Archives For June 2012

Watching the playoffs unfold the way that they have has reminded me of a basic tenet of building a winning basketball team: the draft is where the foundation is formed for long term success.

We just saw the Thunder advance to the Finals with a nucleus of players (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka) that was completely home grown. The team they dispatched – the Spurs – also sported a trio of home grown stars (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili). When you look to the East, the foundations are not as plush with guys that started on those teams but two of the Celtics’ top four contributors (Pierce, Rondo) were plucked up by the C’s brass. While in Miami, several key contributors (Haslem, Chalmers, Cole, Anthony) and a franchise cornerstone (Wade) are home grown.

Of course, when building a winner, there will be outside players brought in. Be it a superstar or two (Garnett, LeBron) or a role player (Battier, Perkins), organizations are tasked with finding the right pieces to fit around the talent that they drafted and cultivated. This is how most champions have been built (the one major exception is the 2004 Pistons, but they’re always the exception) and how they will continue to be.

When you look at the Lakers, they too have been constructed using this formula. Kobe has long been the home grown franchise icon that provided a pillar to build around. Bynum too has ascended to the ranks of top flight contributor that was also selected by the Lakers. When you add players like Gasol, Odom, Ariza, and Artest the Lakers have done a good job of mixing players they’ve drafted with others acquired via trades and free agency to build teams that won championships.

However, in the two years since the Lakers have raised the Larry O’Brien trophy we’ve seen a subtle shift in how they’ve gone about building their team.

Quick, besides Bynum and Kobe tell me a player the Lakers drafted that was a key contributor to either last or this year’s team.

If you came up blank, I don’t blame you. Derek Fisher would have been an easy name but he’s since been traded and was drafted the same year as Kobe. After him there’s not an obvious name. Ebanks? Goudelock? Both saw limited action this year and had minimal impact in the big scheme of things. Last year, there wasn’t a single Laker draftee that played significant minutes outside of Kobe, Bynum, and Fisher.

Now, look back to the 2008 Finals team and the back to back title winners from 2009 and 2010. The list doesn’t grow a whole lot but it does grow. Besides Kobe and Bynum the team had Farmar, Sasha, and Walton. Of course as time went on Luke’s role became close to non-existent and Sasha worked his way into Phil Jackson’s doghouse. But at the start of the Lakers’ recent run, they were contributors.

Of course, railing against the Lakers aversion to the draft is too easy and paints too black and white a picture. In order for the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol, they had to trade multiple draft picks. And when constructing the team in front of us now, they traded more draft picks for Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill. The latter two players are both young and provided great, albeit unsteady, production after they were acquired.

The bigger picture issue for me is that besides Hill and Sessions the Lakers have often gotten rid of youth and exchanged it for more experienced veterans. When Farmar was allowed to walk in free agency they signed Steve Blake. When Ariza left the team signed Ron. Matt Barnes has been a key rotation player the past two years and when Shannon Brown left this past off-season he wasn’t replaced at all – unless you want to count Jason Kapono’s signing.

Further analysis complicates things further. The Lakers have drafted well with the picks they’ve had. Ebanks, Goudelock, and Morris all look to be NBA quality players. The team also did sign Josh McRoberts as a young PF that has shown promise as a back up big man. But these players have not yet proven to be contributors that can stick in the rotation.

Ultimately, the Lakers have been a team that’s skewed older when looking for rotation players and that’s a departure from what earned them three straight trips to the Finals (even with the Ariza/Ron swap the team still had youth in their rotation). Whether or not this changes will depend on the myriad of decisions the team will make this summer. Two of their three stars are aging and they have precious few young options on the wing so these are surely conversations the front office is debating with the transition to next season is in full swing.

