Only in the anticipation his arrival would usher in a Technicolor world of fast break awe and pick and roll wonder were there big hopes and expectations for Ramon Sessions in Los Angeles.
Overstatement, sure, but lack of production at the point guard position was unquestionably a millstone hanging off the neck of L.A.'s offense earlier in the season. In previous ones, too, but then the diminished role of point guards in Phil Jackson's offense mitigated some of the issues. In Mike Brown's more traditional, pick-and-roll system the Lakers badly needed a quicker 1 capable of turning the corner, finishing at the rim, and creating shots for others. Improvement was mandatory if the Lakers were to have any chance of a deep playoff run.
It was in that context -- a solution to a crippling weakness -- Sessions was acquired, hence the high hopes. Nor was there much time for transition. Following the deadline day deal with Cleveland marking his arrival, the Lakers quickly needed Sessions to translate the production he'd shown in more limited roles on lesser teams into games with much more significance. At the same time, his new teammates would need to learn how to play with a ball dominant point guard (something on which only partial progress was ultimately made).
After kicking things off with a bang, arguably raising the bar to unrealistic levels, Sessions cooled off considerably in the playoffs. Like so much else in the 2011-12 season for the Lakers, Sessions provided good moments and bad, and raised a few questions going forward.
Sessions scored 13 seconds into his Lakers career, with a burst of speed that left a palpable buzz in the Staples Center crowd, and it was instantly clear his speed added a dimension the Lakers hadn't seen in a while. His second game with L.A. was significant, when Sessions managed to score 10 points despite missing six of seven shots from the floor because he attacked enough to earn 10 free throws. Before his arrival, it might take three or four games for Lakers PG's to rack up 10 FTA's. In consecutive mid-March games against Dallas and Portland, Sessions hit 13 of 18 shots for 37 points, racked up 20 assists, and eight rebounds. In six games between March 31st and April 7th, Sessions averaged nine dimes per.
Just as important, Sessions, who had posted the best 3-point shooting numbers of his career* in Cleveland this year before the trade, continued punishing teams for ducking under screens and daring him to pull the trigger. He drilled nearly half of his triple attempts with the Lakers.
An injury to his left shoulder slowed Sessions' momentum, in part by limiting his and willingness to go left. A right hand/dribble right dominant player anyway, it was tough for him to keep teams at least a little honest. Teams also started game planning for him and a point guard driven, pick and roll attack, something not generally seen from the Lakers in the 21st century. Sessions' productivity waned as the postseason approached. Only twice in his final nine regular season games did he exceed five assists, and in the last three (meaningful) games of the year he shot a combined 9-of-27 from the floor and averaged barely seven points.
His postseason started well (14/5 on 6-of-11 shooting in Game 1 against Denver) but was for the most part from that point forward a massive disappointment. Overall, in 12 games, Sessions averaged only 9.7 points and 3.7 assists, shot 37.7 percent from the floor, and 16 percent from beyond the arc. His perimeter game totally disappeared, and in response the Thunder/Nuggets (giggle) played about nine feet off every screen and refused to let Sessions beat them with the drive.
By the end of the playoffs, he seemed totally discombobulated, reluctant to shoot and not all that sure where to go with the ball. Sessions joined a fairly well populated group of players who failed in their first postseason runs.
And, of course, Sessions proved, as advertised, a substandard defender. The assumption among those less familiar with his career profile was his youth and quickness would elevate the Lakers on that end of the floor. Instead Sessions struggled consistently with the pick and roll, and just as importantly was weak away from the ball with his help and rotations. At his exit interview, Sessions admitted the learning curve defensively was tough. Playing on bad teams, attention to detail on that side of the floor wasn't a high priority (explaining at least partially why those teams didn't win much). With the Lakers, Sessions was suddenly expected to do all that stuff correctly, and couldn't keep up.
OUTLOOK FOR 2012-13
Sessions holds a player option for next season worth about $4.55 million. Last week, he said he'd like to return, and denied report from a few weeks earlier saying he would not pick up his option and test free agency. Mitch Kupchak said when they acquired Sessions it was with the future in mind, and speaking to the media last week reiterated a desire to keep him around, despite the bad playoffs. Should Sessions pick up the option, he'll be doing the Lakers a favor. They'll get a chance to run him through a camp, coach him up defensively, and then decide during next season if they want to make a long term commitment or send him elsewhere.
Even if he enters free agency, the Lakers will work to keep him and probably will assuming nobody opens the vault on his behalf (and in that regard, the bad postseason helps the Lakers). The investment to get him wasn't insignificant, and Sessions is clearly the most dynamic point guard they've had on board in a while. Perfect, no, but talented for sure, and at 26 can still improve.
The big potential wrinkle comes if the Lakers make a blockbuster deal, almost surely involving either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, acquiring a front line point guard. Obviously that would change the equation.
His regular season performance was worthy of a solid B, despite some inconsistencies. His playoffs was a D. So smush 'em together, and a C seems reasonable.
*The improvement wasn't simply in his percentage, but in adding 3-point shooting to his game, generally. In his first four seasons, Sessions only attempted 71 3's, and only 30 in the two seasons prior to this one. By the time he was traded from Cleveland, he'd already made twice as many shots from beyond the arc (26) as he had in his first four years combined (13).
Previous 2011-12 report cards: