Talking With: Ronnie Lester, Part II
In the first part of our interview with Lakers Assistant GM Ronnie Lester, we covered the "science" of drafting, what the Lakers planned to do with their picks, and the development of Andrew Bynum, among other topics. In the second installment, we talk a little more draft, some trade rumors, summer league, and whether or not there will be a spot available for me or AK. Not to give anything away...but there isn't.
Brian Kamenetzky: You talked about how scouting isn't an exact science. Who is a guy that you thought would be great that didn't pan out, or a guy that you thought was underrated going into the draft that panned out? Whether you drafted them or not?
Ronnie Lester: That's a tough question. You can go back. I can't name anybody off the top of my head, but if you go back and look at the drafts the last 12, 14 years, you can always find guys that went pretty high in the draft and didn't have really good NBA careers for whatever reasons. Injuries may have played a part. And you can find other guys that were second-round picks who have gone on to have great careers, and play a long time. Cedric Ceballos comes to mind as a second-round pick out of Fullerton back in I think the late '80s, maybe '90, who was a mid-second-round pick that went on to have a great career. Guys like that. But if you go back and look at the media guide, the draft book, you can find tons of instances, I think, of guys like that.
Andrew Kamenetzky: Or someone like Udonis Haslem, who wasn't even drafted and is now starting for a team competing for a championship. (The interview was conducted last week, before Miami's clinching victory.)
RL: To me, there are a lot of guys who play four years of college and they're pretty good players, but they're not ready to play at the NBA level when they get out of college. They go someplace else, whether it's Europe, the minor leagues, and they keep developing. They keep working on their games and two years down the road, they find themselves on an NBA team. There are a lot of routes to the NBA. Being drafted and being a high pick and coming in with all the fanfare and all of that is one way to make it, but kids go different routes to get to the NBA.
AK: Speaking of different routes, Smush was a guy that was off the radar but ended up having a pretty good season for you last year. Was he someone you had your eye on?
RL: We had him in. He only played one year at Fordham and put his name in the draft. We had him in, and worked him out after his one year of collegiate basketball at Fordham. He was a junior college kid, by the way. He played one year of junior college ball then transferred to Fordham, sat out, and played one year at Fordham. But we had him in after his one year playing at Fordham, and we liked some things about him. He was long for a guard, he was athletic. Didn't shoot the ball real well. We liked him some, but didn't think he was good enough at that point in time to draft, or to be a part of our summer league team. And guys you like a little bit, you keep track of them over the years. I think that year he played with Cleveland, Cleveland may have been the worst team in the league. I think the next year he to Europe and played, then he came back and I think he made Detroit's team. Went there as a free agent. He made that team until January, the cut down date. Then he went to the D-League when they released him, and then he got called up to Phoenix when Nash went down a couple years ago. Two 10-day deals, and they eventually sent him back.
We have a guy who covers the minor leagues for us. One of our scouts (Irving Thomas) covers the CBA and the D-League, and he saw Smush play. Smush played for the Florida team, and put up a couple triple doubles, which is kind of eye-opening for a 6-foot-4 guard. We had a mini-camp that year, and we brought Smush in, and he was the best player in our mini-camp. From the mini-camp we invited him to the summer league, which was last year. He played on the summer league team and played well for us. And we signed him to a two-year deal. But we had known of Smush coming out of Fordham because we had brought him in. But again, he wasn't ready and he went someplace else for two or three years to get better as a player. He came aboard this year, started every game for us, and had, I think, a very good season for us and himself. Averaged double figures, I think, 10 points a game (actually 11.5 ppg). Shot the ball decently at 45%, and I don't know where we'd be without Smush, because we needed someone like him in our backcourt this year. And if we're going to improve from this season, winning 45 games to maybe winning in the 50s, we need another player in our backcourt to help us like Smush did last year.
BK: Is that aspect of the workout season — guys that don't make the team or don't get drafted stay on a team's radar — a lesser known part of the process?