It’s interesting to see, though, how this team has evolved from one with a nice mix of home grown stars and youthful contributors to one that’s aged and overly reliant on veterans whose peaks have passed. Maybe the acquisitions of Sessions and Hill start to change that. And maybe we’ll see more youth infused in the free agency period or with a draft day acquisition beyond what the Lakers can do with the 60th pick. But as the Thunder rest today, with a Finals berth in the back pocket of their designer skinny jeans (kids these days!), the Lakers must also look at their model and wonder if they too need to get back to skewing a bit younger. After all, the last time they won a title they did just that.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  June 6, 2012

It’s been interesting, watching the battle between old and young throughout the playoffs. The final four is mostly three parts veteran, one part youth. Tonight could be curtains for the San Antonio Spurs, facing elimination at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder represent the last opportunity for some semblance of the NBA’s next generation to get their shot at the Larry O’Brien. Of course, Kevin Durant isn’t exactly a bright-eyed rookie at this point – this being his fifth year in the league. Meanwhile, the old-as-Methuselah Celtics head back to Boston, with a chance to put away Miami and head to another finals appearance. Here’s a smattering of links from Laker-centric to the games at hand:

Brian Kamenetzky at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers remarks on the option pickup for Andrew Bynum’s last year under contract.

Dave McMenamin from ESPN Los Angeles, delivers his Mike Brown report card.

Mark Medina at the LA. Times has a report card for the front office.

Mike Bresnahan at the Times weighs in on Bynum’s pickup.

Matt Moore at Eye On Basketball writes about Orlando’s continued effort to being Phil Jackson to their front office, in a hybrid long distance relationship.

Jeff Latzke from the AP, files a report for Yahoo, about OKC on the verge of advancing, and the Spurs’ determination not to let it happen.

Big50 at Pounding the Rock has a preview for tonight’s game.

Aaron McGuire provides a game six Manna of Hope for 48 Minutes of Hell.

Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo writes about Miami’s frailties, and the possibility of an experiment gone wrong,

Mark Spears at Yahoo writes about the Celtics who wouldn’t die, headed back to TD Garden.

***

Generational questions and the matter of direction, loom large for the Los Angeles Lakers. Age is an obvious talking point, with Kobe nearing his end game. That in of itself doesn’t necessarily steer the boat but winning does. There’s also a question of style, of power versus speed. Boston as a team may be old, but Rajon Rondo isn’t. Without his quickness and game-changing ability, the Celtics aren’t still in this thing.

As widely noted, Andrew Bynum’s final option year has been exercised. It doesn’t necessarily secure his future – Darius wrote about uncertainty and free agency. And then there’s the matter of money – the staggering amount that’s on our plate right now, and the fact that most of it comes off the books in 2014. This brings us back to the here and now – what are the changes this summer, how does it or doesn’t it position us for the future? It’s the question of priorities and choices – youth, speed, power, and veteran ability down the stretch. Which path do we take? How do we best surround Kobe with assets that can bring him one more ring? Because forget all the on-record talk about lots more championships before he’s done – the end game right now, is one more.

- Dave Murphy

Money On The Mind

Darius Soriano —  June 5, 2012

Yesterday, the Lakers did what they’ve been saying they would for months and exercised their team option on Andrew Bynum’s contract for next season. As a result, big ‘Drew will rake in $16.1 million dollars next year (while also setting up other questions still to be answered, but that’s another topic).

This commitment to Bynum got me to thinking about the Lakers finances both short and long term. As we know the new collective bargaining agreement is designed to level the playing field through punitive penalties to high spending teams. The Lakers, of course, are one such team. So, in building for today and tomorrow, the Lakers must take into account their payroll into every move made. This may not be what fans want to hear, but it’s an inescapable truth and must be part of the calculus of how this team moves forward.

