Coming into this season, the Lakers had made a conscious decision to move away from the triangle offense to one based more around traditional point guard play and the pick-and-roll, finally terminating the run of a system that allowed glorified shooting guards such as Derek Fisher to masquerade as lead guards for the better part of this decade. As we noted last year, this was something of a concern for the team because aside from Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom, it was difficult to imagine whether the Lakers could consistently rely on anyone on the roster to consistently initiate the offense similar to a standard point guard. And lo and behold, the lockout ended and the Lakers addressed the problem splendidly by acquiring arguably the best point guard in the league in Chris Paul...for the space of a few hours. Needless to say, the trade being blocked produced massive problems for the team.
First among them was that the Lakers had to go into the season with Fisher and Steve Blake as their only point guards despite the fact that practically all their other off-season acquisitions were intended with the idea that there would be an actual point running the offense. Whether it was additional spacing (Jason Kapono), a roll man (Josh McRoberts), or a pick-and-pop partner (Troy Murphy), whatever plan Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss had going into the season -- and with the benefit of hindsight, it indeed looks like hell of a well-executed coup -- had as its centerpiece the Lakers obtaining a premier point guard to help Mike Brown with what was bound to be a slow and messy transition. To add to injury, Lamar Odom, the only other reliable ball-handler on the team besides Kobe, was shipped off to Dallas for a traded player exception, giving Brown the unenviable position of not having the means with which to run his offense as originally constructed for the grand majority of the season.
As we well know, the offense naturally spluttered with Fisher miscast as a real starting point until Kupchak pulled a sweet deal for Cleveland's Ramon Sessions, cutting salary by sending out Luke Walton's dead weight contract and only losing the Lakers' first rounder in the process. The results were instant, dramatic and perhaps most of all surprising, as Sessions put together a stellar regular season performance, averaging 12.7 points per game on 47.9% shooting, dishing out 6.2 dimes per contest, and nailing an incredible 48.6% of his threes. This honeymoon period lasted until the playoffs, during which Sessions was badly outplayed by Ty Lawson and Russell Westbrook and whether through nerves or otherwise, the entirety of his game appeared to desert him. After the jump, we will examine how the Lakers' current stable of point guards performed, their prospects for improving, and whether any help is available on the free agent or trade market.
To put it plainly, the Lakers need their point guards to space the floor, run the pick-and-roll, and be a threat to penetrate into the heart of the defense and either finish at the rim or dish to an open shooter or cutter. For the majority of his stay in Los Angeles, Sessions did all of that. His defensive limitations were irksome, but that could be forgiven when he was making opposing point guards work on defense by blazing past them for layups, something no Lakers point guard has arguably done consistently since Nick Van Exel. He also found a nice synergy with Kobe Bryant, particularly in what became a deadly 1-2 pick-and-roll that was both underutilized and misused in the playoffs. On that note, it is hard to overlook Sessions' playoff struggles -- the difference between his regular season Lakers PER of 17.3 and playoff 8.5 PER says it all -- but at the same time, you can't deny the fact that he was effective under Brown when he was allowed to do the things he is good at: run the offense via the pick-and-roll and work in transition.
Another reason that Sessions' disappearance was especially damaging in the playoffs was because the offense has become highly stagnant without another perimeter creator to complement Kobe. In the past, it was Lamar Odom and in limited cases, Jordan Farmar who provided the second attacker on the perimeter to open the floor up and create shots for other players. For this current iteration of the Lakers, Metta World Peace will make a nice move from the perimeter from time to time, but by and large, the non-Kobe element of the Lakers' perimeter attack depended on Sessions to run the offense and keep pressure on opposing defenses. That the lack of this was a contributing factor towards the Lakers' eventual playoff defeat goes without saying, and for there to be any hope of the Lakers being successful next season, some dynamism on the perimeter is essential for their prospects.
Of course, the most obvious solution is simply to re-sign Sessions. His playoff struggles have put into question whether he will exercise his player option for next season or enter free agency. but either way, the Lakers appear more than happy to welcome him back. For the most part, this appears to be the optimal solution. With an off-season to further develop -- as Sessions is only 26 years old with five years of experience in the league -- and a full training camp to become more integrated with his teammates, it stands to reason that Sessions could be particularly effective next season as the Lakers' starting point guard. The team as a whole didn't have a full opportunity to adapt to Sessions' presence after the trade deadline, nor did they have a camp or sufficient practices to learn the entirety of Brown's system in general, so seeing how they can perform next season with Sessions at the helm is a worthwhile endeavor.