RL: Well, everything you see, you encompass. You write down, you store things. Not only on paper but in the back of your head. Players you like. There are players you like that get drafted by other teams. And they could be cut from those teams for whatever reason. So you know who you like, and if players are available and you think they're good enough to help you, you try to acquire those players or bring them in to take a look at them.
AK: There's a lot of talk about you guys trading up in the draft. Is that something that you're interested in or thinking about?
RL: We'd be interested in trading up, yeah. You hear a lot of teams in the draft, especially lower in the draft, really don't want their picks. So yeah. There are six teams in the first round that have multiple picks. Six teams have two picks, so you kind of target those teams. In a draft like this, which like you said is not a great draft, a lot of teams don't want their one pick, so why would they want two? So you talk to those teams, and I think if we can move up, we'll try to do that. Sure.
BK: When you do that, is it just about getting a better player? Does it also have to do with thinking about roster construction one, two or three years down the road in terms of who you'd have to give up to get a higher pick?
RL: A little bit of that, but normally the most important thing is moving up to get the player you want. That's the most important thing. You worry about other things after that. If you think there's a player there that can help you to become a better team, you move five or six spots to get that player. That's what you want to do, you want to improve your team.
AK: Do you guys have the pieces to do that?
RL: It depends on what a team is asking for. It may not be players involved. It may be picks down the road. And we have picks. We have, I think a lot of picks, especially second-round picks, and potentially some good second-round picks in some of the deals we've made with Charlotte, which could be potentially two pretty good picks. I think we have two of their picks going forward in the next couple years. From [Kareem] Rush and Jumaine Jones. So players don't have to be involved, it could be picks. And those picks in the 30s are pretty valuable picks I think.
BK: How much do things like J.J. Redick's recent DUI affect a player's draft status or what you would think about him?
RL: Honestly, it depends on the player. J.J. Redick, I think, is pretty highly thought of in this draft. A guy that you'd say is probably in the top half of the draft. Would that affect his draft status? I don't think very much.
BK: Because he has a strong track record of "good behavior"?
RL: Yeah. I think that and he's the player that he is. Being the player you are determines some of that, too. If the guy's not a very good player, then you look at it a little bit differently I think. If you liked J.J. Redick before this incident, you're probably still going to like him as a player.
BK: You guys could use a shooter.
RL: (laughs) Everybody could use a shooter.
AK: It seems like as a team, you avoid "character questions." Either in trading for guys, signing guys, it tends not to be something you do. Is it something you prioritize highly?
RL: We delve into the backgrounds of players, especially of players you're interested in. Especially if there have been incidents over the course of their careers. You want to bring in good players but you also want to bring in good people that are going to represent your organization the correct way. So that's part of it. Initially, you evaluate kids on skill and ability to play at this level, and if there are some underlying things like a checkered past, you want to check that out and be comfortable with bringing a kid in here.
AK: Even with established players, outside of Isiah Rider about five years ago, I can't think of the last guy who came in who had a long history of issues.
BK: Kwame would probably be the closest thing.
RL: Like I said, even if you're trading for players, signing free agents, or drafting kids, you want to bring in not only good players that you think can help your team, but you want to bring in good people who are going to represent the organization the right way too. Sure.
BK: Who from the current roster do you anticipate playing this summer?
RL: Andrew Bynum. Von Wafer. Devin Green, who's a restricted free agent, has indicated that he's going to play with us in the summer league. And Ronny Turiaf would have played but he's working out with the French national team. He may play with the French national team this summer, so he's working towards that end, getting himself in the best shape he possibly can be in, and he'll start practicing with those guys. I think they start in early July. So he won't be available for the summer league.
BK: What is the process of filling out the rest of the team? Can you start now, or do you have to wait until after the draft?