Consider the following facts:

  • With Bynum in the fold, the Lakers’ payroll for next season will be around $79.3 million. However, this is before Ramon Sessions makes a decision on his player option. If Sessions picks up his option and plays out the final year of his contract the Lakers payroll jumps to about $83.8 million. If he opts out and the Lakers re-sign him, their payroll will be even higher.
  • The above total will also be affected by the other free agent decisions that the team must make. Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes are both free agents and losing both creates a major hole on the wing behind Kobe and Ron. The likelihood that one of them returns is high and my bet would be on Ebanks returning, though at what cost remains to be seen. Jordan Hill is also a free agent and while the CBA dictates what his maximum salary can be next year ($3.6 million) the team will need to decide if he’s a part of their future as well and at what cost. Darius Morris is also a free agent and the Lakers will need to decide if they’d like to keep him.
  • The CBA dictates that next season the luxury tax line will be at least as high as it was this season – $70 million.
  • The CBA also dictates that next year’s tax payments will equal $1 for every $1 a team is over the tax line.
  • After next season (2013-14; year 3 of the new CBA), the escalated tax penalties kick in and the year following that (2014-15; year 4 of the new CBA) teams are eligible to be hit by the repeater tax (defined as a team that pays the luxury tax for 4 years in a 5 year span).

From here it’s pretty clear that the Lakers have to think both short and long term, not only from a “how do we contend” standpoint but also a “how do we keep our payroll reasonable” standpoint. Every team will have to navigate these waters but a team like the Lakers – with heavy financial commitments to several key players – are already working with their backs against the wall. They need to balance a desire to win (now and later) with the desire (need?) to get below the tax line by the summer of 2014.

Fortunately, there’s a ready made plan of attack already built into the contracts the Lakers currently have on their books. In the summer 2014, the Lakers don’t have a single player under contract. That is the summer Kobe, Pau, Ron, and Steve Blake’s contracts all expire. At that point, the Lakers can (and likely will) work under the framework of the CBA to rebuild their team into one that can contend as quickly as possible while not going into luxury tax territory. The decisions that will need to be made at that point (especially in regards to Kobe) will be hard ones no doubt, but they’re properly set up to make them.

(Side note: What happens with Andrew Bynum long term will affect the Lakers’ payroll for 2014 and beyond. If he signs an extension or tests free agency but returns to the Lakers, he will be on the books beyond 2014 and his salary must be accounted for here. The same can be said if he’s traded for an equal talent that the Lakers feel is a cornerstone player for their future. Whatever the case, it’s fair to assume the Lakers will have a max (or close to max) level contract on their roster that summer. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the aforementioned players’ contracts are expiring and the team will be positioned to get under the tax line that summer.)

Of course, that’s not the only year with financial concerns. The 2013-14 season will hit the Lakers hard in terms of tax payments. Eric Pincus did some math on the matter and estimates a $92 million dollar payroll in player contracts (an amount he calculates based off filling out the roster) will equate to $144.5 million dollars in payroll + luxury tax payments. Are the Lakers willing to spend that much that season? The answer to that question will dictate every roster decision we see in between now and then.

As we’ve been saying all off-season, the Lakers will have many decisions to make in terms of how they want to build a team and what model will be most successful for them. However, we mustn’t forget that financial concerns will always loom large. These concerns will be part of every roster move made (or not made) and will shape the details of any deal significantly. So, while Andrew Bynum’s option being picked up was a no-brainer and great news for Lakers fans, there will be harder decisions to be made in the future in how the Lakers spend to compete.

*Payroll and salary information via Shamsports

Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Deron Williams.

What do those names have in common?

All-stars? Check. All-NBA performers? Indeed. Franchise cornerstones? You betcha.

They’re all also players that had their free agency status become a major storyline within the last couple of years. Questions about whether they’d stay or go once their contracts were up or if their team would end up trading them were discussed ad nauseam by fans and media alike. Besides Dwight Howard, none of those players actually does still play for the team that wrestled with their star player’s contract status (and Dwight may not start next season on the Magic either). LeBron and Bosh left as free agents (though technically were signed and traded) while Paul, Carmelo, and Deron were all traded for packages of attractive assets (young players, expiring contracts, and draft picks).

Will Andrew Bynum be next?

One of the under-discussed topics related to Bynum’s future is the fact that he’s entering into his walk year; that after next season he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. The Lakers’ front office has already stated they’re planning to pick up Andrew’s option for next season, but beyond that we don’t yet know what his future holds.

Will he sign a contract extension? Will he test the waters and explore his free agent options? No one really knows at this point.