Sessions might have also done the Lakers a favor by lowering his contract demands should he opt out, as he went from a hot commodity on the free agent market to one with a fair degree of questions due to his post-season play. Despite the Lakers' current cost-cutting strategy to reduce their exposure to the harsher luxury tax coming into effect in 2013, it is doubtful that they won't give him a fair deal regardless. The Lakers invested a draft pick in a deep 2012 class in order to obtain Sessions and assuming they do not come away with a superior option in free agency or via a trade, smart money is on Sessions returning to the Lakers next season.
The situation behind Sessions is much more open, however. Steve Blake, heralded in 2010 as a quintessential triangle guard for the Lakers' three-peat attempt, not only failed miserably at being a serviceable backup point and floor spacer in 2010, but at consistently running a conventional offense this season. About the only reason his presence was desirable owes itself to the fact that the alternative was Derek Fisher, faint praise indeed for Blake's talents, or lack thereof. When compared against Ramon Sessions, Blake looked frankly terrible and it is doubtful he would still be on the roster save for what now appears to be a horrendous $16 million deal that stretches through 2014. Along with Metta World Peace, Blake has to be considered one of the most likely candidates for the Lakers' amnesty provision, and any trade discussion the Lakers have will no doubt breach the possibility of unloading Blake's contract on another team.
Compounding the problem is that there are two developmental projects behind Blake in the rotation in Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris. Of the pair of rookies, Goudelock appeared in the rotation the most and displayed a nice shooting ability and arguably the best floater on the team. This made him a threat on the catch as well as the drive and while his lack of real point guard chops was disadvantageous, he still provided value on the floor. Morris, on the other hand, looked every bit a 20-year-old rookie in his limited playing time, as he was overly hesitant in running the offense, turned the ball over far too many times, and seemed rather clueless on what he needed to do on the court.
Naturally, one needs to remember that while having no training camp was a poor outcome for the team as a whole, it was especially crippling for the prospects of the Lakers' rookies, as they were denied their opportunity to acclimate to NBA play via summer league, a full training camp and preseason by the lockout. In that sense, it is unfair to evaluate the Lakers' rookies entirely by what happened last season, or on the flip side, one can be impressed by Goudelock showing NBA-level skills despite the aforementioned handicaps. It is also important to note that one should still consider Morris the prospect with the higher ceiling, as a common notion among scouts was that he would be a borderline lottery prospect should he have returned for his junior year at Michigan, something that appears especially true given the poor depth at point guard in the 2012 draft.
As such, it would be unsurprising to see Goudelock and/or Morris take a significant step next year into the rotation, and seeing that Blake is unlikely to improve significantly, they have a fair chance to take his spot as the primary backup point guard. Morris in particular should look much better once he gets adjusted to the speed of the NBA game, as he had very good court vision in college and has the athleticism to eventually be a solid creator on the perimeter. That this creates a bit of a glut in the backcourt is a problem the Lakers will have to resolve in some fashion whether via trade or otherwise, as a combination of Blake, Morris, Goudelock, and any free agent signings will be fighting for the backup guard minutes behind Sessions and Kobe.
On that note, the Lakers have a diverse number of options in free agency, although their ability to follow through on any of these possibilities is crippled by the limited tools given to them by the new CBA. So while it would be stellar to pursue, say Steve Nash, asking him to come to L.A. for $3 million a year via the taxpayer mid-level exception isn't that much of a realistic solution to capitalize upon. Now, this does not mean that the Lakers' front office should not at least try to obtain Nash, one of the best offensive point guards of all time and as good of a solution for the Lakers' problems at the position as anyone in the league, but treating this as anything other than a fervid dream is simply asking to be disappointed. Nash will have significantly larger offers from other teams, and one has to question his willingness to leave Phoenix and their stellar medical staff that has no doubt had a huge influence in extending his career and maintaining his still ridiculous effectiveness.
Past Nash, you have a variety of players unlikely to challenge Sessions for a starting gig. Kirk Hinrich still defends wings very well, but his declining quickness and substandard shooting numbers mean that he would simply be a so-so backup, rather than the triangle starter many wanted to trade for the past three years. Delonte West is an old face Mike Brown is familiar with from Cleveland and he brings respectable combo guard skills, shooting ability, and a decent defensive capability. As he signed for only the minimum last summer, he would be a nice bench addition for a cheap price. Andre Miller, who obliterated the Lakers' point guards in the post for the entire Denver series, is available, but his fit in L.A. without decent shooters to space the floor and a number of other players who live on the block is questionable. Many Lakers fans no doubt hoped that Chauncey Billups would fall through the cracks in the amnesty process and make his way to L.A. last off-season, but the severity of the injury that ended his year makes it difficult to imagine that he will come back at full strength next season.
Of this bunch, West appears to be a particularly good fit, especially since he can play at either guard spot and Brown should have no trouble integrating him into the lineup. Depending on whether Goudelock or Morris are ready for an expanded role or not, West could be the first or second guard off the bench, but most of all, he constitutes good depth that the Lakers haven't enjoyed on the perimeter since the '07-'08 season.