RL: You can start now with free agent type players. And we have probably eight players already committed to play with us in summer league. We have two draft choices who will play with us in summer league. You take the three kids, the rookies that we had last year, plus the draft picks is five. We've got commitments from other kids that we've seen over the last year or two, whether they were in the draft last year, whether they were minor league players, European players, all of that.
BK: Can you be specific about who they are?
RL: Yeah. Kasib Powell, who was a small forward, played at Texas Tech. He's gonna play with us in summer league. Nile Murry. He's a two guard who played at TCU. I think he transferred in there from Temple. We have a point guard by the name of Doron Perkins, who played at Santa Clara a year ago. Went over and played in Japan this past year. Nick Horvath, who played at Duke. 6-foot-10 kid. He's gonna play with us. Been playing professionally in Australia. And I think that's it.
BK: So that leaves one spot for one of us.
RL: (Trying hard not to shudder at the notion) Yeah, yeah.
AK: Having had Andrew, Von and Devin on the roster for a year, none of them played a whole lot, especially down the stretch. What specifically are you guys looking to see from them in terms of evaluating their progress when they're on the floor in Long Beach?
RL: Well, like you said, those kids haven't played. And they need to play. That's how you get better, by playing. They've been practicing all year, working hard all year. They're here now. We've got our young kids working out in the mornings now. And I think they've all gotten better. We'll see by the summer league. We'll be able to judge by playing against other teams and other players. If they've gotten better and how much they've gotten better. We think they have. I think they're all good kids. I think they all want to get better. But the summer league just gives you an indication if they've gotten better and how much better they've gotten. But the big thing is, those kids have been here all year, but they haven't really played. Practice is not like playing in a game. And they need to play. And so we're going to play as many games as we can, I think maybe eight or nine games in the summer league. And those guys will play the majority of the minutes. And you just like to see them develop and get better going into training camp.
AK: You run the triangle during summer league. Are you evaluating not only how well they learned it as rookies but also how comfortable they are with being the guys that the new players come to with questions?
RL: Sure. Those guys have been around. They've been practicing in this system for a year. They should know it like the back of their hands, really. And we expect those guys to be our best players. The kids you draft, you expect them to be your best players. But you're not only evaluating them, you're evaluating the young guys that you bring in too. The draft choices. The free agent type players. And we'll invite some of those guys to camp with a chance to compete against the guys we had last year to make our team. We're probably going to have three or four spots available, I would think. And those spots are up for grabs, to make our team. To make our roster. Devin Green is a restricted free agent, who we like. We have Von Wafer under contract. Ronny Turiaf's under contract. Both those contracts aren't guaranteed. If somebody comes in here and beats those guys out, then those guys (that got beat out) are probably looking for jobs. And Von Wafer, just because he played last year, he's not assured of being back next year. None of those guys are, with non-guaranteed deals.
BK: Basically, anybody who doesn't have a guaranteed contract through '06-'07 isn't guaranteed to be on the roster in '06-'07.
RL: No. Those guys will go into training camp with us, because they have contracts. But if we bring in other guys that beat them out, then they're looking for jobs some place else.
BK: Kobe's OK, though? Relatively secure?
RL: I think Kobe's OK.
AK: If he has a good camp, shows up with the right attitude...
BK: The mother of all rumors that always gets thrown around is Kevin Garnett coming here. Or guys like Darius Miles and Carlos Boozer. You hear all these names and it's mostly the media, stirring the pot. How much can, or should, people pay attention to things they hear? How much do you guys pay attention to those sorts of rumors?
RL: Well, some things are silly (laughs). Some things you know can never happen. But speaking of Kevin Garnett, Minnesota really holds all the cards. If they decide that they want to trade him, and it all starts with them, I'm sure 20 of the 30 teams in the league will put a proposal on the table. And we would be one of those teams. You'd be stupid not to, I think. Kevin Garnett is still a big-time player in our league and will be for the next two or three years, I think. And if he's available, we're gonna put something out there. Whether it's good enough or not to get him, I don't know. But when a player like that is available, you've got to do almost anything you can to acquire a player like that. But it all starts with them. He's not on the trading block. They've not called us or anyone else and said, "Kevin Garnett is available." So it all starts with them.
BK: So do you pay attention to the reports? Is that sort of how things work, where information get passed around like that, or is it less clandestine?
RL: Yeah, you hear things like that sometimes and you place a call. But like I said, Minnesota, that team, it would come from their own. It's such a big deal. He's such a high level player that I think the owner would have to decide to move him. Like in our case, with Shaquille. It didn't come from us (in the GMs office). We're not gonna move Shaquille. It comes from someone a lot higher than us, to trade a guy like that. So I think the owner of the team is going to get involved before Garnett's out there on the block.
BK: So you don't sit around waiting for Kevin McHale to call?
BK: The free agent class is, like the draft class, considered pretty thin. The team needs backcourt help and has some holes in other places. Is it hard to resist the temptation to overpay or reach in an offseason where there isn't that much available? How do you balance the need to improve the team now against the need to keep your cap and luxury tax situation under control?
RL: I don't think it's real tough. If there's no players out there that you think can help you that deserve it — if you've got mid-level money and you don't think a player deserves mid-level money — we're probably not going to give it to him. I think Earl Watson was an example last year. We liked Earl Watson. He wanted the mid-level for five years, I think it was, and we weren't willing to do that because of a number of things. We had a window where we wanted to have as much money under the cap in two years, so we want to go out more than two years. But I think in a lot of cases you do have to overpay free agents to get them, especially in some places that are not so desirable to play. I don't think Los Angeles is one of those places. I think if you polled players around the league, this is one of the places they'd like to play and live is in Los Angeles.
AK: Guys might cut their salary requests to come here, as a trade-off.
RL: I don't know about that. (laughs) I don't know about that.
BK: We're still talking about NBA players.
AK: Can you talk about free agents you're interested in?
RL: We won't do that, but we're looking more, as we talked about, in the backcourt than in the frontcourt. If you look at the free agents that are available, I think it's pretty easy to figure out who you'd be interested in. Some of those guys you can't acquire. Some of those free agents are going to sign back with their teams, some of those free agents want more money than you have to give. So that eliminates some guys.
AK: What were your impressions of last season? Did the team meet your expectations? Lower? What are you looking for in terms of next year?
RL: You look at the season and I think you judge it on wins and losses, number one. Winning 45 games I think is OK. I'd say it's a little bit below what, if I had to go into the season and pick the number of games we'd win I'd probably have picked two or three more wins, but that's probably nitpicking a little bit. Making the playoffs and going to the seventh game in the first round was a step in the right direction. I think we have to improve upon that this year, and that's what we're looking to do. To become a better team and to improve upon our team because if you look at the Western Conference, there were some teams that didn't play real well this year that are going to be better next year. The Houstons, the Seattles. Seattle won their division (two years ago), and then they kind of stumbled this past season, but those teams are going to improve too. So you have to continue to improve if you're going to be a playoff team, especially out west. It's tough out here. It really is. We were a seven seed last year, can we be a seven seed next year? Hopefully. You want to improve upon that. But we may be a better team and still only be a seven seed because the other teams are improving around us.
BK: You could have a better record, win 48, 49 games, and still be a seven seed.
RL: Yeah. So you want to improve, it's tough to improve, but we think we have a chance to, with our young players getting better. Possibly signing a free agent to help us in the backcourt. You want to win more games, you want to advance farther than you did in the playoffs this past season. So those are the things you measure it against I think.
AK: But was it nice to at least prove wrong those who said you accomplish what you did this season?
RL: That doesn't really matter. You listen to that stuff, but it goes in one ear and out the other. I think we know our team better than a lot of the so-called experts out there. So we're just trying to improve upon where we finished this year.