Archives For July 2012

Steve Nash will be a Laker.

It’s still sinking in so I just keep repeating it to myself. It rolls nicely off the tongue, I must admit.

The Lakers have added one of the marquee players at his position but with the deal there are variables to explore, questions that need to be asked and answered. And, so, lets get to it…

What Did It Cost?
The Lakers used their trade exception from the Lamar Odom trade to acquire Nash. Reports put his salary “in excess of $25 million” over three years. This would have Nash earning upwards of $9 million by the end of his contract at the age of 41. Time will tell if this is an investment worth making but if there’s a player that can still be productive at that age it’s likely Nash – a man that’s highly conditioned, an extremely hard worker, and whose primary skills  (shooting & court vision) don’t erode the way other skills do. That said, there’s obvious risk in giving Nash the three year contract he sought – a length that the Suns reportedly did not want to offer – as players rarely remain highly productive up to that age.

The Lakers also surrendered four draft picks in the deal – two 1st rounders in 2013 and 2015 and two 2nd rounders in 2013 and 2014. The Lakers certainly hope that these picks will be in the last few selections each round but they do run the risk of surrendering quality picks should the team not achieve at the levels they hope to. What also deserves mention is that draft picks should only become more valuable in this new CBA. The draft offers cheap talent and we’re entering into an era where luxury tax payments will punish payrolls that aren’t controlled and revenue sharing will impact the bottom line. This is something to keep in the back of your mind.

I’ve also read that the Lakers sent $3 million in cash to the Suns as part of the this trade. This may not seem like a big deal but the new CBA has capped the amount of money a team can send out in trades in any season, and that amount is $3 million. So, if the Lakers did indeed give the Suns that much cash, they can’t sweeten any other trades this year with cash. This may not end up being important, but it’s also worth remembering when looking at potential trades the Lakers may still be working on.

All in all, the Lakers did exactly what you’d hope they would in acquiring a player they think can be a major difference maker. They avoided using any tangible, in house assets (i.e. players on their roster) and pulled off a major deal. Mitch Kupchak spoke of hitting a home run this off-season and this deal certainly qualifies as that. The trade does limit what they can do in the future but, again, they’re in win now mode and they’ll cross those bridges when they come to them.

What Did They Get?
Stating the obvious, the Lakers just got a lot better at point guard. No disrespect to Ramon Sessions – who played fantastic when he first arrived and then struggled in the playoffs – but Nash is a historically great PG that continues to put up fantastic numbers. He’s one of the best shooters the league has ever seen (5 times he’s been a member of the 50/40/90 club and flirts with those percentages yearly) and was first in the league in total assists for the past 3 seasons. He’s one of the best ball handlers in the league and is a master floor general. He can play both an open court and half court game, is a leader, and is an extreme competitor. Based solely off his offensive production, he’s one of the most impactful players in the league, possessing the ability to prop up an offense the way Dwight Howard can a defense. The Suns were 8 points better per 100 possessions when Nash was on the floor versus when he was on the bench last season, or about the difference between the 1st and 23rd ranked offenses this past season.

How he fits into the Lakers is both obvious and open to question, however. His play making, shooting, and decision making all represent key skills the Lakers need more of. He can lessen the burden on every offensive player simply by being a primary initiator and floor spacer. Post players will have more room to operate when Nash is on the floor and defensive schemes will have to figure out alternative ways to double team the Lakers big three because they can’t leave Nash. Plus, when teams do double team – even when they don’t leave Nash – he’ll still get plenty of open shots simply because when the extra pass is made he’ll likely end up with free shots against a rotating defense.

Nash’s ability to make his teammates better is also a key factor. His passing acumen and skill are nearly unparalleled. He reads defenses as well as anyone and delivers passes on time and on target. This allows big men to finish at the rim easily and allows shooters to better find their rhythm. When watching the game, he makes things that are extremely difficult look amazingly easy. Pocket bounce passes and cross court feeds are executed seamlessly and the confidence that pumps into an entire offense can be devastating to an opponent.

There will be an adjustment period too, however. Kobe’s never played with such a ball dominant guard before and even if you’re someone that thinks he’s more than willing to share, it will still take time for both players to get used to one another. Great players often find a way to work well together but that comfort comes from reps – both in practice and games – where mistakes can be made then corrected. These two will need to get things sorted out, find ways to work with and off each other, and help raise their collective games. I’m sure it can happen, but right now it’s all only on paper. It will need to happen on the hardwood too.

There will also need to be an adjustment from the coaches. This past season showed that even with a P&R heavy guard in house (Sessions), the team often still went to Kobe-centric and post heavy sets that didn’t capitalize fully on all the skills their non-big 3 players had to offer. More creativity will be needed from Mike Brown and his staff as Nash must be more than a spot up shooter to space the floor. That would be a waste of his floor vision and ability to create easier shots for his mates. Nash will need to be set free on offense, allowed to push the pace when he sees fit, given opportunities to play P&R more often, and be allowed to create in isolation when he has the advantage. For years we’ve gotten the best of Nash because his coaches have given him the keys to the offense and let loose.

That said, this Lakers roster offers more talent and different types of players than the ones Nash has become accustomed to playing with.  This will require adjustments from him and his team in order to strike a balance between the freedom that Nash thrives on and the more traditional structure that will play to the strengths of his teammates. Basically, Nash won’t be handed the keys to the team but will be integrated into the team that’s here. All sides will then need to mesh and find a style of play that suits everyone. The talent is so great that it’s difficult to see them failing, but the coaches must make this work.

What About The Defense?
The common perception is that Nash is a bad defender and in looking through the stats, there’s more than a little bit of truth there. Per My Synergy Sports, Nash ranked 147th in points allowed per play, proving especially poor in guarding spot up chances where his limited athleticism made recovering to the perimeter to challenge shots an issue. Nash also has issues defending in isolation for the same athletically challenged reason. Defending on an island against some of the best players in the league (as PG’s are asked to do nightly) is a difficult task for any player, but it’s especially so for an aged player whose athletic peak is in the rearview mirror.

That said, where Nash was better than expected was in defending ball handlers in the pick and roll. He was 80th in points per play when his man took a shot in the P&R, and his man only shot 40% in these situations. Don’t get me wrong, these numbers aren’t stellar but they speak to a certain level of effectiveness that surprised me. It’s also important to note that from a team perspective, the Suns’ Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 3 points worse when Nash sat versus when he was on the floor. This stat, along with his P&R stats, tell me that while Nash may struggle as an individual defender he’s better within the team concept. This is another area where the Lakers’ coaches will need to find creative ways to work Nash into the defensive schemes while finding individual match ups that limit his exposure.

(Sidenote: I was long under the impression that Nash and Sessions were similar defensive players but that opinion appears to be selling Nash short. Sessions Synergy numbers are much worse in every defensive play type and from a team perspective, the Lakers performed better on D when Sessions sat versus when he was on the floor. I don’t want to bury Sessions here, but Nash looks to be the superior defender – even at his advanced age – and one can only assume that with better defenders flanking him, it will only help Nash further.)

A Risk Worth Taking?
This is certainly a gamble. Nash’s age, the contract he’ll be paid (and its affect on payroll), and the potential for it to not work out are all risky. But, the Lakers have a history of taking chances and swinging for the fences with a success rate that a lot of franchises would envy. They want to win now and they just got a piece that can help them do so. Nash is a star player who’s still incredibly productive. There will need to be adjustments on his end and from his teammates/coaches, but with a proper training camp and practices throughout the season I don’t see why they couldn’t get on the same page.

Beyond this, though, with this trade the Lakers have given themselves a shot in the arm. The team, as constructed, had grown a bit stale. And while there were changes made last year, they came in the form of subtractions (Odom, Fisher) rather than an addition that the team (and the fans) could rally around. Acquiring Nash has changed that. His pedigree, reputation, and hunger are all big additions to this team and these intangibles will be meaningful just as his tangible production will be. In that regard, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss just gave the Lakers a dramatic makeover and did so with the acquisition of a single player. There’s an excitement in the air again. Steve Nash is a Laker. Wow.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Exclamation Point.

ESPN is reporting that Steve Nash will be traded to the Lakers for multiple future draft picks:

In an unforeseen twist that could thrust the Los Angeles Lakers straight back into title contention, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash has successfully negotiated a sign-and-trade deal from the Phoenix Suns to the Los Angeles Lakers that will team him up with Kobe Bryant, according to sources with knowledge of the deal.

The report further states that Nash will sign a 3 year contract worth $25 million, with the Lakers absorbing his salary into the trade exception received in the Lamar Odom trade.

We’ll have further analysis about this trade a bit later but my initial thought is to simply say WOW. The Lakers nabbed a future hall of famer to play PG for them, a player that possesses the exact skill set that they seek. Nash is a pass first player who’s one of the best shooters of all time. Teaming him with offensive players the caliber of Kobe, Bynum, and Gasol instantly makes the Lakers – on paper – one of the best offensive teams that should be able to play fast or slow depending on who is flanking Nash.

