This is the fifth in our series of Player Previews, in which we discuss what to expect in the coming season from each of the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers. Up today is Sasha Vujacic, also known as the "Machine."
Sasha Vujacic might be the most hated player in the NBA. Well, maybe that's Vince Carter, but Sasha's definitely the most annoying. Unfortunate, but true. I don't come across any fans of other teams who like him at all, and honestly, there aren't too many Lakers fans who still like him either. They can tell you about the one-man full court press that usually results in the Lakers getting in early foul trouble to start the second and fourth quarters. Or the arguments with teammates and coaches. The Steve Nash-like finger-lick-hair-fixing thing. Then the outside shot that's become terribly inconsistent. Oh, and did I mention he's making $6 million per year for all of this? Therein lies the real problem. The money he got paid versus the player he's become.
The Sasha who earned his contract in 2007-2008 shot the lights out. He averaged 8.8 points and shot 45.3% from the field and 43.7% on threes in 17.8 minutes per game over 72 games. Also, he was a decent defender. Quick and tall, he was able to guard both guard positions while also spacing the floor with a lightning-quick killer long range shot. He was the "Machine." It seemed he never missed two in a row. Then Ray Allen's 2008 Game Four blow-by happened, and the money came, and he became a star. Or so he thought. In 2008-2009, he tried to do too much. Like insisting on taking stop-and-pop jumpers fading left or constantly reaching in for steals on defense. Hey, I'm all for a player trying to earn their new contract and become a better player. Except when it comes at the cost of the skills that earned Sasha the contract in the first place, then pissing off teammates and coaches while doing so. Sometimes it's good to keep it simple. The Lakers wanted the poor Sasha from 2007-2008. The one who nailed open threes, initiated the offense, and harassed his opponents into frustration without earning cheap whistles. Not the rich, arrogant, hair-gel obsessed, foul-magnet, bricklayer boyfriend of Maria Sharapova.
In 2008-2009, Sasha averaged 5.8 points and 16.2 minutes per game and shot 38.7% from the field and 36.3% on threes in 80 games. He was given the same chance as the year before, but just failed to produce. He was ineffective to the point that he shot 26.4% from the field and 31.4% on threes in the playoffs in 10.7 minutes per game. When just the year before his minutes per game had gone from 17.8 in the regular season to 21.7 during the playoffs.
He wasn't afforded the same chance in 2009-2010. So bad had he become that even Team Slovenia had told him no thanks, superstar, in the summer of '09. Thanks to the poor attitude, an ankle injury and Shannon Brown's emergence in '08-'09, Phil Jackson cut Vujacic's time down to 8.6 minutes per game. His limited minutes made him cautious. He scored less, averaging 2.8 points per game, and shot even worse from deep at 30.9% on threes during the regular season. The humbling of Sasha Vujacic was in full effect.
But the benching seemed to work in the 2010 playoffs. In 10 games, he improved to 43.3% from the field and 40.0% on threes in 7.6 minutes per game, played great defense (especially against Ray Allen in the Finals, but not against Goran Dragic in the Western Finals), and hitting some huge free throws in the clutch. Could it be that he was actually humbled and went back to being the Sasha who earned the money and the nickname, and will that transfer over into this season?
Role on the Team: Tough to say. Many people suspect the Lakers want to trade him. Except, there haven't seemed to be any takers. Personally, I don't feel the Lakers should trade him. With a lockout probable after this season, the Lakers already spending a ton on salary, and Shannon Brown's place on the roster, it seems to make sense to just let his contract expire. Do the Lakers really want or need to trade him to take on another contract or two amounting to the same money for more years? Unless they can absolutely fleece a team or find a bench-ridden gem a la Trevor Ariza, I doubt it.
What we should see is Phil give Sasha and Shannon the chance to earn the back-up shooting guard role or improve trade-bait status. He's done it before with Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmanovic in the early part of 2008-2009. He startied out with Spaceman before Trevor Ariza and Luke got the chance to send the Space Cadet packing. If the Lakers were sold on Shannon Brown, they would have re-signed him much earlier than they did this summer. Instead, they waited. We'll soon find out what Sasha's role will be.
Best-Case Scenario for His Season: He continues to translate his stellar practice shooting stroke into games, and becomes the deadly floor-spacing shooter and tall and versatile defender the Lakers thought enough of to commit $18 million. The guy who can spell Kobe and still produce on both ends of the floor. If that happens, I doubt the Lakers would want to trade him. He would be the guy they wanted all along. The guy I felt they signed to eventually replace Fish in the starter's rotation. The best part is, we might get some new "Machine" videos.
Worst-Case Scenario for His Season: Considering the way he's played the past two seasons, could it get any worse? The Machine stays broken and he's shipped out for the first player with a pulse to a team looking to shed cap space.
What We Expect: For the Machine to avoid getting traded, and redeem himself in Lakerland. He can shoot, play defense and actually make an entry pass (unlike Shannon Brown). As long as he stays grounded, he can permanently turn this around. He will have pressure on him this year to earn his next contract, so he just may repeat 2007-2008. I'll peg him for 12 to 13 minutes and 7 to 8 points (on 43% three-point shooting) and a couple rebounds per game. I also wouldn't mind seeing more of this. If he can do those, I'll buy a pair of his jeans.
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