Offseason Planning: Point Guards

The point guard position has been a festering sore for the Lakers since the '08-'09 season, when it became apparent that Jordan Farmar was a flawed and substandard solution and that Father Time had begun to push Derek Fisher off the cliff. Since then, the Lakers' near-mystical "point guard of the future" that would solidify the team's rotation has become something of a cliche, sparking a great number of unrealistic yet highly entertaining trade scenarios involving every marquee point guard in the league. Regardless, the Lakers appeared to make strides towards solving this issue this past off-season with the signing of Steve Blake, whose playing style and demeanor fit the mold of a traditional triangle point, notably since he had played a similar role as Brandon Roy's backcourt mate in Portland. Needless to say, Blake, like Farmar before him, proved painfully inadequate, and the Lakers' point guard production was so anemic this past season that not only was it the worst in the league, it was comparable to the assorted flotsam that manned the Nets' small forward position.

In previous seasons, however, this problem has been thrown under the bus primarily because the Lakers thankfully ran a system in the triangle that didn't require their point guards to do a whole lot. The point guard would bring the ball up, make the initial pass, and go spot up in the corner or the wing and repeat if the offense needed to be reset. Indeed, a traditional point guard, as in one who probed the defense, ran a good deal of pick-and-roll, and utilized his court vision to create opportunities for the other players on the court, was counterproductive for the Lakers' needs, as the triangle minimized those responsibilities and essentially made the point into a glorified two guard without much of the ball-handling responsibilities. Moreover, with Kobe having more healthy digits and Gasol as one of the best big men in the game at distributing from the high post or the low block, there was much less of a need in that regard.

Cue the Lakers' off-season, in which we have seen the departure of Phil Jackson and the entrance of Mike Brown, which, following the long overdue eviction of Kurt Rambis in Minnesota, hails the end of the triangle in L.A., and indeed, the league at the moment. As such, Brown will bring a much more conventional offense to L.A. that will be based on the offense San Antonio ran at the turn of the century with David Robinson and Tim Duncan as the main focal points. After the jump, we'll review how the roles of the Lakers' point guards will change in this new offense, how the Lakers current personnel fit this template, and whether there is any help available in free agency or on the trade market.

The change in offense, if anything, is one tailored to our big men, and one that they can particularly take advantage of. As NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti notes, Gasol and Bynum can fill much of a similar role as Duncan and Robinson did in the Spurs' sets that maximize the efficacy of having two multifaceted and highly skilled big men on the floor at the same time. What changes for the Lakers' point guards, especially as versus the triangle, however, is their more direct role in the offense. In early offense situations, the Spurs' quickly advanced the ball up the floor and with either big capable of posting up, the first immediately went to the rim while the point (or whatever guard taking the ball up the floor) fed the ball to the trailing big who would take the ball at the high post and throw a quick entry pass to the first big who had established deep position by then. This specifically isn't a huge change, and indeed, is very analogous to the manner in which the Lakers played in the '08-'09 season, but it does require the guard to do more than walk the ball up the floor.

The more significant change comes in a more traditional half-court scenario, in which the Spurs often created opportunities off the pick-and-pop. As Pruiti indicates, having one big as a shooting threat from mid-range or inside the arc creates a wealth of opportunities off the pick, as the other big will attempt to seal his man low at the same time. After the guard comes off the pick, he has the option to 1) go all the way to the rim if a lane if available, 2) pull up for a jumper if he has enough space, 3) hit the big who set the pick if he is open for the jumper, 4) throw an entry pass to the other big if he has sealed his man in the deep post, or 5) hit either wing in the corner should they be available for a shot. To properly do this, however, the ball-handler coming off the pick-and-roll needs to be 1) actually a threat to penetrate into the heart of the defense if a lane is available, 2) pull-up for a shot, and 3) have the court vision to make the necessary read in that situation. Needless to say, this is a big departure from the triangle, which does not contain an extensive pick-and-roll component beyond the two-man game on the sideline and whenever Kobe went into end-game hero mode.

It also raises the question of how our current point guards can deal with this new change, seeing as they were already terrible in a system designed to mask their faults. With this in mind, let's evaluate how our current corps of point guards fits into this new system and whether any trades or free agent signings are available or appropriate.