More to come later, but right now what’s clear is that the Lakers wanted to get the fireworks started early on this July 4th.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  July 3, 2012

With free agency in full swing and the repercussions starting to set the landscape for how the Summer may play out, there’s plenty to discuss…

  • The Dwight Howard situation has been complicated greatly by the Nets’ trade for Joe Johnson. They no longer have the cap space to sign Dwight outright. And while they’re still working to try and trade for the league’s best big man, they lack the assets to make the type of offer that is likely to sway the Magic to deal with them.
  • With a trade to Brooklyn looking less likely, the team that trades for Dwight now will have the inside track to keep him. The teams that are (reportedly) still interested are the Rockets, the Hawks, and the Lakers. The Mavs would be interested as well, of course, but they lack the assets (like the Nets) to make a compelling offer. If you’re one of that Lakers/Rockets/Hawks trio, now is the time to truly evaluate what you’re willing to give up and push your chips into the center of the table. For the Hawks that may mean dangling Horford. For the Rockets that may mean a lot of their stockpiled young talent. And for the Lakers, that likely means Andrew Bynum. What package the Magic would prefer isn’t known, but all three would have their pros and cons.
  • From the Lakers side, even with all the risks associated with trading for Dwight, parting with Bynum for him is worth it. Lets remove the variables of injury concern and whether or not either will commit long term (after all, those concerns apply to both players). Dwight Howard is the better player. He represents an upgrade in nearly all ways (including star power). This really isn’t a worthwhile debate. The argument that the Lakers problem wasn’t their big men and that improving in that area doesn’t fix their problems misses the bigger point: you always want the better player. Always. Those that feel differently remind me of the Blazers and the decision they made in the 1984 draft when they drafted Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan because Clyde Drexler was already on their roster. Both MJ and Clyde had stellar careers and both went to the Hall of Fame, so obviously the Blazers knew they had a great talent. But Jordan was the better prospect and, to state the obvious, ended up being the better player. So, again, you take the better player and deal with the other stuff later. Whether or not the Lakers can make such a deal is a different story that depends on the Magic. But even with the risk involved, I’d support that type of move. As Kevin Ding said today:

It’s time for the Lakers to get back to the pioneer spirit that brought Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal together and enabled the Lakers’ brass to hold but not fold when Bryant was so frustrated he was bouncing off the planets before pulling the Gasol trade on the river. The Lakers need a healthy dose of gambling’s fear to bring out the best in them – and the prospect of trading for Howard and losing him for nothing in a year is certainly plenty scary. But the reality is that there are benefits awaiting the Lakers even in that worst-case scenario that could easily be explained by Dwight again being a loon who fails to listen to reason: What can you do if the goofy dude walks away from far more money from the Lakers because he wants to dress up like a cowboy in Dallas or curl all the way up into the fetal position in hometown Atlanta?

The Lakers have long been a patient team that takes strategic gambles on players with extraordinary talent. This could be another opportunity to make a bold move.

  • The rest of the free agent market is also taking shape and there are some interesting deals already out there. Bulls back up Center Omer Asik has been signed to an offer-sheet by the Rockets for 3 years/$24 million. Some might think he’s overpaid, but John Hollinger did a good job breaking down why that’s not the case (as well as shedding light on the loophole that allowed the Rockets to make an offer). (Insider article $.)
  • Speaking of Houston, it looks like they’re going to lose Goran Dragic in free agency. He wants $10 million, they’re offering $8 million and the Suns are offering $9 million. If Dragic does bolt, Kyle Lowry is likely off the trade market which means he and Kevin McHale are going to need to do some making up. After all, it was a conflict between those two that had Lowry on the market in the first place.
  • KG is staying with the Celtics and honestly, this is what’s best for everyone. For all my dislike of the C’s, KG’s been great for them and should end his career on his terms with the team he won a title with.
  • Roy Hibbert has signed a max level offer sheet with Portland. The Suns are potentially looking to make an offer to Eric Gordon for the max as well. Both players are restricted free agents so the Pacers and Hornets, respectively, will have the right to match those offers but that’s a lot of cash to throw out to players that likely aren’t worth that much. And, this is why the lockout bothered me so much. Arguments were devised with lines drawn in the sand over player compensation but here we are in the off-season following those battles with nothing having changed. Until owners realize that there’s not a max-level player in every free agent class their cries about losing money should fall on deaf ears. They’re willing to shell out the cash so let them. But don’t complain about how it affects your bottom line after the fact.

 

Free Agency has begun and with it, the rumor mill is running at full speed. The Lakers haven’t been active in the sense that they’ve gotten anyone to agree to a contract, but they’re reportedly showing interest in several players – both their own and ones from other teams.

This activity shouldn’t surprise anyone – the Lakers need to improve – and with their limited resources a shotgun approach that canvases the league in search of upgrades is one way to try to fill those holes. Plus, Mitch Kupchak has expressed his desire to hit a homerun this off-season and that requires aggression.

The player whose acquisition would most equate to hitting it out of the park is Dwight Howard. On Friday he met with the Magic’s GM and reiterated the fact that he’d like to be traded. Reports then put the Lakers in the conversation as one of the teams that would like to trade for him. However, since then, reports also state that he only wants to be traded to one team – the Brooklyn Nets – and that they’re the only team he’d commit to long term (either through a contract extension or as a FA when his contract expires). So, this would theoretically put the Lakers out of the equation. After all, if he won’t sign a contract extension with the Lakers (or re-sign with them after next season), the point is moot.

Theoretically.

Long story short, the team that owns Dwight’s Bird Rights is the team that will have the inside track to keeping him long term. The CBA has effectively done two things concerning player movement: First is that it’s made extending current contracts less lucrative than becoming a full fledged free agent and then using your Bird Rights to re-sign with your current team. Second, the CBA has made the difference in Bird Rights contracts and non-Bird Rights contracts bigger, meaning it’s more lucrative than ever before to stay on with the team that holds those rights.

If you had any doubts about this, look at Deron Williams’ stance right now. He’s reportedly deciding between staying in Brooklyn or leaving to play in Dallas. The difference in the contracts the Nets can offer versus the one the Mavs can offer is an extra year and roughly $25 million. Even though a star player can recoup that extra year in his next contract, the proverbial bird in the hand of that extra money and year right now is going to be appealing to any player. Which would explain the reports that Williams is leaning towards staying in Brooklyn.

As for Dwight, what further makes his proclamations about being all in for the Nets complicated is the fact that the Nets are reportedly interested in acquiring other players whose contracts will effectively remove their cap space moving forward. They’ve already inked Gerald Wallace to stay on for the next four years (at $10 million a year) and have Luis Scola and/or Joe Johnson on their radar as well. If either of those deals were to go through, there’s a strong possibility that the Nets wouldn’t have the cap space to sign Dwight outright next off-season. Said another way, if Brooklyn really is Dwight’s preferred destination the need to get there now via trade is very important because getting there as a free agent next summer may not be possible unless he takes less than the max (and potentially way less).

All these potential issues conspire to give Dwight’s next team (even if it’s not the Nets) the leg up in keeping him long term, making the prospect of a Howard rental less daunting. That said, should a team still take that risk?

Last off-season I examined a potential trade for Dwight and all of those positives remain true today. While I remain a Bynum believer – his skill set, size, and improvement trajectory are all impressive – there’s no question that Dwight is the better player. If player A is a multi time all-star, 1st team all-NBA performer, top 5 MVP finisher, and 3 time DPOY while player B is a one time all star and has made the all-NBA 2nd team once, there’s no debate.

But even with all these factors potentially making a Dwight acquisition more than a worthwhile risk, the question still remains if the Lakers should make their push to get the best big man in the game. And that’s where things get murkier. Howard is currently recovering from back surgery – which is still a very big question mark for a player whose athleticism contributes to so much of his success. His recent PR gaffes speak to a person who either gets bad advice or has a hard time sticking to decisions he makes. We often vent about Bynum’s maturity issues, but it seems Howard has some of his own and he’s an even longer tenured player with more experience dealing with the demands of being an NBA superstar. When you combine these factors with his strong intimations that he’d prefer to play in Brooklyn long term (and, by inference, not in Los Angeles) those are a lot of variables to overlook if making him a priority acquisition.

How the Lakers weigh the pros and cons of trying to go after Howard aren’t known. Are they dissuaded enough by him preferring to ply his trade in New York? Does his back worry them? What about his recent run of regrettable flip-flops? Or, maybe they trust in their franchise history and the fact that they’d be able to offer the most money next off-season. Most free agents look at two things: where the most money is and what’s the best situation. When the former is in the Lakers’ favor, it’s been some time since the latter wasn’t also right at (or above) any other teams’ status.

My gut tells me Dwight finds a way to get where he wants. Superstars normally do. But the Lakers must still have the discussion as Dwight’s that good a player and having him means you have one of the best 5 players in the league. That can’t be ignored.