The moment the Lakers were eliminated in the playoffs, the rising furor that Pau Gasol should be dealt for Deron Williams reached a crescendo. Williams is definitely not at the level of Chris Paul, but obviously, there would be few reservations for the Lakers "settling" on a deal that put Williams in a Lakers uniform. The problem, as in all of these scenarios, is that it takes two sides to tango, but the Lakers' chances may have improved from the fact that the Nets seem focused on shooting themselves in the foot. In a completely inexplicable trade, they dealt a top three protected first rounder for an aging Gerald Wallace, who is going to opt out of his contract this summer. As these things are wont to do, the lottery turned out badly for the Nets, who are left in the rather difficult position of having few avenues through which to improve and thus convince Williams that it is worthwhile to stay with the Nets as they move into Brooklyn.
Losing that pick was especially damaging since it sabotaged a huge trade asset they could have floated in a deal for Dwight Howard, and combined with the fact that Brook Lopez's trade value has dropped precipitously with his recent foot injury -- a development that has made the fact that there was even an argument last summer over whether Lopez or Bynum was better Howard trade bait comical -- the Nets' future prospects are quite dire. Now, the Nets' beat writers have claimed that the team will take cap space rather than an aging Gasol and the remaining $40 million on his deal, but this strikes one as a false dilemma. First, for the sake of appearances, it would serve the Nets' interests to move into Brooklyn with a semi-competitive team that will attract the fanbase, fill what looks like a gorgeous new stadium, and start off on the right foot. That would be rather hard with a starting lineup of Jordan Farmar, Marshon Brooks, Gerald Green, Kris Humphries, and Brook Lopez. Next, there is nothing stopping the Nets from dealing Pau themselves and garnering picks and young assets for them. The Nets would not be constrained by the Lakers' needs in such a transaction (read: immediate help) and thus could seek the best deal with the most long-term assets.
Naturally, there is no guarantee that this happens, although one can see how it is advantageous to all the parties involved. Another possibility would be revisiting the events of last summer in dealing with Houston for a package headed by Kyle Lowry, who has a bit of a row with the team over Kevin McHale's coaching and Goran Dragic's apparent assumption of the starting gig. Dragic played admirably over the latter course of the season, and it is no secret that Daryl Morey still covets Pau. Lowry is far less of a talent than Williams and the need to match salaries will mean that pieces such as Luis Scola (scary knee issues, lots of money left on his deal) and Kevin Martin (redundant with Kobe, likely trade bait afterwards) would likely be included. As such, what the Lakers would lose in star power, they could regain in depth, not a bad transaction but obviously not as ideal as obtaining a star of Williams' caliber, notably due to the concerns with the possible secondary parts of the deal in Scola and Martin.
Past Williams and Lowry, there are no clear targets the Lakers could pursue who are a clear upgrade on Sessions, yet constitute good value for Gasol in a possible trade. Certainly, Mitch Kupchak has pulled rabbits out of his hat in a big way these last few years, but it is never good to count on it happening. And before you ask, it is very doubtful that Andrew Bynum is part of any of these discussions as far as point guards are concerned. Dealing him for Williams would likely be a lateral move unless the Nets threw a lot more assets into the deal and it is difficult to concoct a scenario that makes sense for the Lakers and another team. The only other major asset of note the Lakers have is the traded player exception (TPE) they received in the Lamar Odom deal, but the Lakers' unwillingness to take on salary likely precludes any deal in that regard. The only apparent target -- in other words, a player on the block whose salary is under $8.9 million and could be acquired for minimal compensation -- that makes sense is Utah's Devin Harris, who definitely is not the All-Star caliber player he was in New Jersey and is more or less Sessions' equal at this point in his career. Perhaps if Harris defended with the same gusto as he did in his Dallas days, such a deal would be more palatable, but dealing for a guard on the downside of a career and whose play depends on athleticism and a quick first step isn't the best notion.
As such, the Lakers find themselves in a fairly simple position with regards to their point guards next season: shoot for the stars by trying for Williams, Nash, or Lowry and if all else fails, re-sign Sessions. The situation behind Sessions is trickier due to all the young developmental projects and Blake, but that shouldn't be overly difficult to resolve. In any case, after his playoff struggles, Sessions will strike no one as an ideal solution to the Lakers' woes at the position, but when it is all said and done, yours truly feels much more comfortable about the position than at the end of last summer, when the prospect of an entire year with Derek Fisher as the starting point guard of a heavy pick-and-roll offense loomed large. If the worst the Lakers can do next season as their lead guard is Ramon Sessions, they have bigger problems to deal with.
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