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Reed —  July 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Reed

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

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

(I’m tied up at work today, so this will be brief. Fill in thoughts in the comments. –Reed)

Records: Lakers 51-24 (3 seed); Mavs 47-28 (7 seed)
Offensive Ratings: 114.2 (3rd); 112.8 (8th)
Defensive Ratings: 107.2 (6th); 106.9 (5th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Radmanovic, Odom, Gasol; Dallas: Kidd, Terry, Howard, Dirk, Dampier

Dallas Coming In: Dallas posted their win of the season last game, with a decisive, critical win over Golden State. The victory was huge on several fronts: the unexpected return of Dirk, gaining a game and the tiebreaker over Golden State, and — perhaps most importantly — the first victory over a winning team since the Kidd trade (they had previously gone 0-10). The Mavs now have a 2 game edge on the Warriors with the tiebreak, so their playoff standing looks much more secure than a few days ago. Dirk is still limited with the ankle and knee sprains, admitting that he’s mostly relegated to being a spot up shooter on offense and unable to run in transition.

This means more reliance on Josh Howard, who is on a tear, averaging 30.2 points over the last 5 games. Howard is probably the key matchup for the game, as he seriously exposed Radmanovic and Walton in the last matchup, constantly burning them with penetration in the first half. The Lakers might be wise to go to the Fisher/Sasha/Kobe lineup to better defend Kidd/Terry/Howard on the perimeter.

Most consider the Kidd deal a disaster, but the numbers only show them being mildly worse with him than Harris. With Kidd on the court, the Mavs offensive rating is 112.4 and the defense rating is 105.3. With Harris on the court, the Mavs had a 117.3 offensive rating and a 106.5 defensive rating. Surprisingly, Kidd has hurt the offense and helped the defense, but this actually makes sense given his inability to contribute in an isolation rich offense and the team’s inability to defend big guards with Terry and Harris out there together. The real problem with the trade lies in the other pieces lost in the deal — 2 draft picks and Diop, who was probably their best defensive player (the Mavs had a team leading 102.9 defensive rating with Diop on the court).

The local media has been all over the Mavs lately — questioning the Kidd deal, blasting Avery’s coaching, and constantly recalling the past two playoff collapses. Avery in particular is under serious scrutiny, with almost everyone calling for his head for refusing to stop micromanaging and just turn the offense over to Kidd. While this is probably heat of the moment overreaction, there is a clear tension between Avery’s desire to call plays and run isolation sets and Kidd’s increased effectiveness in transition and while freelancing. Something has to give, and I’m guessing it will ultimately not be the new $20 million point guard.

Lakers Coming In: Gasol came back and his ankle seems to have responded well. The second half of the Portland game was the first time in a while that the defense has looked sharp, it being only the third in fifteen games that they have held the opponent under 100 points. The Lakers are in a heated battle for the division and playoff seeding, so it is critical they win games like this at home, especially with Dirk hobbling. No one wants to drop to the 5 seed and face Utah in the first round. My keys to the game:

(1) Odom needs to attack Dirk on offense, as he has no chance staying with Lamar’s speed with his leg injuries;

(2) Defend the perimeter. Make Howard and Dirk take contested jump shots. Force the ball to Kidd late in the shot clock — make him score. This might mean less Radmanovic and more Sasha.

(3) Rebound. Two games ago, Dampier looked like Dwight Howard, going for 17 and 16 before fouling out. Gasol is still rusty, but he needs to do a better job of keeping a body on Damp and holding Dallas to one shot.

Your Thoughts:

Two great comments I saw recently:

Drrayeye on putting all our pieces together as they return from injuries:

The Zenmeister has fifteen “pieces,” but two of his biggest pieces, Pau and ‘Drew, have never played together at all. Two of his most dependable pieces, Kobe and Derek, have nagging injuries that will not go away during the playoffs. At least one of his pieces, Trevor, will not be making his return debut until the playoffs. We’ll have to make due with Ira, a wiley veteran stand-in. There may even be minor stand-in roles for Mbenga and the other Kobe. Only time will tell.

The Zenmeister needs to put Humpty back together again when Humpty was never together in the first place–and Phil does not have all the kings horses or men (though his backup support is pretty good). Zenman better understand the Japanese “just in time” approach to product delivery perfectly!

Nomuskles with a running recap of the Portland game.

Seeding Thoughts:

Open questions for the forum: Are we better off as the 3 seed playing Houston in the first round, but then facing San Antonio or New Orleans on the road in the second? Would a healthy Dallas be the scariest 7 or 8 seed in playoff history? Who is the one team you would absolutely want to see on the other side of the bracket?

–Reed

Records: Lakers 50-24 (3 seed), Portland 38-36 (trying to finish above .500)
Offensive Ratings: Lakers 109.6 (3rd), Portland 104.1 (15th)
Defensive Ratings: Lakers 102.9 (6th) Portland 105.3 (18th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers- Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vlad Rad, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Blazers- Steve Blake, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Lamarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla
Gasol is Back! (Probably)

The Home Stretch: This is the home stretch for the Lakers, the last 8 games of what has been a great season. We have talked a lot about potential playoff opponents and we peruse the box-scores of other teams to see who is winning and who is losing. The main thing the Lakers need to do going into this home stretch is focus on them. That means improving perimeter defense, not settling for jump shots and most importantly, get healthy.

Next Year is not looking bad in Portland: Not only do the Blazers bring back one of the best young nucleus’ in the league (one that won 13 games in a row), it is adding 2007 #1 pick Greg Oden to the mix…and a lottery pick this year.
Last Time These Two Met: The Trail Blazers: The Lakers took a one point lead into the 4th quarter, but lost by 8, 119-111. That game was in the Thorn Garden (where we play them one more time 4/8) and the Lakers have had a history to forget at the Blazer’s place. The key to the Blazer win was their bench, especially Jarret Jack and Travis Outlaw who combined for 39 pts.

If You See a 7 footer at Venice Beach…It won’t be Greg Oden, he has been told no more pick-up games.

Vin Scully: Got a chance to watch the Dodger game last night, and Vin Scully made me smile at least 5 times. Just like Chick used to do, he seamlessly transitions from talking in-game strategy to the background of a reserve’s nickname, all while providing simulcast quality play-by-play. It made me realize how lucky LA is to have Vin, and was to have Chick.

Keys to the Game: Brandon Roy is not playing tonight, and the Blazers are coming off a home loss to the Bobcats (sound familiar)…which all makes me nervous. The Lakers got outscored by 10 pts last game in the “points off of turnover” category, so taking care of the ball tonight is important. Also, Outlaw is a tough match-up for us and seeing how we signed Ira Newble for the rest of the season, maybe he plays tonight. Last, Aldridge is a Laker-killer in the making, we cannot allow him to take 18 ft jump shots uncontested and on the block, we may have to double him. Offensively the Lakers should (like everyone has been saying) run their offense inside and be patient. One thing Phil doesn’t do as much with Kobe as he did with MJ is post him up.

Where to Watch: FSN West and League Pass, 7:30 pst

–Kwame A.

Building a Champion: Redux

Reed —  April 1, 2008

Last July, when we were all frantically in GM and trade machine mode, I wrote an article called, “Building a Champion,” where I tried to analyze what went into the title teams of the last 10 years and how the Lakers matched up. The big picture points:

(1) Title teams need 2-3 stars who complement each other and collectively perform the fundamental basketball skills at the highest level;
(2) Title teams always have veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game and are willing to sacrifice personal glory for team success;
(3) The Lakers, as then constituted, were not built for immediate contention as they neither possessed a core of stars who covered the needed breadth of skills nor the veteran role players who understood the game’s intricacies. Kobe and Odom were the only “stars” and they were largely redundant in what they offered; the role players were overwhelmingly young and developing.

Fast forward to today and everything (miraculously) has broken right, leaving us as unquestioned grade A contenders, even in the midst of the most competitive landscape the league has seen in years. Fisher arrived. Bynum emerged as an all star producer. Farmar, Sasha, and Turiaf took steps forward. Radmanovic found his shooting stroke and showed enough (even if limited) focus. Slowly, Kobe believed and found it in him to trust his teammates. Cook became Ariza. Kwame became Gasol. Suddenly, we have the most talented team in the league, 1-12.

But, how do we compare with past title teams? Are we another complete Spurs title team or another Mavs/Kings false hope? Do we have the requisite skill bases covered or do fatal flaws remain that will haunt us against the best teams in big playoff series? Applying last summer’s championship blueprint to the present roster:

1. 2-3 Stars that Complement Each Other

The foundational ingredient of any title team is the presence of 2-3 stars that complement each other. This means that between them they perform the various fundamental basketball skills at an elite level. Look back at the last decade of title teams:

• Shaq, Duncan, and Sheed provided low post scoring
• Shaq, Duncan, and the Wallaces provided interior defense and rebounding
• Kobe, Wade, Parker, Ginobili, and Billups provided playmaking
• Kobe, Wade, Ginobili, and Billups provided clutch scoring down the stretch
• Kobe, Ginobili, Wade, and Billups provided perimeter defense

Obviously, this is shallow analysis, but the point is that you must have stars capable of doing the big work. Very talented teams with multiple stars have failed in the playoffs because their stars were either redundant or lacking in some key area. Nash, Marion, and Amare did not offer interior defense. Nash and Dirk did not offer post scoring or interior defense. Webber, Bibby, and Peja did not offer perimeter defense. The common theme of “almost” teams is that their stars seemed to do the same thing (usually scoring), leaving one key skill unaccounted for. That’s the beauty of Duncan – he dominates the areas of the game that are hardest to find – interior defense and post scoring.

This Laker team seems well positioned on this front – they have 3 legitimate “stars” in Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum and they are not redundant. Kobe handles the playmaking, penetration, perimeter defense, and clutch scoring. Bynum provides interior defense and rebounding. Gasol provides interior scoring and playmaking. Add in Odom’s (often) star quality rebounding and playmaking and you have a solid core of stars who perform all the basketball skills at the highest level.

Of the league’s other title teams, the Spurs (again, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili), Celtics (Garnett, Pierce, and Allen), Pistons (Billups, Sheed, Hamilton/Prince), and Hornets (Paul, West, and Chandler) seem to also have the bases covered, though some more than others. The Suns, Jazz and Mavs (when healthy) seem to have fatal flaws (Suns – perimeter defense, both by their wings and bigs; Mavs – interior scoring; Jazz – interior and perimeter defense).

2. Veteran Role Players

Look back at the title teams from this decade – they are filled with veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game. Horry, Fox, Finley, Bowen, Harper, etc., etc. 21 out of 32 rotation role players from this decade’s title teams were over 30; only 5 of 32 had less than 4 years experience. While young players often seem capable of filling starring roles (e.g. Wade, Kobe), they have traditionally been less adept at successfully filling key lesser roles on championship teams.

When I wrote this post last year many people objected that I overemphasized age and underestimated basic basketball intelligence. This is probably true. Some players get it earlier than others. Certainly someone like Udonis Haslem was able to come right into the league and play like a savvy veteran. The same is probably true of Luke Walton. What makes (many) older players valuable, despite waning physical tools, is their deep understanding of the game, from floor spacing to boxing out to fighting through screens to defending the pick and roll to fearlessness in big moments. For this reason, in the playoffs cagey veterans usually shine while more talented young players come up short (e.g. Barbosa, Doug Christie, etc.).

I have mixed feeling about where our role players stand in this regard. They are undoubtedly talented. In Farmar, Turiaf, Sasha, Radmanovic, Fisher, Walton, and Ariza we have the single most talented collection of 5-12 players in the league. But only Fisher and Walton (to a degree) are playoff tested. A constant complaint all year has been the inability of these role players to correctly play team defense. Do we trust that they will make the “right” play in game 7 in San Antonio? Will Farmar go under a screen too often when he should fight through? Will Radmanovic get burned baseline by a small forward consistently when the plan was to force him into the middle? Will Ronny get into foul trouble when we need him? Do we trust Sasha or Farmar taking the open 3 to decide a series? Do our role players have enough “Rick Fox” and “Robert Horry” in them? I suspect they need to try and fail once before they have the seasoning necessary to win four straight series against stiff competition, but we will see.

3. Other Notes

A few other random thoughts for discussion. First, point differential. This seems to be an even better predictor of playoff success than win-loss record. Here are the point differentials for the last six title teams: 2007: Spurs (+8.4, 1st in the league), 2006: Heat (+3.9, 5th), 2005: Spurs (+7.8, 1st), 2004: Pistons (+5.8, 2nd), 2003: Spurs (+5.4, 3rd), 2002: Lakers (+7.1, 2nd). The 2008 Lakers currently stand at +6.6, good for 3rd in the league. Given the excessive injuries we’ve faced and the late addition of Gasol, I think it is reasonable to say our real point differential is probably at least a point higher, which would put us second in the league and in about the same neighborhood as all the recent title teams.

Second, it simply cannot be overstated how much we have improved at the point guard and center positions with the replacement of Smush and Kwame with Fisher and Bynum/Gasol. In every aspect of the game: defense, scoring efficiency, rebounding, turnovers, etc. Last year, our point guards had the 10th worst collective PER and 4th worst collective PER differential (the difference between what our point guards produced and what they allowed opposing point guards to produce). Our centers were 7th worst in PER differential and 4th worst at PER allowed (defense). PER obviously has its limitations as a statistic, but PER differential is one of the most insightful stats out there because it measures net efficiency – how good were you at (1) creating points with your possessions and (2) creating/valuing possessions versus how good were you at stopping your opponent from doing the same. This year, we see a massive shift the other way. We are 13th in PG PER differential, improving by 13 spots, and 6th in C PER differential, improving by 17 spots.

4. Final Thoughts

Even with the improvement of Portland, New Orleans, Boston, and other teams, I believe we have covered more ground this year than anyone else. We have not necessarily gained the most in terms of wins and losses, but we went from the brink of trading Kobe and starting over with a fractured front office and angry fan base to having the best roster in the league for the next 5 years. No matter what happens this year, we should appreciate the good fortune and enjoy the ride. With the team finally having supporting stars around Kobe that do things he can’t (Odom is great, but he is too redundant to ever be a solid #2), the team is well positioned to fine tune the roster and compete for titles so long as Kobe can perform as an elite player. Though, our chances this year probably lie less with him and more with the ability of our role players to play like veterans – to avoid mistakes, play solid team defense, and hit big shots in the 4th quarter. When they learn to do that, this should be the most complete Laker team in 20 years.

– Reed

Preview and Chat: Seattle Sonics

Reed —  March 21, 2008

Records: Lakers: 47-21 (1 seed); Sonics: 16-52 (Hoping for Beasley).
Lakers Offense: 113.8 pts per possession (4th); Lakers Defense: 106.5 pts per possession (6th).
Sonics Offense: 101.4 pts per possession (30th); Sonics Defense: 109 pts per possession 110.8 (23rd).
Starting Five Lakers: Odom, Vlad, Turiaf, Kobe, Fish.
Starting Five Sonics: Green, Wilcox, Petro, Durant, Watson.
Key Reserves Sonics: Collison, Ridonur, Wilkins.

Seattle Notes: Looking at the recent comments from Shaq and Grant Hill (basically saying they think the Sonics belong in Seattle) I found myself thinking, yea, why shouldn’t they stay. Great city, passionate fans (remember how loud it got there during the Payton/Kemp years) and people willing to put up the money (various billionaires have stepped forward with a plan that splits the bill with the State). Just doesn’t seem right for them to leave.

Laker Notes: The two wins over Dallas and Utah, coming against the two best home teams in the NBA, give the team a much needed boost headed down the home stretch. I think Phil Jackson should be at the top of the list for Coach of the Year. For all those that think of him as guy who can only win with talent, look at what he has done developing Sasha, Jordan, Ronny, even Luke. Finding roles that work for LO, Vlad, he has just pushed the right buttons this year, and with the talent on the roster (especially with the injured players coming back) I like the Lakers chances in any playoff series.

Tonight: The Lakers cannot take the Sonics lightly, they stuck with Phoenix the other night thanks to a sloppy 27 turnovers by Phoenix. The Sonics don’t really have anyone for Kobe, and this could be a game he goes off early and rests late. Regardless, it would be great to see the crisp offensive execution and focused defense by the team exhibited from basically start to finish against the Jazz.

Where to watch: FSN and League Pass (one of the Sonics announcer is the great Steve “Snapper” Jones).

Tournament: Whose bracket is still in tact? Whose bracket is busted? Western Kentucky game was awesome, Stephen Curry from Davidson dropped 40, and is Mayo going pro?

Kwame A.

News: Newble signing is official.