Archives For June 2012

Since the season ended what’s been on everyone’s – from fans to front office members’ – minds is improving the Lakers’ roster. If a second round defeat wasn’t enough to show the team needs to improve, the quality of play exhibited in the Finals hammered the point home. The Lakers must get better if they want to raise another Larry O’Brien trophy and the must do so quickly.

How to do so, of course, is the key question at hand. The Lakers don’t have many resources at their disposal and working within the boundaries of the new collective bargaining agreement offers new challenges not yet mastered by any front office. But, even with those challenges, the need for improvement is as apparent as the nose on your face.

Up to this point, the Lakers top executives – Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak – have spoken about the realities the team faces and how it will be difficult to pull off the type of radical change that some seek. Be it mentioning the rarity of blockbuster trades, the difficulty of obtaining a high draft pick that can yield an impact player, or the type of talent that can be lured by the types of cap exceptions the Lakers have available, Mitch and Jim are both setting expectations for a hungry fan base and working to let others know how much they value the players currently on their roster.

That said, what’s also being acknowledged – simply by having the conversation – is that better is needed. And while it’s more than reasonable to expect there to be some natural improvement from the familiarity of working under Mike Brown and all that comes with that – better cohesion, understanding of his systems, etc – getting better players is still the goal. With that in mind, we offer a general plan to try and improve the roster solely using the resources at their disposal. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m not yet entertaining any trades for the Lakers’ big three. We’ll touch on that eventually, but at this point, let’s take Mitch and Jim at their word that they expect Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum to all be wearing Lakers’ jerseys when next season starts.

Re-sign Ramon Sessions
Fans aren’t yet sold on Sessions as a long term answer at point guard and I can understand those concerns. His defense needs work, he’s not yet the type of shooter that can consistently stretch the floor, and there were times where he looked overwhelmed by the raised stakes of the post-season.

However, I’m still of the mind that he’s quite a good player that will still improve. Remember, he’s not yet 27 years old and does have several good aspects to his game and a foundation for growth. His speed, decision making, and floor generalship are all above average. He’s a very good pick and roll player, makes plays for himself and his teammates, and can score the ball well. He adds an open court dimension, has shown he can hit big shots, and also showed enough smarts and hard work to pick up the team’s schemes on the fly and make an impact.

I don’t know if he’ll ever be as consistently good as his first 10-15 games with the team but I definitely don’t think he’ll ever be as consistently out of sorts as he was in the playoffs. So, if he can be had for a reasonable price – which, for me is in the $4.5 to $5.5 million per year over the next 3 to 4 years – I think that’d be a good deal for the Lakers. Remember, starting caliber players in this league often make much more than that once they’re beyond their rookie contracts so getting him at that price, I think, would be a good deal for the Lakers and would give them a starter with good growth potential in the fold. And with him in tow, the team could move on to other needs.

Attempt to use the trade exception from the Lamar Odom trade
I’ll be the first to admit that making trades can be complicated. Outsiders never really know how other teams value assets on the trade market and making a deal requires that two sides who both want to achieve something positive for their franchise get what they want. Using a trade exception can be even harder because teams typically don’t just hand over good players only for the salary relief a trade exception offers. This typically means the team who gets the player has to sweeten the offer somehow. Another issue can be the length of the contract the player possesses, thus making his “value” as a player much less due to the money he’s still owed. The Lakers don’t have a lot of sweeteners and also must be careful about taking on long contracts that affect their ability to avoid the repeater tax in the 2014-15 season.

All that said, the Lakers have this $8.9 million resource at their disposal and using it before it expires on a player that can help the team should be a priority. Maybe the Lakers look to use it via a sign and trade on a player that’s leaving his current team as FA and would like a contract bigger than the MLE that a lot of teams are sure to offer. That would require getting on the phone with agents and getting a feel for whether or not a player would want to come to the Lakers. Then more work would have to be done convincing the team that holds that player’s rights to make a deal. The Lakers could also make calls to teams with desirable players and see if salary relief is something those teams would want in exchange. There are other options as well.

However they go about it though, they need to actively try and find a partner. The Lakers only have so many ways they can add talent and this is one of them. I’ll understand if they try to make a deal and fail. But, they need to try.

Re-sign Jordan Hill
Let me say this upfront: Hill’s not a great player. What he is, however, is a good role player that can help a team win within a well defined role. And after he got healthy and found his way into the Lakers’ rotation, that’s exactly what he did.

