When the biggest question about a trade is whether it makes a team the favorite to win their conference, it's pretty safe to say that's a good trade. That seems to be the general reaction to the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies yesterday in exchange for center Kwame Brown, rookie guard Javaris Crittenton, the contract of retired Aaron McKie, the rights to Gasol's brother Marc and two first-round draft picks.
I'm not quite convinced.
In the short term, with center Andrew Bynum sidelined, there's no doubt this deal will make a huge difference for the Lakers. Since Bynum suffered a subluxation of his kneecap Jan. 13 (against the Grizzlies), the Lakers are just 4-5, splitting the first two games of a nine-game road trip that will take them through the All-Star break. In an ultratight Western Conference with little margin for error (just 5 1/2 games separate first and ninth place in the West), Los Angeles ran the risk of missing the postseason--especially if, as has been rumored in the wake of this deal, Bynum's recovery is behind schedule.
For all the talk of him as one of the worst No. 1 overall picks ever, Brown has developed into a solid post defender. (Incidentally, I'm not quite sure why this deal should cement Brown's legacy as a bust. He's now been traded for Caron Butler and Gasol, two All-Stars. Never mind that both deals were considered steals for the team trading Brown away.) The Lakers haven't missed Bynum much on defense; 82games.com reports the team allows 1.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Bynum on the floor, but his real impact comes on offense, where the Lakers are 8.5 points better per 100 possessions.
That will change with Gasol, whose skilled game should fit in well with the triangle offense. He's the best passing big man the Lakers have had since Shaquille O'Neal, and with plenty of shooters around him, he should see his assist average improve from the 3.0 he's posted so far this season. Something like the 4.6 assists he averaged in his career 2005-06 season isn't out of the question. The improvement on offense should easily offset the drop-off on defense the Lakers will experience going from Brown to Gasol in the middle.
Even in the case that Bynum's season is finished, however, the Lakers didn't make this deal thinking only about this year. Ultimately, it will be judged by how Bynum and Gasol coexist on the floor, and that's where I start to have some doubts. My first concern was whether there would be enough possessions to go around for the Lakers, but the numbers aren't as bad as I feared. Here's the projected eventual Lakers lineup with the percentage of possessions they have used while on the floor this season:
Naturally, all five-player combinations must average 100 percent of possessions used. Given that, the Lakers' five is on the high side, but not exceptionally so. There are starting lineups that can sustain that kind of heavy load of their team's possessions if there are non-shooters coming off the bench. The Lakers' reserves aren't exactly bystanders, and backup point guard Jordan Farmar (20.1 percent) actually uses more possessions than Fisher, but Phil Jackson should be able to work this out.
That said, you can see the problem, right? Bynum is currently the fifth option for the Lakers in this lineup, and as he develops, that's not going to be acceptable. Bryant's usage isn't coming down any time soon. Gasol is the most likely candidate, especially if he's sharing time in the block with Bynum, but aren't the Lakers then getting away from the skills that made Gasol so valuable in the first place? What of Lamar Odom, who has a tendency to be passive in the best of circumstances? Will he fade into the background?
There are questions on defense as well. With seven-footers Bynum and Gasol and the 6'10" Odom at small forward, Jackson has the size he favors on defense. However, neither Bynum nor Gasol is particularly adept at defending on the perimeter or stepping out to show and recover against the pick-and-roll. Athletic power forwards in the West like Phoenix's Shawn Marion and Denver's Kenyon Martin, and big men with the ability to shoot from distance like Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Utah's Mehmet Okur could pose problems for the Lakers.
The obvious solution here is to go small, moving Odom back to the power forward position he's been playing most of this season or giving more minutes to reserve Ronny Turiaf. From a basketball standpoint, while that neutralizes the value of adding Gasol, it makes sense. What might be more of an issue is how Bynum or Gasol would react to being benched for these matchups.
Given that they could upgrade from Brown to Gasol without touching the rest of their rotation, this move was one the Lakers almost had to make. Clearly, it makes them more dangerous, and this was a team that was already a very legitimate contender to win the West with a healthy Bynum. Still, I'm not ready to join in the chorus declaring the Lakers the favorites on paper to win the conference. There's still too many questions left to be answered about this deal in my mind.
For the Grizzlies, this trade is all about the future and building a new identity around rookie Mike Conley and second-year forward Rudy Gay. If we look at this deal just in terms of the players and picks Memphis got for Gasol, it looks lopsided on paper. The first-round picks the Grizzlies get from the Lakers figure to be in the 20s, and while Crittenton has shown flashes in limited minutes as a rookie, he's hardly an elite prospect.
To make this deal work, then, Memphis must take advantage of the cap space provided by the ending contracts of Brown and McKie (signed to a new contract specifically to make the numbers work on the deal). The Grizzlies have moved far enough under the cap to be major players this summer, with the option of rolling their flexibility over to the summer of 2009.
I'd expect Memphis GM Chris Wallace to at least try to make a big move this off-season because the Grizzlies will be the only team in a position to be aggressive with cap space. Philadelphia can also get well under the cap, but must worry about re-signing their own restricted free agents (Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams). Ideally, Memphis would be able to add a big man to their core, but that could be difficult. Charlotte's Emeka Okafor is the best fit available, but the Bobcats are likely to match almost any offer. The same is probably true of Atlanta's Josh Smith, who would be an intriguing running mate for Gay at forward.
The Grizzlies might be able to pry restricted free agent Andris Biedrins away from the Warriors, who have to deal with another RFA (Monta Ellis) as well as the potential free agency of Baron Davis. Luol Deng or Ben Gordon, involved in past Gasol rumors, or even Ellis are possibilities if Memphis opts to add another perimeter player. Much less likely is for the Grizzlies to make a run at one of the big-name unrestricted free agents who could be on the market (Gilbert Arenas, Elton Brand, Antawn Jamison).
Memphis has the rest of the year to get a better idea of how good the Conley/Gay core can be, plus they'll add a sure lottery pick to the mix before heading into free agency. This group is still quite young and what's looking like a miss on last year's big free-agent addition (Darko Milicic) hurts, but the Grizzlies were at a point where Gasol no longer fit the team's direction. If you look at this as dealing him for the picks, the prospects and a big-name free agent, suddenly it makes a whole lot more sense.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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