How Good are the Lakers Compared to Recent Championship Teams?The L.A. Lakers are often called the most talented and/or deepest team in the NBA. I am skeptical of both claims: the Boston Celtics at full strength are more talented--they have three future Hall of Famers--and there are many teams that have more productive benches than the Lakers, who ranked 16th in the NBA in points per game by bench players during the 2009 regular season; even that ranking is a bit deceptive, because the Lakers' bench players typically play alongside either Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant, so they benefit from being on the court with someone who attracts a lot of defensive attention.
While Gasol is an excellent complementary player to Kobe Bryant, he would not have been the second best player on the vast majority of championship teams from 1991-2008; Gasol is one of the top 15 players in the NBA today but several of the "sidekicks" on recent championship teams made the 50 Greatest Players List. Here is a comparison of the seven man playoff rotation of the 2009 Lakers to the seven man playoff rotations of the championship teams of the "Phil Jackson era" (i.e., post 1991, when Jackson won the first of his record 10 championships as an NBA coach):
Kobe Bryant has a solid supporting cast around him: Pau Gasol is one of the top 15 players in the NBA, Lamar Odom is well suited to being the third option and Trevor Ariza fits his role perfectly. Derek Fisher provides intangibles that are not measured in the boxscore and Andrew Bynum showed flashes of the player that he may eventually become.
However, most of the championship teams of the past two decades had a future Hall of Famer/All-NBA First or Second Team member/former or current MVP candidate as a second option and an All-Star/All-NBA/All-Defensive Team caliber player as a third option; those teams also generally had either a primetime scorer or All-Defensive team member at small forward.
It is true that some of the players mentioned below added to their resumes (in terms of All-Star selections, All-Defensive team selections, etc.) after playing on championship teams and that members of the 2009 Lakers may do so as well -- but it is extremely unlikely that Gasol, Odom, Ariza or Fisher will materially change how their careers are viewed; Gasol is not going to be considered one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players nor is Odom going to suddenly become a perennial All-Star or a fixture on the All-Defensive Team.
Perhaps Bynum will eventually stay healthy and become an All-Star but during the 2009 playoffs he clearly was nothing more than a role player (unlike Sam Cassell, who was similarly young when he played a big role for the Rockets many years before becoming an All-Star).
Last season, I made the case that the 2008 Lakers were a deep team but not quite as talented as some people suggested. Although the 2008 Lakers had eight players who averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the playoffs, the talent level at the top of their rotation could not be compared with the Celtics, whose roster includes three future Hall of Famers. This year's Lakers are probably a little more talented than last year's Lakers but because the production of several bench players declined markedly the 2009 Lakers are not as deep as the 2008 Lakers; only six Lakers averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the 2009 playoffs.
The 2009 Lakers are Phil Jackson's 10th championship team and they are not as deep as most of the teams that won championships since Jackson claimed his first title in 1991. In this context, I am defining "depth" by evaluating the top seven players (based on playoff mpg) on a given team in terms of their playoff statistics during a championship season while also considering their overall career accomplishments; career accomplishments are relevant because they indicate a player's skill set, talent level and impact. I am focusing on playoff production because this provides the most accurate picture of who did the heavy lifting to win the championship.
The top seven players on the 1991 Chicago Bulls were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges. Everyone except Hodges shot over .500 from the field in the 1991 playoffs; Hodges, who won the All-Star Three Point Shootout three straight years (1990-92), took more than a third of his shots from behind the arc and shot .393 from long range.
Jordan and Pippen are both members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list, while Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong and Bill Cartwright each earned one All-Star selection during their careers. Grant also made the All-Defensive Second Team four times. The 1991 Bulls were both talented and deep. The 1992 and 1993 Bulls had the same seven man playoff rotation except for Scott Williams taking the place of Hodges, who played a limited role during the 1992 championship run and was not on the team in 1993.
By the time Jordan came back from his self-imposed baseball exile to lead the Bulls to three championships from 1996-98, the team's entire seven man rotation had changed except for Jordan and Pippen.