Internal Solutions

It should hardly be a shock that this is an offense ill-suited for both Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, neither of whom have ever been noted for being exceptionally adept at traditional point guard skills. The stats also bear this out, as both averaged a meager 0.68 and 0.56 PPP respectively as the ball-handler off the pick-and-roll last year. While those opportunities were sparse in the triangle, along with the fact that last year's offense was mostly a wreck on most nights, it also passes the eye test, as both don't have the speed or ball-handling ability to be a threat to penetrate off the pick and are liable to be trapped if the team "blitzes" the pick, an increasingly common strategy nowadays pioneered by the Celtics. Of the two, Blake likely is slightly better mainly because he possesses better court vision, something borne out in his better runs this past season, and likely wouldn't have that much trouble making the simple pass to the big setting the pick or the post entry pass if he has enough space. This likely owes to his time in more conventional offenses in past years, and is the same reason that Fisher, who has spent the majority of his career in the triangle, is an especially poor choice.

As such, the Lakers will often require a ball-handler outside of the aforementioned two to initiate the offense and reduce both of them to the off-guard role they are better suited for. The obvious solution is letting Kobe take on more of the ball-handling responsibilities, as he easily passes every requirement above, and his still formidable scoring ability puts a lot of pressure on the defense when forced to deal with him coming off a pick. While this is the most practical method and likely the one that will be implemented the majority of the time, it also comes with some noted downsides. First is that Kobe is not, and likely will never be, largely a distributor in this scenario as that's simply not his approach to the game. There is no doubt he can make the right read, but it is easy to imagine that his natural instinct in that scenario is to find the best scoring option for himself. This isn't a knock on Kobe, as his superlative scoring ability makes this entirely justified, but he isn't going to fulfill a similar role to say LeBron, whose natural instinct is to pass off the pick, and be the primary ball-handler nearly every time down the floor executing the play. Moreover, Kobe without the ball in motion, likely coming off screens, is something that likely will come in the playbook of recently signed assistant coach Ettore Messina, and is arguably more dangerous in that situation than coming off a pick.

The other immediately apparent solution is to let Lamar Odom handle more of the point guard responsibilities. Last season, Odom averaged 0.93 PPP off the pick-and-roll, which, aside from being quite impressive, makes sense on several levels. A 4-5 pick-and-roll, a relative rarity in the league, forces both bigs on the perimeter to make a decision in terms of how they cover it, and more often than not, creates an opportunity for the ball-handler. For Odom, who is easily capable of taking an open lane all the way to the rim or rising up for a shot behind the arc, this is especially true. One could also see Kobe or Artest fulfilling the role of the other big by attempting to acquire deep position, as both are decent post players in that spot and big and strong enough to seal their man down low. Like Kobe, however, it is difficult to see Odom in a purely distributing mode in this case, and while he has impressive court vision for a player at his position, that does not necessarily extend to him taking on the grand majority of the ball-handling responsibilities.

The last set of internal solutions revolves around the Lakers' two rookies, Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock. As I noted when I reviewed the Lakers' acquisitions on draft night, both Morris and Goudelock are adept at using the pick-and-roll, but for largely different reasons. Morris, a pure point guard in the Andre Miller mold, is capable of surveying the floor off a pick and and distributing after penetrating or going all the way to the rim. Of all the possible primary ball-handlers on the team, Morris likely possesses the best court vision simply because his role is based largely on it; most draft prognosticators labeled Morris as the best pure point in the draft and he did an excellent job running Michigan's offense in his sophomore season. Conversely, Goudelock, whose shooting range is positively ridiculous and can sink shots with an inch of space, uses the pick-and-roll to give himself easier opportunities to score. He has some ability to distribute off a pick and hit open players, but similar to Kobe, he's invariably looking for his own shot.

From this, we can discern that all the solutions to this issue are largely imperfect. Blake, Kobe, and Odom all have their faults in a traditional point guard role while Morris and Goudelock still need to cut their wisdom teeth on some real NBA play. Before we evaluate how the Lakers could make the best of this situation though, let's look at any outside help the Lakers could possibly bring in.

Free Agents

One source where this definitely won't be coming from, however, is free agency, given the fact that this year's free agent crop for point guards is absolutely terrible. Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Brooks, both restricted free agents, lead the class and neither is a solution to the Lakers' problems. Stuckey has more or less confirmed that he's a two guard between his slashing ability and lack of solid point guard chops. Brooks, a long-noted scourge of the Lakers, is an interesting prospect given his speed and shooting ability, but both guys are out of the Lakers' price range. Even if the new CBA preserved the mid-level exception, something that appears highly unlikely, both Detroit and Phoenix would jump at the opportunity to lock up their respective players at what would be fairly affordable rates for them. After that, you have J.J. Barea, he of the recently crowned champions, who will likely earn a big contract for his work in the playoffs; Mario Chalmers, who is barely more adequate than Fisher or Blake at the position as well as a restricted free agent; and a long listed of assorted flotsam, including Mike Bibby, Carlos Arroyo, Earl Watson, and T.J. Ford. As inadequate as the Lakers' current bunch of point guards are, there isn't going to be any help coming in free agency, and with Fisher and Blake on long-term contracts and Morris as a developmental project, there isn't any room to add a player who isn't a clear upgrade.

Trades

The primary problem with looking towards the trade market is that the Lakers don't exactly have a lot to offer among the players they're willing to give up. If the Lakers are getting rid of Gasol or Bynum, equivalent value basically boils down to Chris Paul or Deron Williams, and neither is going to be on the trade block at the moment. Odom is a more compelling trade asset due to his favorable contract that is basically expiring because it becomes non-guaranteed if he receives a buyout following next season. However, if the myriad reports before the draft are to be believed, the Lakers were in discussions with Philly concerning getting Andre Iguodala in exchange for Odom, and if that's the value the Lakers can get for him, it behooves them not to waste him by trading for a lesser point guard, especially since Odom can act as a point in a pinch.

On the lower end of the acquisition scale, the Lakers have hardly any compelling assets, but do have a roughly $5.5 million trade exception in which they could acquire a player with a salary less than that while sending nothing in return. Hardwood Hype's Emile Avanessian, who was kind enough to provide us with a post a few days ago, rightly notes that Ramon Sessions is a possibility the Lakers could pursue. With Kyrie Irving's development now center stage in Cleveland and Baron Davis still difficult to move, that leaves Sessions as the most likely candidate to be traded, especially since he isn't an effective off-guard. It remains to be seen whether Sessions would command more significant interest around the league, as he's been a solid per-minute contributor thus far in his career, is young and has a manageable contract; but if he was available, I'd imagine the Lakers would be willing to take in his contract with the trade exception while sending back any of Ebanks, Caracter, or a protected 2012 first rounder.

It is important to note that any such acquisition, including Sessions, would be opportunistic and largely driven by circumstances independent of the Lakers themselves. The only reason Sessions is available is the logjam in Cleveland, and even then, it's doubtful that the Lakers' offer would be the best on the market. Moreover, the Lakers would have to take on salary in any such a deal, which the organization has been adverse to doing recently. Altogether, a trade would be the only method of directly resolving the Lakers' point guard problems, but I wouldn't count on it as a certainty at this juncture.

As such, with the free agent market terrible and a trade not likely, the Lakers must make do with their current personnel as best they can. Of the above choices, the most likely scenario is that Kobe and Odom split a good majority of the ball-handling responsibilities, which, as previously mentioned, is imperfect but carries with it a particular set of advantages as well due to the pair's versatility. Blake would also be involved whenever he is on the floor, although one would imagine that the more he is limited to spotting up in the corner, the better for the offense overall. Similarly, Fisher's role would be almost entirely downsized to spotting up in the wing or the corner, as he's likely the worst suited of all the Lakers' current guards in terms of a more conventional offense.

Finally, while Fish likely will get minutes out of respect for his veteran status and as a sop to Kobe, it's hard to imagine why the team wouldn't benefit from giving 10-15 minutes to Morris and seeing how he copes with that responsibility. His court vision and passing are definitely NBA ready skills and he is likely the Lakers' sole long-term method of addressing this problem. Certainly, it makes more sense than trying to imagine Fisher performing any better in an offense that barely accommodates him, and as difficult as it is to imagine how he could possibly get any worse as a player, it is a much higher possibility than him turning over a new leaf at age 37. Moreover, the Lakers don't need Morris to be a star, but a stabilizer capable of keeping the offense humming and there are a whole lot worse scenarios in the league for Morris than having Kobe and Gasol to pass to. In a small bench role, the expectations for Morris aren't high, but developing him is better than the Lakers trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by playing Fisher and Blake more. If Morris doesn't pan out into anything useful, then the Lakers at least bothered to use their available assets and explored all possible avenues instead of simply wasting him. The Lakers' poor approach to player development and utilizing the draft since the '08 season has resulted in much of this current predicament -- cue obligatory Toney Douglas reference -- but here wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Next in this series, we will cover the Lakers' wings and their possible roles next season.

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