It is common knowledge that the Los Angeles Lakers must fill holes at center and small forward before the start of next season. Kobe Bryant played the wing last year but is now retired, leaving only Anthony Brown and maybe Metta World Peace to take his place. Brown showed very little in his rookie season and World Peace, at age 36, is more suited at this point to coach than to play.
At center, Rob Hibbert was arguably the biggest disappointment on the roster last year. He averaged fewer than five rebounds per game, which is mystifying considering he is 7’2” in height with a solid build. Counted on to be a strong defensive presence in the middle, Hibbert did not have the speed, quickness, or desire to contribute much on either end of the court.
Tarik Black and Robert Sacre were the backup centers. Both are free agents who are not likely to return. There was hope that Black would progress last season after a solid rookie year, but he was in Byron Scott’s doghouse most of the time and played little. He might be back, but given that he is undersized for the center position, it is unlikely that he would serve as more than a backup.
Many possibilities have been mentioned to meet these needs including Kevin Durant, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, and Al Horford. The odds do not favor the Lakers signing any of these players in free agency, so what will the team do with all the money it has to spend?
If a trade is under consideration, what about point guard position if it turns out someone appealing at that position is available? In the last couple of years, the Lakers sat by while other teams signed Isaiah Thomas (who reportedly wanted to play for the purple and gold) and Reggie Jackson, both of whom were outstanding this past season.
The presumption is that D’Angelo Russell will be the starter, but is Russell even a point guard? He hasn’t looked or played like one since joining the team as the second pick in last summer’s draft. Neither has Jordan Clarkson, who was drafted as a point guard the summer before.
Of the four teams who made it to the semi-finals in the Western Conference, it is no coincidence that the point guards were Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Tony Parker. They are a key reason why their teams made a deep playoff run, and whichever team makes it to the finals, it will face the Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving who averaged 24.4 points and 5.5 assists per game during the regular season.
Two other teams who made the playoffs in the West, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzles, saw their seasons end in no small part because Chris Paul and Mike Conley were injured and could not play. The other two playoff teams in the Western Conference featured Patrick Beverley, who may be the top defender at the point guard position in the entire NBA, and Deron Williams, who was a perennial all-star until slowed by injuries the past few years.
The inescapable conclusion is that the Lakers will not make it to the playoffs, or make a deep playoff run, without dramatically improved play at the point guard position.
At this point, there is no concrete evidence that Russell and Clarkson, if they continue to play the point, will ever be the equal of the players mentioned above. The biggest contribution a point guard is asked to make is to get other players involved in the flow of the game and set them up to score. As the position has evolved, many modern point guards are also prolific scorers, but they still manage to hand out a lot of assists. Of the top 10 players in assists this past season, seven were point guards, and four of them – Westbrook, Paul, John Wall, and Rajon Rondo – averaged more than 10 assists per contest.
Russell and Clarkson alternated as starters at the point guard position all season but spent most of their time shooting. They made little or no effort to get other players involved. The Lakers finished last in the league in assists, with Russell averaging an anemic 3.3 and Clarkson 2.4 per contest. Towards the end of the season, they dropped the pretense of passing altogether. Taking a cue from Bryant, everyone on the team simply heaved the ball towards the rim whenever they touched it. It was this kind of play that led to a 17-win season.
Of course, many will point out that Russell is very young and will get better. That is true, but will he get faster, quicker, or more athletic? Russell may become a very good shooting guard, but it is hard to imagine anyone in today’s NBA flourishing at point guard with so little speed and quickness.
Russell has the advantage of being physically larger than the average point guard, which may enable him to post up against smaller players. But that won’t help him become a facilitator, nor will it help him on defense where his lack of quickness makes it difficult to believe he could ever effectively guard speedsters like Westbrook, Curry, Lillard, Wall, and Irving who get up and down the court like a blur.
The likelihood is that the Lakers will focus on their many other needs this offseason and leave it to Russell to play point guard in the fall. One thing is for sure: Whether it is Russell or someone else, until the team’s play at the point guard position improves dramatically, the Lakers are unlikely to be much better than they were last year.
In today’s NBA, a team simply cannot win without someone who excels at running the offense and getting everyone involved. No matter what the front office is saying right now, if the Lakers fail to attract a star this summer at center or small forward, don’t be surprised if they consider a move for a point guard if it turns out someone really attractive is available at that position.