The 1996 Bulls featured Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr. Rodman won seven straight rebounding titles, earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards and made the All-Defensive First Team seven times. He also played in two All-Star games and received two All-NBA Third Team selections. If not for his flamboyant personality, Rodman would likely have garnered many more honors and would be considered a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
Kukoc won the Sixth Man Award in 1996; throughout his career Kukoc displayed tremendous versatility and a knack for hitting clutch shots. Harper established himself as a 20 ppg scorer early in his career before a knee injury slowed him down; with the Bulls he remade himself into a defensive specialist. Longley was a solid center whose skills fit in well with the Triangle Offense. Kerr is the NBA's career leader in three point field goal percentage. All seven players averaged at least 19.8 mpg in the 1996 playoffs and they all were productive in the context of their roles, though Pippen and Kukoc did not shoot well in the playoffs that year.
The 1997 Bulls were even deeper, not only returning the same seven man rotation but adding Bison Dele (formerly known as Brian Williams) as an eighth man who averaged just .2 mpg fewer than Kerr. Dele was a skilled big man who could score and defend. Dele departed after one season, but the other seven players returned in 1998.
The Houston Rockets won back to back championships in 1994-95. The first Houston championship team featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell, Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie.
Olajuwon is on the 50 Greatest Players List, Maxwell was a streak shooter who provided scoring/toughness and Thorpe was an excellent scorer/rebounder who annually ranked among the field goal percentage leaders. Seven-time NBA champion Horry began earning the nickname "Big Shot Bob" during his time in Houston, Smith was a standout shooter/playmaker and Cassell made the All-Star team and the All-NBA team once each during his career thanks to his clutch shooting and his playmaking ability. Elie was a "glue guy" for three championship teams.
The 1995 Rockets started slowly and then made a big trade, acquiring Clyde Drexler -- a member of the 50 Greatest Players List -- for Thorpe. The only other change to the seven man rotation was the addition of Pete Chilcutt -- a three point shooting big man -- in place of Maxwell, who only participated in one playoff game before being given a leave of absence by the team.
After Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause imploded the Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 championship in the wake of a lockout-shortened 50 game season. Tim Duncan, Avery Johnson, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Mario Elie, Jaren Jackson and Malik Rose led the way for the Spurs. Duncan and Robinson are each on the 50 Greatest Players List and each won at least one MVP. The well-traveled Johnson proved to be a steady playmaker/leader for the Spurs. Two-time All-Star Elliott was a versatile player. Elie added toughness and championship experience. Jackson led the Spurs in three point field goals made during the playoffs while Rose was a seldom-used banger who played 11.4 mpg, just .5 mpg more than veteran forward Jerome Kersey.
The Spurs made several changes in their rotation by the time they won the 2003 championship, as only Duncan, Robinson and Rose remained. Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili joined the mix.
Jackson's erratic shooting resulted in six 20 point games and nine games of fewer than 10 points during the Spurs' playoff run. Parker, San Antonio's second leading playoff scorer in 2003, has become a three-time All-Star and he won the 2007 Finals MVP. Ginobili has made the All-Star team once and in 2008 he made the All-NBA Third Team and won the Sixth Man Award. After bouncing around the league early in his career, Bowen became a perennial All-Defensive Team member in San Antonio and he also developed into a deadly three point shooter from the corners. Robinson played his last season in 2003 and while he was no longer a prime time offensive threat he still made an impact defensively. Rose's role increased significantly after 1999 and he averaged 23.3 mpg in the 2003 playoffs.
The 2005 Spurs retained Duncan, Parker, Bowen and Ginobili as the nucleus, adding Robert Horry, Brent Barry and Nazr Mohammed to the rotation. Horry's clutch play has already been mentioned. Barry provided dead eye .424 three point shooting, while Mohammed led the team in playoff field goal percentage (.528) and ranked second in rebounding (6.7 rpg). Duncan, Parker, Bowen, Ginobili and Horry also played for the 2007 champions, joined by two-time All-Star Michael Finley and inside presence Fabricio Oberto, who led the Spurs with a .625 field goal percentage in the playoffs.