Hill showed great instincts on both backboards, meshed well into the Lakers show/recover defensive scheme, and complimented both Bynum and Gasol well when he shared the court with both players. He worked hard, played within himself, and never seemed to be about anything else other than doing his job well. Of course there were times that he didn’t play well and that is to be expected with any player. But as a 3rd big man the Lakers can do a lot worse and need only look at the production they were getting from that spot before Hill emerged as a rotation player.

A wrinkle in the collective bargaining agreement states that Hill can’t make any more money than what his declined team option would have paid him next season (approximately $3.6 million). I’m not sure he’ll command that much money on the open market but at least the Lakers know what his contract ceiling will be can use that to work with him on a reasonable contract to return. Remember, the Lakers essentially traded a 1st round pick for Hill and to lose him in free agency would be a step back – even if only a minor one. At this point, the Lakers can’t take steps backwards when trying to improve their talent base.

Use the mini-MLE to sign a viable player
As Mitch Kupchak said, “You might not be able to really go out there and dramatically improve your team with a $1 million player or a $3 million player. But there’s value out there and we’ll search for it.”  So, we can only assume he’s going to be scouring the market for good players that will fit into the $3 million slot that the mini-MLE offers. My preference is that the Lakers search for a viable wing using that exception, especially since Matt Barnes is a free agent and Kobe could use a back up that helps get his minutes down.

I won’t get into skill-set specifics with this player because I honestly don’t think it’s as big a deal that the Lakers find someone that is a “shooter” or a “great athlete”. Targeting those specific skills doesn’t always pan out and can lead to signings that don’t work out (see Radmanovich, Vladimir). The Lakers need the most talented players that they can find, period. Give me a good talent base to work with and the weaker parts of a player’s game can be developed and improved. In the end, the team simply needs to find more contributors and that doesn’t mean finding a specialist.

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These are only four steps, but if all of them can be executed the Lakers can end up with a quality roster. These moves would net them a starting point guard, a third big man, a back up wing, and another player of consequence that would contribute. When you add those players to Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Artest, Blake, and McRoberts, that’s a 10 man rotation of players that should be able to compete even in a crowded Western Conference. If the Lakers are able to add another player in the draft (Jim Buss has openly said they’d like to get back into the 1st round) that could be another player that bolsters the talent base to help them compete nightly.

I understand many are looking for the homerun deal. But if that doesn’t materialize, these are the types of deals the team can make to get better. How much better isn’t known by anyone, but this would certainly be a start.

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  June 22, 2012

Like basketball fans everywhere, I was glued to the game last night – the Miami Heat getting it done in convincing fashion. I was pulling for OKC the whole way but there’s a reason teams don’t come back from three games down – it’s nearly impossible to swing the tide of that kind of momentum, especially when you’re away from home. Regardless, the Thunder have now been close enough to taste it. They’re young, hungry, athletic, and they’ll come back stronger, and more determined.

And then there’s the rest of the league. We entered the off season at different points but somehow, it feels more official now. The summer of positioning begins, the draft and free agency and the power rankings and guessing games. The Lakers are one more year removed from the epicenter, bounced from the second round, twice in a row. For some organizations, summer begins with the cyclical process of “how can we ever get there?” For the Lakers, it’s how to find a way home.

There’s a glaring problem with that last statement – this organization has been divesting itself of ring holders ever since the Dallas series. A couple key trades and we could find ourselves down to the last man standing – Kobe Bryant. To an arguable extent. we’re in the same boat as much of the league, on the outside looking in. Odds-makers have put our chances of winning next year’s title at 12-1.

We have an organization that has feasted at the table, many times over. We have Kobe, and at least at this moment in time, we still have Pau and Andrew and even Metta, a guy who played with true heart this past season, and could possibly fit a new role next time around. Regardless, we’re at a crossroads. The Miami Heat have begun their summer party. The Thunder are going to try and settle their coaching situation.

It’s incredibly hard to win a championship. The competition is brutal, and we cannot succeed without change. So what should it be? Here’s a few possibilities: Jim Buss’s recent assertion, to keep the Kobe/Pau/Andrew nucleus intact, and shape Brown to fit them, rather than vice-versa – go all in on the power game, the system game.

Mitch Kupchak followed the same line of logic, that the likelihood of major change is slim. And yet as Darius wrote the other day, this is how a smart organization works, playing their cards close to the vest. It can work. It has in the past. That approach takes true discipline though – Phil Jackson had the stature and the success and the blueprint to make it work. Until it didn’t work.

The mixed grill approach – a little bit of this and a bit of that. Keep as much of our valuable resources as we can, and try to fill in the gaps, maybe find a way to pull the trigger on one or two vets with legit playoff experience, maybe trade up into the first round.

And then there’s the nuclear option – blow it up around Kobe – going young, fast, furious, and hungry. Surround an old assassin with young killers. No more Pau, as excellent and versatile, and smart as he is. He’s not bloodthirsty. And no more Andrew. He’s a beast, sometimes. He can can pull down 30 boards against the Spurs on their home court. And look off into space the next night. And loaf back down the court, hauling the bulkiest knee brace in the game with him.

I couldn’t find any links that actually support the idea of this final notion – probably because it’s the riskiest path possible. Nonetheless, it’s one that I almost like. Then again, I amuse myself by making up stories about Craig Sager. I’ll leave it up to you, readers, to figure out this dilemma. Have a great weekend.

- Dave Murphy

A New Role For Ron?

Darius Soriano —  June 21, 2012

When the Lakers traded Lamar Odom, they lost a lot of useful qualities. They lost a locker room leader. They lost an unselfish glue guy. Maybe most importantly, however, they lost a talented player with diverse skill that could play all over the floor on both sides of the ball; a player that could use his versatile skill set to effectively play off of his teammates. When looking back to 2011 (and years prior), some of the Lakers best lineups were ones where Odom played PF next to either Gasol or Bynum. His value, in that way, was really immeasurable.

In replacing Odom with Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, and (later) Jordan Hill the Lakers went with more traditional archetypes of players and found mixed results. All three players proved useful for stretches, but none could truly approximate the skills Odom brought to the table in a single player (McRoberts came closest but he’s not nearly the talent that 2011 Odom was). This led to Mike Brown shuffling back and forth between them, ultimately settling on Jordan Hill down the stretch of the season as his defensive consistency and work on the glass proved most valuable out of what each brought to the table.

Moving forward, however, it’d be nice if the Lakers could approximate more of what Odom brought to the table in a single player. Interestingly enough, they may have that guy on their roster already. His name is (was) Ron Artest.

Once upon a time, Ron was one of the best two way players in the league and while his decreased athleticism has made him less effective, he’s still got all the facets of his game. He has a good handle, can create off the dribble for himself or teammates, is a decent shooter from the outside, and can post up and finish in the paint. Defensively, we know that Ron can still play well even though his foot speed isn’t quite what it was when he first came to the Lakers. But, overall, these are skills that could translate well to playing some PF if the Lakers decide they want to go small.

In fact, this past season it already started to happen. In some very small sample sizes, the Lakers performed quite well with Ron playing PF in small-ball lineups next to Gasol (mostly) and Bynum (much less frequent). The most standard lineups were those that used a PG (Fisher, Sessions, or Blake), Kobe, Barnes, Ron, and Gasol. Those lineups all produced efficiency differentials of over 10 and performed, on average, much better on both sides of the ball than the Lakers standard personnel groupings.

Of course, with samples as small as the ones I looked at, the results can’t be extrapolated out to longer stretches without taking into account how things could go wrong. Ron’s jumper has been inconsistent and that could compromise spacing. His lack of height and below the rim game would make it an even bigger challenge to post up against bigger players and still be effective. Rebounding could also become an issue should he be matched up against someone with superior quickness and leaping ability that could beat him to the ball.

However, even when considering those potential pitfalls, I’m of the mind that it could work. Simply by having Ron space the floor against traditional PF’s the Lakers could open up their offense more. His ability to knock down open shots or drive past slower closeouts could also boost his effectiveness as a play maker. He still shows good instincts when moving into open space, bodying up his man, and in chasing loose balls, which would aid him when rebounding on both sides of the ball. Defensively he has the foot speed to keep up with most PF’s and has the strength to battle anyone in the post. In the past two seasons the Lakers have switched Ron onto Blake Griffin and Kevin Love on key possessions late in games to get the stops they sought. He held his own against both players and they happen to be two of the better players at that position.

As the league moves forward there will be a greater emphasis on lineup versatility. We’re seeing it right now in the Finals with LeBron and Durant both staples of traditional and small lineups their teams deploy. And while Ron isn’t in those players class as elite talents, his skill set is varied enough and his tenacity more than enough that a part time role as a PF could be worth exploring more in the future. I wouldn’t expect Ron to replace what Odom brought to the team, but he could mirror some of LO’s skills and give the Lakers another option outside of the more one dimensional players they used this past season. And, as we look to what this team needs to be more successful moving forward, that’s surely on the list.