When asked about his future after the Lakers’ game 5 defeat to the Thunder, Bynum first said that he didn’t care where he played and then added that he’d like to remain a Laker. Many have made a big deal about the “I don’t care” part of his statement but when put it into context it doesn’t bother me much at all.

Remember, Bynum’s name has appeared in countless trade rumors over the years and his mindset has always been that he’d play anywhere. It’s this mindset that’s at least partially allowed him to blossom as a player, a growth that contributes to him having the type of value that makes him attractive on the trade and free agent market. In essence, I prefer to focus on what he’s done – improve his game while contributing to the success of the team – rather than a soundbite that only shows he’ll try to continue to grow as a player regardless of where he’s playing.

That said, what’s different now is that it’s not the Lakers that hold all the cards. Bynum will have the ability to stay (sign an extension) or go (walk after next season) all while being non-committal about the entire process. Basically, his situation can quickly become comparable to the aforementioned stars above.

The Lakers front office has made their feelings about Bynum known. They see him as a franchise pillar that can be built upon. Issues surrounding attitude and maturity exist, but do so inside the body of a 7’1″, 285 pound man with long arms, soft hands, and tremendous skill. Wanting to keep that package of traits in-house is preferable to the alternative. Sure there’s some risk. Whether or not he matures and, if he does, the timeline in which it happens are important. Can his game continue to grow and can he take the next step, skill wise, to become an even better player? These are unknowns.

And this contributes to the dilemma the Lakers have on their hands. Bynum has shown tremendous progress as a player but still has enough issues to warrant serious questioning. Meanwhile his ability to decide his own future puts the Lakers in a position where they must explore all their options. We’ve been talking a lot about the framework of the team and the tough choices the Lakers have to make this off-season and Bynum’s contract status is a key component that must accounted for.

How much this will influence the Lakers remains to be seen. But, to be sure, it will influence them. Because despite this team obviously living in the short term world of “win now” while Kobe Bryant is still a top level contributor, the future is also very important. That means looking at the luxury tax and revenue sharing. It means looking at Gasol’s value. And, it means looking at Andrew Bynum and his looming free agency.

This off-season one of the questions the Lakers’ front office will need to ask and answer is whether or not their big man tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum works together well enough to keep in tact. Even with the financial concerns of keeping both in house through the end of Pau’s contract, the decision will likely come down to their utility as playing partners rather than what their cost is on the ledger. The Lakers understand that they’re going to be a high payroll team (Mitch Kupchak said so himself in his exit interview), so the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily saving money but optimizing their roster through right fitting personnel.

It should be said from the outset that having two of the better big men in the league is an embarrassment of riches. Before this past season Gasol had made three consecutive all-star teams while also being named either 2nd or 3rd team all-NBA. During long stretches of the 2011 season Gasol was widely considered the ‘most skilled’ big man in the league. Meanwhile, Bynum too has developed into an all-star and made 2nd team all-NBA this year. Both are fantastic players individually and having both on the same team is a luxury many teams would love to have an opportunity to try and make work.

This season, however, the Lakers were the team that had to make it work and the results were mixed.

Bynum and Gasol shared the court for 1,492 minutes this season, the third highest minute total of any pairing for the Lakers (behind only Kobe/Pau and Kobe/Bynum). In those minutes the team essentially played to their season averages in terms of every major statistical category both traditional and advanced/efficiency based. This, of course, makes complete sense – they played so often together that of course the team’s statistical output would be highly influenced by this paring.

Of course, the stats are only one part of this equation. What matters more is how the players actually meshed. And, this is where we start to see how it didn’t work as well as hoped.

Simply put, Gasol never really seemed comfortable playing the role he was given when sharing the floor with Bynum. As we said all year, Pau traded post touches for perimeter ones. He often acted as a facilitator at the elbow (or higher) in the Lakers’ HORNS sets, catching then holding the ball as the primary decision maker for how a set would evolve. When he wasn’t facilitating, he was spacing the floor, evidenced by his increase in long two pointers attempted and decrease in shots taken close to the basket.