The Lakers won three championships between the Spurs' first two titles. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant headlined all three teams. O'Neal, who is on the 50 Greatest Players List, finished first, third and third in MVP voting during those seasons, while Bryant made the All-NBA First or Second Team and the All-Defensive First or Second Team all three times while placing 12th, ninth and fifth in MVP voting.
Three-time All-Star Glen Rice was the third scoring option for the 2000 Lakers. Ron Harper, Robert Horry, A.C. Green and Brian Shaw filled out the seven man rotation. Harper, Horry and Green all had previous championship experience, while Shaw had been a starter for playoff teams with several different franchises. Derek Fisher and Rick Fox were the eighth and ninth men in the rotation but they moved up to third and fourth respectively in 2001; Rice went to the Knicks but Horace Grant added rebounding and toughness in place of Rice's shooting. The 37 year old Harper appeared in just six playoff games.
The 2002 Lakers relied more heavily on their top five players -- O'Neal, Bryant, Horry, Fox and Fisher each averaged at least 34.2 mpg, Devean George played 17.2 mpg and Samaki Walker and Brian Shaw nearly tied for the seventh spot in the rotation (12.6 and 12.5 mpg respectively). George and Shaw shot poorly, while Walker provided solid rebounding in his limited minutes.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons are perhaps the most unusual NBA champions of recent times; their roster did not include any MVPs or members of the 50 Greatest Players List: the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics were the last championship team that did not have a former, current or future NBA regular season MVP and/or a member of the 50 Greatest Players List.
However, four of those Pistons made the All-Star team during their careers (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace) and Tayshaun Prince earned four All-Defensive Team selections. Corliss Williamson won the Sixth Man Award as a Piston in 2002. Future All-Star Mehmet Okur ranked eighth in playoff minutes played, just behind defensive specialist Lindsey Hunter. The Pistons may not have had a superstar but they unquestionably had a deep roster.
The 2006 Miami Heat followed the traditional formula of surrounding two star players (Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal) with solid veteran role players: former All-Stars Gary Payton and Antoine Walker teamed up with quick point guard Jason Williams, rugged inside force Udonis Haslem and versatile defender/three point shooter James Posey to support Wade and O'Neal. Each member of the seven man rotation averaged at least 24.3 mpg in the playoffs. Seven-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning averaged 10.3 mpg as the eighth man, ranking third on the team in blocked shots during the playoffs.
As mentioned above, the 2008 Boston Celtics employed three future Hall of Famers: former MVP Kevin Garnett plus perennial All-Stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The rest of the seven man rotation included talented young point guard Rajon Rondo, physically imposing center Kendrick Perkins, James Posey and three-time All-Defensive Team member P.J. Brown. Sam Cassell and promising forward Leon Powe finished just behind Brown in playoff mpg.
The 2009 Lakers do not look that imposing when compared to most of the aforementioned teams. Bryant, a former MVP who surely would be on any future 50 Greatest Players List, was option 2 (or perhaps 1B) for the three Lakers' championship teams earlier in the decade. Second option Pau Gasol has earned one All-NBA Third Team selection in his entire career and has never received a single MVP vote. He would have been the third option on the vast majority of championship teams since 1991, including all six Chicago championship teams, as well as the 2000-2002 Lakers, 2006 Heat, 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics.
One could make a good case that he also would have been the third option on the 1999 and 2005 Spurs. The 2004 Pistons ran an "equal opportunity" offense but it is unlikely that in that system he would have been featured over Hamilton and Billups and he may not have received more touches than Rasheed Wallace (depending on Wallace's mindset). The only championship teams from this era for whom Gasol would clearly have been a nice second option are the 1994 Rockets and 2003 Spurs.
