Mar 18, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Ramon Sessions (7) dribbles the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz at the Staples Center. The Jazz defeated the Lakers 103-99. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
Ramon Sessions is the dynamic point guard the Lakers badly needed, but is he enough to make the purple and gold legitimate title contenders?
One struggles to process the phrase Ramon Sessions, Franchise Savior. It's not that Sessions can't play the game of basketball. He's a zippy point guard with penetration and pick-and-roll skills, and given time in the Lakers' offense we can expect him to add sting to the attack. Without anyone quite saying so, however, the Lakers acquired Sessions with a more extravagant, transformative goal in mind. They're hoping his dynamism elevates the purple and gold back into the uppermost tier of NBA teams and so prevents the wastage of what's likely to be one of Kobe Bryant's last great seasons. Sessions is still fairly young (he turns 26 next month) so on the surface his acquisition might seem like a play for the future, but it's not. He's here to salvage the present.
As last week's trade deadline grew near, a strategic dilemma confronted Laker GM Mitch Kupchak. Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol had performed this season like a championship-worthy core, maybe the league's best Big Three outside of Miami. Grumbles about Kobe's shot selection and Pau's occasionally passive demeanor will persist eternally, but somehow the Lakers had carved out a space for themselves in the upper half of the savage Western Conference despite nerve-shredding horribleness from roster slots four through 12. So the Lakers were good.... but if we're being honest, they weren't that good. Lagging well behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat by every objective yardstick of team quality, the Lake Show had the look of a second-round playoff out or possibly a conference finalist if everything broke right. Improvement was mandatory with the clock ticking on Kobe's career. Problem was, Kupchak didn't have much other teams wanted except the very core that was keeping the Lakers afloat.
Hence all the chatter around a possible Gasol trade. Kobe is untouchable, and Bynum's untouchable for everyone except Dwight Howard, which left Gasol as the one Laker who had value on the trade market and whom the Lakers could conceivably live without, especially if he brought back quality plug-ins for multiple positions. When nothing emerged except goofy lowball offers (Derrick Williams? Honey, please), Kupchak did pretty much the only thing he could: he sold off still more of the Lakers' scarce future assets (both their and the Mavericks' 2012 first-round picks) in the hopes of modest improvement around the edges.
Is Sessions enough? Forwards Jordan Hill and Christian Eyenga were also picked up in deadline-day swaps, but both are submerged on the depth chart and unlikely to play roles of significance this season. Sessions is the guy who matters. And yes, Laker fans will notice the difference when he's on the court. Derek Fisher, the man he's replacing, was a fan favorite and organizational totem, permanently and justly anchored in Laker history for his playoff derring-do. At age 37, though, he's more or less ceased to have value as a player. On offense Fish posed no threat to opponents. On D he did little beyond taking the occasional charge. When the Lakers were two-time defending champs they could justify Fish's place in the rotation based on his leadership, relationship with Kobe and similarly squishy considerations. The costs of sentimentality are more difficult to swallow when you're fresh off a sweep in Dallas and fighting to outpace the Clippers in the Pacific. Enough with the mascots, however beloved. Everyone needs to produce if this team's going anywhere.
Sessions will do just that. He's the fastest point guard the Lakers have had since Nick Van Exel. He has solid handles and excellent playmaking instincts. His presence will allow Kobe to play off the ball more. He'll inject much-needed pace into an offense that at times takes eight or nine seconds just to get into a set. He can be extraordinary on the pick-and-roll, a staple of Mike Brown's playbook. He should help fix the Lakers' turnover problems. In a playoff series he'll force the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker to burn energy on defense. When he gets his timing down with Bynum, there will be lobs aplenty to delight customers young and old.
Yes, Sessions is legit and worth what Kupchak paid for him. He is, however, far from a cure-all. Don't be taken in by his 40 percent shooting on threes this year. Sessions isn't a dependable outside option and won't change the Lakers' Lovecraftian long-distance horror show. He's also a middling defender, at best. Compared to the immobile Fish he'll be an upgrade, but he doesn't create a lot of steals. The Laker defense badly needs a disruptive element - they rank dead last in forced turnovers, and they'd have to improve massively just to rank 29th - and Sessions, whatever his many virtues, isn't that.
To get Kobe his sixth ring, the Lakers are still in the position of needing something unexpected to go right. Given the incredible minutes he's been playing, it's hard to picture Kobe himself finding another gear. Pau, I suppose, could rediscover the form that briefly made him an MVP candidate in 2010. Bynum could... nah. Bynum's playing as well as anyone has a right to expect. Ever will there be angst over whether Kobe is letting Drew get enough touches, but the Lakers' Big Three will be there, getting work done. It's the troublesome supporting cast that will determine whether the Lake Show gets past the Spurs and Thunder, to say nothing of whomever emerges from the East.
That doesn't sound promising, does it? But it's happened before, and recently. The 2009 Lakers won four playoff series and a championship in large part because Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza just happened to play the best ball of their lives in April, May and June. Every title-winning team, it seems, has one or two random bros catch fire without warning. You can never count on it to happen. (That's what makes these guys random. If the Lakers already had dependable role players, they'd be chasing the top overall seed.) With the Sessions deal, Kupchak at least put his team in position to steal a championship if an out-of-nowhere hero steps up. The Lakers are still underdogs, in other words, but they're underdogs with a shot.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.