They all started out bad,” Johnson said with a smile. The former point guard said that if he could build a Lakers team around one player, he would choose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over Kobe Bryant. “Kareem is still the most dominant Laker that’s ever played,” Johnson said.

From the limited exposure we’ve had to Mike Brown via press conferences and sit down interviews, we’ve learned a few things about what he plans to do with the current Laker roster on the offensive side of the ball. He will implore the team to play a bit faster by having his guys push the ball up court and initiate the offense quicker. He wants to get Kobe the ball “in his spots” in order to maximize his effectiveness. He plans to utilize some of the offensive sets from his days as a Spurs assistant coach to take advantage of his twin towers of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. And while all of this sounds great – after all, these are the key players to the Lakers’ offensive attack – one name we haven’t heard come out of Mike Brown’s mouth very often is Lamar Odom.

But make no mistake, Lamar Odom will need to be involved for the Lakers to truly excel on offense.

In the past 4 seasons Odom has been a key contributor on offense, using his well rounded game to both be a complimentary player and a primary option in the Lakers’ offensive sets. Phil Jackson used Odom’s versatility expertly by having him initiate the triangle offense, run pick and rolls as both a ball handler and a finisher, play off the ball as a slasher, post up smaller players, isolate slower defenders, push the ball as a middle man on the break, and space the floor in lineups where Kobe and either Gasol or Bynum worked the post. Odom’s ability to do all of these things effectively gave him immense value and created a variety of mismatches whenever he was on the court.

However, as the Lakers transition away from the Triangle and into a more traditional offense it’s fair to ask how Odom will fit into this new scheme. Some open questions:

  • Will Odom still have a lot of ball handling responsibilities?
  • Will Odom still initiate the offense?
  • Will Odom work more as a post player ala Gasol and Bynum or more as a perimeter power forward?
  • Will Odom have the freedom to still push the ball in transition or will he be bottled into the more traditional role of a big man?

As of today, we don’t have answers to these questions but I can only hope that we can say “yes” to all of the above. Odom’s versatility is his biggest asset on this team and putting him in positions to explore his full skill set is the best way to maximize his value. Mike Brown has spoken extensively about trying to get the most out of his players, but doing that with Odom may be his most difficult job as an X’s and O’s practitioner next year.

Understand that Odom was the Lakers best pick and roll player last year when you combine the ability to initiate and finish in the set. His ability to create off the dribble for himself or his teammates is second to only Kobe and his instincts on when to pass and when to shoot probably surpass #24’s. Odom works effectively in space with and without the ball and getting him moving into the free space to take advantage of the attention Kobe/Gasol/Bynum draw is one of the best ways to create high percentage shots without having to run an actual play. Not to mention he’s one of the team’s best offensive rebounders so putting him in position to still attack the glass is also a key.

Can Mike Brown’s offense do all of these things for Odom; can his sets put Odom in positions to utilize such a wide variety of skills? The triangle naturally set Odom up to use all his natural ability by limiting the play calls and letting the players read and react to the defense. This let the players’ ability take over and put their versatility on full display. On any given possession Odom would bring the ball up and then shift from the two guard front to the to the wing; he’d set up shop at the elbow or sink into the short corner; he’d work to the middle of the paint off flashes and dive cuts, doing it all based off what the D was doing. On one side of the floor he’d be involved in a pick and roll with one of the big men, making an entry pass and then cutting to the rim looking for an easy score or setting up for the offensive rebound. On another possession he’d isolate at the top of the key in a 1-4 set or hang back behind the arc and shoot the long ball. But in Mike Brown’s O – one in which he’s stated the PG, SG, and SF are interchangeable parts as initiators and where big men are post up players and screeners – where does Odom fit in?

Will he play like a guard? Like a big man? Can he do both for Brown like he did for Phil?

Carving out a role will be key, but in an offensive system where players usually play more conventional roles it will be interesting to see how one of the more unconventional players in the league is used. As a power forward, Odom can do it all but what will his coach ask him to do? And when he asks him, will it stifle his skill set or allow it to flourish? Right now, I have my questions and concerns as to how this will actually play out. We’ll know more when the games start, but the fact is we’ll have to wait because Mike Brown isn’t offering any clues as to how the versatility of Odom will be tapped into.