The NBA's trade deadline approaches. 'Tis the season to be tossing around rumors the way squealy teenage girls at a slumber party do.
For the Lakers, it means now-annual cries to improve their lot at point guard. This year, the list of potential upgrades is headlined by Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, with guys like Indiana's Earl Watson appearing down the bill. But while endless oxygen is sucked up locally figuring out which combination of players it would take to make a deal (everything starts with the expiring contract of Adam Morrison, and moves on to different combinations of Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and even Derek Fisher, with Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga tossed in to balance salary requirements), very little is devoted to answering a more fundamental question:
Just how much do they need an upgrade, anyway?
First, a few numbers. According to 82Games.com, the Lakers have one position on the floor with a negative net output relative to PER. Point guard, of course. Starting PG Fisher is venerable, beloved, and suffering his worst season since returning to the Lakers, and in fact, arguably experiencing the worst season of his career. Farmar has boosted his production over over the last few months, but is still relatively untested as a postseason producer. Shannon Brown is improving in any number of ways, but runs neither the offense nor the break like a true point.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have had some high profile struggles against many of the league's quickest point guards. Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Aaron Brooks, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook. All have had good games at one point or another against the Lakers.
So, to recycle a joke I used earlier in the season, is it time for Lakers fans to crack each others skulls open and feast on the goo inside?
Let's start with the "fast point guard" problem. Yes, it's true, the guys I mentioned above have hurt the Lakers at different points. But look again at the list. Nash, Williams, Rondo, Paul, and Parker are All-Stars. Westbrook is among the more talented young PGs in the league, and Brooks might be the quickest player in the NBA.
Every team in the league struggles to defend these guys. There's a reason people call the NBA a point guard's league. (The Lakers have also struggled at times to defend slower points like Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups. While they haven't built their games on speed... they're really, really good at basketball.) Nor do the lightning bugs light up the purple and gold like a Pink Floyd laser show time each they step on the floor. Even Rondo's vaunted shredding of the Lakers back in Boston on January 31 was more of a big second quarter than sustained domination. Sometimes (gasp!) those guards have average games or worse against L.A. (It happens, I swear. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Bottom line, the Lakers are currently the league's second best defensive team, measured by points allowed per 100 possessions (102.2), an improvement of 2.5 points over last year's squad. In a league where every team seems to have a rock star at the point, how much could the Lakers truly be suffering with their present personnel?
Of course, the most tangible proof of L.A.'s ability to win without an "upgrade" over their current roster of point guards sits in an office overlooking the practice court in El Segundo: The 2008-09 NBA championship trophy, won with Williams, Brooks and Billups left in the wake. And the year before, the Lakers knocked off Williams and Parker en route to the Finals.
L.A.'s point guard problem is more a reflection of how strong they are on other parts of the floor, with seemingly endless top-end frontcourt options and, of course, with Kobe Bryant at the two. It's the most obvious hole in their lineup, the only place it's easy to look and see room for improvement. It also reflects the relatively simplistic tendency to make position-by-position matchups a central part of any Team A vs. Team B analysis.
Fish or Farmar's inability to be as good as NashParkerPaulWilliamsRondoMagicCousyWhoeverPlayedPointGuardforCarverHigh would be a problem if the other four guys on the floor didn't exist. But they do. And teams defend point guards, particularly against the screen-and-roll, just as teams defend Kobe based on how they stack the floor, choosing when to double, what options they try to eliminate, and so on. Results say the Lakers are doing a good job keeping the opposition off the board. Where point guards are more successful, they shut off production from other areas.
This isn't to say the Lakers wouldn't benefit from adding a stronger defensive point guard, but before fixing a problem existing more in media narrative and storyline, it might be better to address one more substantially hurting the team's on-court performance.
More than defensive help, they need a guy who can stretch the floor to give the offense more space to operate efficiently. Hinrich is shooting 38% overall, 35% from downtown. Watson has a career mark of 33% beyond the arc, a Steve Kerr-esque figure relative to the 27% mark he's sporting with the Pacers this year. Neither qualifies. The efficiency created by a consistent outside threat would not only help score more points but prevent them as well, since higher percentage looks for the Lakers mean fewer run outs the other way.
(It's worth mentioning as well the learning curve when a player learns a new defensive system. Hinrich and Watson both have good reputations guarding the ball, but both would have to learn L.A.'s philosophies and the tendencies of teammates. This isn't an instantaneous process.)
If Mitch Kupchak can find a deal bettering the team this year and beyond, by all means he should make it. But the notion another title depends on L.A.'s ability to improve itself at the point is patently false.