In 2009, Lamar Odom posted the best field goal percentage (.524) and three point field goal percentage (.514) of his playoff career. He produced solid scoring (12.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) but would not have taken Horace Grant's spot for the 1991-93 Bulls or Dennis Rodman's position for the 1996-98 Bulls. Odom's scoring and rebounding numbers are comparable to Grant's but Grant was a more consistent player who earned one All-Star selection and four All-Defensive team selections during his career; while not all of those honors took place during Chicago's championship seasons, they speak to Grant's overall talent and level of play.
In contrast, Odom has never made the All-Star team or been selected to the All-Defensive Team. Rodman won three rebounding titles as a Bull, made the All-Defensive First Team once and received some MVP votes in 1996. Odom would not likely take Thorpe's spot for the 1994 Rockets and it would be a close call between Odom and the 1995 version of Horry. Based on positional designation Odom would come off of the bench for the 1999 Duncan/Robinson Spurs, though you could argue that he would be the third most productive player on that roster. Odom's rebounding would be useful for the 2000-2002 Lakers and 2006 Heat.
It is evident that the Bryant-Gasol-Odom trio hardly stands above Jordan-Pippen-Grant/Rodman, Olajuwon-Drexler-Horry, O'Neal-Bryant-Rice and Duncan-Parker-Ginobili.
At best, Bryant-Gasol-Odom ranks in the middle of the pack among championship trios in the past 19 years, primarily because the top two players in most of the other trios are all-time greats or at the very least perennial All-Stars, neither of which is true of Gasol.
The contrast between the Lakers and other recent championship teams is even more dramatic at roster spots four through seven. Trevor Ariza certainly did a fine job as a defender and spot-up three point shooter but he cannot create a shot for himself or others because of his limited skills as a ballhandler/passer. He would not have started at small forward for most of the past 19 championship teams, including the six Bulls teams (Pippen), the 1994 Rockets (Horry, before he shifted to power forward the next season after the Drexler-Thorpe deal), 1999 Spurs (Elliott), 2000 Lakers (Rice), 2004 Pistons (Prince), 2006 Heat (Walker, who actually averaged more mpg than O'Neal even though "stat gurus" insist that Walker is a subpar player) and the 2008 Celtics (Pierce).
Ariza would not likely have started for the 1995 Rockets, though he could have been a nice bench player for that team. Bowen (2003, 2005, 2007 Spurs) does not put up gaudy numbers, but he is a better defender and more proven shooter than Ariza. Based on skill set/familiarity with the Triangle Offense, I doubt that Ariza would start over Rick Fox for the 2001 or 2002 Lakers, either.
Derek Fisher ranked fifth on the 2009 Lakers in playoff minutes played. He struggled mightily with his shot throughout the playoffs (.394 shooting overall, including .284 from three point range), though he came up huge in game four of the Finals. Fisher also had some problems defensively with small, quick point guards. He is a savvy veteran player and a huge upgrade over Smush Parker but he would not start over the sure-shooting Paxson (or Armstrong) for the 1991-93 Bulls or over Harper for the 1996-98 Bulls, nor would he take minutes away from Smith and Cassell in Houston.
Perhaps Fisher could duel Avery Johnson for playing time for the 1999 Spurs. The 2000 Lakers started Harper, while the 2001 and 2002 Lakers started a younger, more athletic, better shooting version of Fisher. Clearly, Fisher would not start over Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups or even Rajon Rondo. I'd take Fisher over the 2006 Miami Heat version of Jason Williams.
Starting center Andrew Bynum averaged just 17.4 mpg in the playoffs for the 2009 Lakers. He may become an excellent player in the future but in the 2009 playoffs he was strictly a role player, reaching double figures in points just five times in 23 games and never reaching double figures in rebounds. Forget comparing Bynum to championship centers Olajuwon, O'Neal and Ben Wallace -- Bynum was not more productive than Bill Cartwright (1991-93 Bulls) or Luc Longley (1996-98 Bulls).
Luke Walton rounded out the Lakers' seven man rotation. Other seventh men of the past two decades include Steve Kerr and Mario Elie, each of whom hit huge shots during championship runs; the 2006 Miami Heat had a future Hall of Famer (Payton) as a seventh man and, while he was not extremely productive, he came through with several big shots.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM