Missing Jordan and Sasha: Charting the Lakers’ Decline

 

I know. I know! Take a seat. Keep your mind open. Give me a second to make the case.  Keep in mind that Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic’s combined scoring average was 17.9 for the 2007-08 season, the highest total for any reserve backcourt duo that made the Finals since the ’85 combo of Michael Cooper and Mike Mcgee. Phil Jackson and the front office made a mistake in judgment during 2010, and eventually it cost the Lakers a Three Peat, a league tying 17th title, and Kobe his 6th title. Phil became enamored with Shannon Brown and that  flirtation broke up the rarest of gifts a championship caliber team could have – an elite, youthful, effective backup backcourt tandem. For many of you it will be hard to equate Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic with the term elite but there’s strong evidence that in fact they were.

 

In 2007-2008 the Lakers were built around Kobe and the long awaited development of Andrew Bynum. The biggest surprise of the early part of the season was the strong play of Farmar and Vujacic off the bench. Farmar’s speed, fearlessness, and deep shooting ability were all a welcome addition to the rotation. Vujacic, a converted point guard, settled in as a shooter / defender in limited minutes behind Kobe. With the eventual trade for Pau Gasol, the team transformed to more of an inside out playing style and this is where the young backcourt made their mark. Phil Jackson increasingly used Kobe as the backup small forward with the 2nd unit and this provided Vujacic with an abundance of open threes playing off Bryant, which he knocked down at an astounding rate of 43.7%. As a unit the young guards(Farmar, age 21, Vujacic, age 23), pushed the tempo, got easy baskets and each had enough irrational confidence to have huge games in short minutes, helping add to the Lakers aura of dominance. Combined that year, they had 7 games with 20 pts or more, and 60 games in double figures that season. As Vladimir Radmanovic fell out of favor, Sasha became a key part of the rotation moving into the 6th man role, culminating with his 20 point game in the Finals. The duo finished 3rd and 5th in production on a per 36 minute basis. Even with a devastating loss to the Celtics, the Lakers seemed to have the best of all worlds – Talent, depth and youth. A title was inevitable. Lost within the ensuing repeat titles and three consecutive Finals appearances, were the seeds of the Lakers’ collapse during  the 2010-2011 playoffs.

 

During the 2008-09 season, the midseason trade of Vladimir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison included Shannon Brown as a throw in. Brown was the classic combo guard who had struggled with his shot for much of his young career, negating his incredible athleticism. Farmar and Vujacic struggled for much of that season. Sasha’s minutes playing alongside Kobe were eliminated, as Trevor Ariza ascended as a legit starter and a glut of small forwards needed playing time. Without Kobe drawing defenders, opposing teams crowded Vujacic and he was unable to get the open looks he enjoyed from the previous year. He was also unable to create shots for himself. Farmar seemed intoxicated by the disease of more. He openly griped about his playing time and of wanting to be the starter. Farmar again got off to a fast start but shot poorly over the course the year and struggled defensively to the point that Shannon Brown began to take his minutes in the playoffs. Brown began to eat into both players’ minutes. Suddenly, the promising duo were starting to be marginalized by the coaching staff. A world championship obscured the brewing dysfunction on the Lakers bench.

 

During the 2009-10 season, Brown grew into an even bigger role, becoming the primary backup for Bryant. Sasha, now making 5 million a year, was looked upon as expendable. Farmar was coming up on the end of his deal and was seeking a starting position. He was open to a change of scenery that allowed for more playing time. As the Lakers repeated, very little thought was given to retaining him. Steve Blake was ultimately signed as his replacement, for the same amount of dollars Farmar would sign with the Nets for, 4 million per. Subsequently, Sasha was traded to the Nets during the 2010-2011 season. The Lakers had lost speed, athleticism, shooting, ball handling,  and trust.  Jordan and Sasha, while flawed, were able to provide quality performances individually over the course of a season. They also were nice complements skill wise to the Fisher – Bryant backcourt. Blake was similar in style to Fisher, a slow it down half court shooter with an inability to get his own shot off the dribble.  Brown struggled as a shooter and with consistency in general. With the departure of Ariza, Radmanovic, Farmar, and Vujacic,  the Lakers lost most of their outside shooting and as a result, lost the spacing which made them practically impossible to defend, during their three year championship run.  The ’11 team finished as a second seed in the west with 57 wins, but they were a shell of themselves. Fans and pundits alike kept waiting for them to “turn on the switch” but it never happened. Their bench no longer provided energy, shooting, skill, and moxie. By the time the Lakers reached the playoffs, their three point shooting had collapsed, their transition game was nonexistent and their inability to close out on shooters became glaring. All things the duo provided. The Mavericks swept the two time champions out of the playoffs and it was a shock around the league. Looking back, however, it was understandable. The Lakers had gutted the core of their bench and given up their youth. Blake and  Brown were never able to replicate the chemistry, skill set, and production of Jordan and Sasha.

The sad truth is the Lakers organization gambled that it could save money by jettisoning key members of its championship bench and keep winning titles. It didn’t happen and the championship window closed quicker than expected. The thought  that a threesome of Bryant, Gasol,and Bynum was enough to keep the good times rolling was logical.  But without its shooters, without its youthful perimeter players, it became easier to crowd the Lakers’stars. The last three seasons have seen the organization trying to recapture the production these players helped provide.Individually Farmar and Vujacic weren’t special, but as a unit they were.The tandem was last seen together in the Euroleague playoffs, starring for Anadolu Efes.

Topics: Jim Buss, Jordan Farmar, Los Angeles Lakers, Mitch Kupchak, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown

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  • Matt Miller

    It is a compelling case. It’s wrong, but it is compelling.
    –LA Sports Hub

  • Fern Rea

    Farmar was a cancer with this attitude and inflated ego and I was happy to see him go.

    Farmar was probably the worse perimeter defender from the PG spot that the Lakershave had over the last 10 years and that is saying something considering
    Fisher, Sessions, Chucky Atkins and Tierre Brown have played the point guard
    position over the last few years. Okay, he was better than Mike Pennberthy, ill
    give him that.