Despite this shift in his offensive role, Pau was still effective if not nearly as decisive. He may have hit 50% of his field goals on the year but he often passed up shots in an attempt to involve others, showing difficulties in balancing his role as a distributor and scorer. He spoke at length about this after the season, saying that he’d need to find ways to be more aggressive while admitting that adjusting to his new role where he had to pursue his looks (rather than having them worked into the general flow of the offense) was challenging.

That said, Pau’s big picture offensive numbers were remarkably consistent whether Bynum was on the floor or not. The difference in FG% was minuscule (.3% better with Bynum on the floor) and his per 48 minute numbers for offensive rebounds were nearly the same. The only marked difference was that with Bynum off the floor Pau scored more (while also taking more FT’s) and assisted less, a natural result considering his role as a distributor when he shared the floor with another offensive threat the caliber of Bynum.

Bynum, on the other hand, did see a pretty big difference in production when Pau was on the floor vs. on the bench. When playing without the Spaniard, Bynum shot 4% better while scoring 4 more points per 48 minutes but also did worse on the offensive glass and committed more turnovers. As an offensive focal point Bynum had much more responsibility as a scorer and much more defensive attention shifted his way. The result was better scoring with the tradeoff being his offensive rebounding and ability to keep possession of the ball suffering. These are products of Bynum’s relative inexperience in being an offensive focal point and will likely improve over time but it’s interesting to see how Gasol’s presence affected his game in both positive and negative ways.

Defensively the Lakers saw the types of results you’d expect when Pau and Bynum shared the floor versus when one of them sat. With both of them in the game the Lakers’ defensive efficiency and rebound rate were both better. Per 48 minutes they blocked more shots, forced more steals, allowed less second chance points, and fouled less. Where they had issues were in transition defense and in points allowed off turnovers. P&R defense also gave them problems as Bynum didn’t always hedge and recover properly and the duo’s lack of foot speed meant that weak side rotations weren’t always timely. These last points are, of course, a major concern for the Lakers and has been for some time so it’s difficult to pin this solely on the Pau/Drew pairing even though their play is symptomatic of the problem.

So, what’s the final conclusion? It’s honestly not as easy to answer that question when you dig in further. Keeping both can definitely still work. The Lakers would need to continue to tweak their sets to better take advantage of each players’ strengths while also adjusting rotations to find personnel groupings that better mesh. And while some of the defensive issues that exist may not ever go away, there are ways to scheme around those as well. We never did see the Lakers play any zone D this year nor did we see any tweaks to the scheme that would sometimes have the bigs playing 20 feet from the hoop trying to contain a ball handler after switching. There’s refining to be done on both sides of the ball and the skill of the players involved is so high it could be worth exploring making some adjustments and gauging the results after a full off-season to better prep.

But, even the most optimistic view can’t hide other truths. In limited minutes this year, some of the Lakers best units were small ball lineups that featured Ron at power forward playing next to Gasol or Bynum. Those sample sizes are extremely small but do fall in line with what we saw in previous seasons where Lamar Odom playing next to either Pau or Drew produced results better than those that featured the twin towers. There’s also the point of whether this coaching staff – or any coaching staff for that matter – has the acumen to integrate two post players into a system that produces elite offense with today’s defensive rules that allow the clogging of the area in and around the paint. Phil Jackson was as great a coach as you’ll find but even he limited their minutes together – their 2 man pairing ranked 16th in minutes played together after Bynum came back from knee surgery – preferring instead to play Gasol and Odom for nearly 300 more minutes together than Bynum and Pau. Some of these results – both this year and last – are due to the Lakers lack of outside shooting but there’s still strong evidence that even with better shooting the spacing will still suffer with two bigs on the floor.

What the Lakers do to try and remedy this remains to be seen. If a trade is made I would not be surprised, though working around the edges wouldn’t surprise me either. However, the fact remains that there’s work to be done to make the Pau/Bynum pairing work for both players and the team at large as long as they’re both on the team.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com