Point Guard Help? Don’t Hold Your Breath

AP Photo/Pat Semansky

There were a lot of reasons the Lakers failed to finish as 2010-2011 NBA Champions – poor bench play, bad outside shooting, no reliable backup center, uncharateristic poor play by Pau Gasol among them. But I think most of us know the main culprit: poor point guard play. The truth is that the Lakers – the franchise that employed the greatest PG ever in Magic Johnson – haven’t had a top 30 point guard since perhaps 1998, when Nick Van Exel patrolled the position before being shipped off to Denver.  I love Derek Fisher, and for many years he was just what the Lakers needed in the Triangle offense – an excellent spot up 3-point shooter, good defender, clutch performer and one of the best leaders the team has ever had – but unfortunately, even in the Triangle offense the last few seasons, Derek has floundered. Even more unfortunate is that Steve Blake was almost certainly worse. Not that you need proof, but here’s how the two point guards stack up against the rest of the league. Keep in mind that for the top categories, only 47 point guards qualified, so each of those rankings is out of 47.

As you can clearly see, point guard, for all intents and purposes, was a complete black hole last season. In these 10 categories, Fisher and Blake were both in the bottom 5 in the league in 6 (!) categories.  The only area in which both players were above average was 3-point shooting. But that was hardly enough to offset all their other flaws. This finally became a hurdle too big for the Lakers to overcome.

The bad news is that the Lakers have no easy answers in how to fix this problem. The Lakers are well over the cap AND the luxury tax line, and may be under even more financial pressure if the cap is reduced in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Let’s assume for a moment, however, that the cap situation remains as-is next season. What are the Lakers’ options?

Because they’re over the cap, the only recourse they have is the midlevel exception (MLE), which allows them to pay a “midlevel” player a salary that is usually around $6 million/year. In past years, this exception has been used rather unwisely by teams. We’ve seen the entirety of this exception go to James Posey, Jason Kapono, Ron Artest, Trevor Ariza, and Jermaine O’Neal – none of whom deserved it. Last season, the Lakers used most of it ($4 million per season) on Steve Blake. (oops!) The problem with using the MLE once again on a PG is that the Lakers simply cannot move the heavy contracts of Fisher and Blake. Fisher is due $6 million over the next two years, and Blake is due $12 million over the next 3 years. That means the Lakers aren’t bringing in ANOTHER high-priced free agent point guard through free agency, not that there was much to choose from anyway. (Rodney Stuckey? Mike Bibby? Aaron Brooks? Ugh.)

That leaves the Lakers with two avenues to upgrade: trade or draft. The problem with trading is that unless the Lakers are willing to take back an equally bad or even worse contract than Fisher’s or Blake’s, these two aren’t going anywhere. This option is highly unlikely. Therefore, the most likely path to improve is through the draft.

Once again, however, the Lakers find themselves somewhat handcuffed. Because they traded away their 2011 first round draft pick to the Nets in the Sasha Vujacic salary dump, the Lakers’ first pick in this year’s draft was not until the 2nd round, all the way down at 41. The next pick was at 46. What are the chances of finding an impact player there? I’m glad you asked! Here’s a historical look at the impact of first-rounders in terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) by Arturo Galleti of the Wages of Wins blog:

Amazingly, the correlation between draft slot and production is not as strong as you might expect. The 30th picks – the last pick in the first round – for example, have produced, on average, the 9th best players in their respective drafts! What this tells us is that a) teams are still trying to figure out how to properly evaluate talent and b) there is almost always going to be value beyond the lottery, and even, perhaps, beyond the 1st round. So what exactly constitutes as “value” then? The average player is about .08 WP/48 minutes (Fisher and Blake were at -.019 and .018 respectively), so we’ll use that as the guideline.

Last year, the Lakers picked 43rd and managed to snatch up Devin Ebanks, who was projected to put up .018 WP/48 (42nd among draft prospects), but actually ended up producing at .077 WP/48 (15th among rookies), which is right about the league average – an impressive feat for a 20-year-old rookie. The Lakers got excellent value there. This year, the Lakers picked point guard Darius Morris, who projects to put up a WP/48 of .013, and shooting guard Andrew Goudelock, who projects at .021.  Morris was rated as the 44th best prospect – right about where he was drafted – and Goudelock was at 34th – way ahead of where he was drafted.

Therefore, the good news is that the Lakers picked relatively well based on what was available to them, and based on the Lakers’ draft history, both players have a pretty decent chance at being good role players for the Lakers.

The downside is that rookies rarely contribute at starter-quality right away level unless they are lottery picks, and the Lakers are built to win now. The best the Lakers can hope is that Morris and Goudelock outperform their projections and contribute a solid 5-10 minutes a night. But any Lakers fan hoping that either of these guys would be the answer at PG next season is bound to be disappointed.

The most realistic scenario is that the Lakers give Morris a chance to compete for minutes, but that they continue to rely heavily on Fisher and Blake, while hoping that both have bounce back seasons. At ages 36 and 31, respectively, it’s hard to imagine that they’d get BETTER, but at the same time, it’s almost impossible for them to be any worse. If just one of them has an improved season, or if Morris develops more quickly than expected however, it would go a long way in bringing the Lakers back to championship status.

Now, about that small forward position…

2 Responses to “Point Guard Help? Don’t Hold Your Breath”
  1. Slava says:

    At least the Lakers didn’t drag Sam Cassell out of retirement hoping to get production out of another aging guard. Dude looks like King Tut’s mummy.

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