Coming into the off-season, it was understood that the biggest (only) area the Lakers needed to address was that of point guard. Incumbent Derek Fisher was a free agent, backup Jordan Farmar had both feet out the door, and neither was what you would call impressive on the season, though Fish did provide his usual postseason heroics. So, it was unsurprising that Mitch Kupchak's first order of business this offseason was to sign Steve Blake to a 4 year $16M deal. Blake was under contract with the Lakers even before Derek Fisher signed on to return to L.A. When Fisher did re-sign, he did so for a smaller contract, both in length and in salary, than Blake's, and even though everyone knew Phil Jackson would maintain Fisher's role as a starter, no one thought it particularly unfair or unreasonable that the team's starting point guard would be compensated less than the back-up.
Fast forward to now, and a quick glance at the stats shows that Blake is the least productive rotation player on the team. He has been out-distanced by a fair margin by both of his bench running mates, Shannon Brown and (now injured) Matt Barnes, and even worse, he has failed to match the production of Derek Fisher, who is not exactly known for being a regular season beast. After all, Dex had this to say about Derek after last night's win over Golden State:
Derek Fisher shot 1 for 6. He's had 10 games this year in which he's made either one or zero field-goal attempts, and for the season his shooting is well below 40%. Are we really all OK with this? Look, I get it: he's going to do something awesome in the playoffs. Fine. But between now and then, does he have to be so GD terrible?
To the question of "Are we really all OK with this?" I have to answer that we don't really have a choice. Much like last season, even though Fisher's production is terrible, we don't have anybody behind him who could provide an improvement. That guy was supposed to be Blake, but so far, he has not been as advertised.
In comparing the two players head-to-head, the first thing that jumps off the page is how remarkably similar they are. Fisher is shooting 37.8% on the year, Blake 37.1%. Fisher is hitting 39.5% of his three point attempts, Blake 39.8% (Both of these numbers are actually pretty solid, by the way). Per 36 minutes, Fisher scores 8.7 points, Blake 8.5. Assists per 36 are Fisher 3.7, Blake 3.5. Basically, on the offensive side of the ball, they are the exact same player statistically, with one glaring exception ... turnovers. Blake turns the ball over with alarming frequency, and has a turnover rate of 19.7%. The only other rotation player even close to that is Matt Barnes (17.3%) and everyone else is in the thirteens or lower. He's averaging a career low 3.5 assists per 36 minutes, and that's fine because we all know what the triangle offense does for a point guard's assist numbers, but the corrolary is that turnovers should go down because the point isn't handling the ball as much. Instead, Blake is turning the ball over at the same rate as he has in previous seasons, even with the reduction in ball handling responsibility.
But what about defense? Surely a defensive comparison is where we should see Blake, or anybody really, lap Derek Fisher handily. Sadly, that has not been the case. Any improvement that Blake provides over Fisher has been marginal at best. Insomuch as we can compare the two as individual defenders, the numbers are pretty inconclusive. Per 82games.com, Fisher is allowing opposing point guards to put up a PER of 21.2, and Blake is allowing a PER of 18.9. That's the difference between a surefire All-Star and a borderline All-Star, but when we consider the fact that most of Fish's minutes are coming against starters (including, you know, some All-Stars) and Blake's come mostly against the second string, it's easy to poke holes in any argument that ranks Blake ahead of Fish based on these numbers. Using On/Off court numbers, we see that the team is 2.7 points better defensively with Blake on the court than off, while Fisher seems to make no difference at all. However, both Shannon Brown (2.8) and Matt Barnes (2.1) sport similar defensive improvements, so all we know is that the bench as a whole seems to be outperforming the starters defensively. Lastly, defensive win shares indicates that Fisher is doing more defensively than Steve Blake, pulling in .05 defensive win shares per minute compared to Blake's .035. Using the eyes instead of the brain, I'm left with the same overall impression. Neither guy is particularly strong defensively, but they both try as hard as one can. Fisher has actually appeared to be improved defensively compared with last year, and leads the team in steals, but point guard was always going to be this team's biggest liability. Where I have been the least impressed with Blake is on offense.
Before the season, we were led to believe that Steve would have the easiest time of any newcomer in picking up the triangle offense, but so far that has not been the case. Too often, he's made the wrong pass, tried to force the ball to an area it's not supposed to go, when the correct read would be a swing around the perimeter to find a better angle. He also has a real penchant for attempting the highlight pass, very few of which pan out properly. Considering how efficient the Lakers should be in the half court set, this type of risk taking is unnecessary. And then there's his shooting.
I understand that Blake is in the midst of a shooting slump, and that makes evaluating his performance a tad unfair, but Blake needs to learn where to find his shots within the offense. More importantly, he needs to find shots period. The guy is only averaging 4.4 shots per game, which is waaaaaay too low. I have no idea whether he is nervous because of his poor shooting, or whether he is trying to be the perfect teammate and provide for others, or whether he has simply always been a non-aggressive offensive player, but Blake has turned down more open shots than he's made, and that isn't what his role in the triangle calls for. It's an admirable quality that he attempts to turn down long range shots for the extra pass and (theoretically) better team shots, but you can see when he gets the ball on the perimeter, the "true" point guard in him kicks in as his man closes out, and you usually see a pump fake and dribble drive. That's great some of the time, but more often than not, he's got enough space to get the shot up un-contested, and he's far superior in catch and shoot situations as compared to anything off the dribble. The triangle point guard is a glorified floor-spacer, and that means taking open shots when you get them, especially when 40% outside shooting is your idea of struggling.
It's early yet in Steve Blake's turn as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's got plenty of time to work out the kinks of matching his game to the Lakers' unique offensive system. But, with Blake's 4 year contract and Fisher's 3 year contract, the Lakers had better hope Blake figures it out eventually, because they are locked in to this point guard tandem for a long, long time, and I don't think Fisher is going to change his game a whole hell of a lot at this point.