After a second consecutive season of not advancing past the conference semi-finals, Lakers’ fans are looking for roster changes. In fact, they’re expecting them. Going into next season with a roster that’s only slightly tweaked is a plan that doesn’t have a lot of support. None of that may matter, however, if you listen to Jim Buss. He says the Lakers may not make a major move this summer. The L.A. Times has the scoop from their latest sit down with Jerry’s son:

What are the chances of the Lakers starting the season with Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all in Lakers uniforms? ”Very good,” says Buss. So you don’t agree with those who say the Lakers must turn Gasol into two or three players via a trade? ”No,” he says. “I think changes are going to be made moving Pau lower to the basket. We can improve that way with a change in coaching strategy rather than a change in personnel.” No moves? ”We will try to sign Sessions when the rules allow beginning in July,” he says. “And improve the bench.” No major free-agent signings, no blockbuster trades? ”No,” he says.

If you’re surprised at this, you shouldn’t be. The Lakers have some hard choices to make this summer and one of their options is to work around the edges of this roster to try and bring in better supporting talent. That approach is a gamble, but is it any bigger than the risk of trading a core player for another piece (or multiple pieces) that may or may not work out? I don’t have the answer to that but I can see convincing arguments on both sides that make sense.

That said, while fans are sure to jump up and down about these statements I suggest looking a bit deeper and remembering back a year.

After last season’s defeat at the hands of the Mavs, Jim Buss said almost the exact same thing he’s saying now. He said that he liked the talent on this team, that he thought they could compete for a championship with this core of players, and that expecting a major change (even in the face of high profile critiques – cough…Magic Johnson….cough) shouldn’t be expected. Then, right on the eve of training camp, the Lakers traded Lamar Odom (the reigning 6th man) and Pau Gasol (all-star & all-NBA performer) for Chris Paul. Basically, what Jim said in public meant little to what was going on behind the scenes.

This is important to remember right now. When Jim or Mitch come out and say that they like their team, those statements work to accomplish two things. First is to show confidence in the players that are currently on the roster; to show a belief in their talents to help the team win. The second, and just as important, thing they accomplish – or at least try to – is to reinforce the value of those players on the market.

The last thing Jim was going to say was “Yes, we’re looking to make trades. Yes, I think trading Gasol would be the way we’re going to proceed”. The reason, of course, is that once those words are uttered, leverage is lost. There’s no way the Lakers would get proper value in that scenario. So, what we have is Jim saying what needs to be said in public. What’s going on behind the scenes could be (and probably is based off other whispers) entirely different. This is the way the Lakers operate – especially since the Shaq trade where the chief complaint was that they didn’t receive enough talent back for the game’s best Center.

In the meantime, we all must sit back and wait. And while I think we should take Jim at his word on a lot of what he’s saying – the team will try to re-sign Sessions, they will try to get a higher draft pick, coaching adjustments can lead to a better utilized Gasol (something I agree with) – we must also understand that not everything that’s said should be taken at face value. Some of what’s said will be smokescreen with ulterior motives attached.

Wether this means a major trade is made or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think we’re getting the answer to that right now, before the draft and free agency has even started.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  June 20, 2012

I’m not going to write much in the way of wraparound bumpers today, and will keep the links Laker-centric. Darius will have a post coming up a little later that explores team direction, especially in regards to some of the newest theories being floated. In the meantime, read and enjoy:

Brian Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers, considers the question of Kobe Bryant’s salary.

Mike Trudell at NBA.com, takes a look inside the world of the Lakers video coordinator.

T.J. Simers from the L.A. Times  has an interview with Jim Buss that’s pretty interesting, especially the part about adjusting coaching to Pau, rather than trading him.

Kevin Ding from the OC Register, writes about Phil Jackson’s recent HBO interview.

Actuarially Sound at Silver Screen and Roll, channels Robert Frost’s ‘Road Not Taken’ as he examines trade scenarios.

Here’s the Dave McMenamin report for ESPN GO about Ramon testing the market (also covered here yesterday).

This is from a couple days ago, the Matt Moore article for CBS Sports about Pau Gasol/Memphis Grizzlies rumors.

We never know of course what’s really going to happen with player personnel. Mitch Kupchak keeps things pretty wrapped up until the trigger’s pulled. One of the tidbits from the Buss interview was the acknowledgment that he wants to trade up into the first round. If the major pieces are standing pat, what combination will pry a first rounder loose?