Kevin Pelton did a bang-up job of breaking down the Pau Gasol trade. Do I think this trade makes the Lakers title contenders? Well, I thought they were title contenders before Andrew Bynum went down. Now, they've essentially swapped Kwame Brown for Gasol in their 10-man rotation. So, sure, they're title contenders, even though they have a few things to figure out to make this trade work.
The deal had to be made. The Lakers had gone 4-5 since Bynum got hurt, dropping several rungs from their one-time perch atop the West standings. With 10 quality teams scrambling for the eight postseason slots out West, and with no team establishing itself as a clear frontrunner, the status quo might have left the Lakers out of the playoffs altogether and with a missed opportunity to boot. Then you'd be looking at another summer of Kobe rumors: Does he want to be traded? Will he opt out after next season? It would be as tiresome as another Britney Spears headline.
So how will the trade work on the court? First, as K.P. points out, losing Brown--while a net gain overall--leaves L.A. short on interior defenders, especially considering they won't know how strong Bynum's knee will be when returns to the lineup. Bynum is still the key to the team. If he doesn't return at something close to full strength, the Lakers won't win the West or come anything close to it. Ronny Turiaf becomes more essential in the short term, and I'm not sure he's up to the task of filling Brown's role on defense. Chris Mihm is due back from ankle problems soon but he's not going to remind anyone of Elmore Smith. Mitch Kupchak needs to continue beating the bushes, hoping an interior defender will fall out of one.
Of course, Phoenix has proven that high-powered offensive teams can win without being able to defend the post and the addition of Gasol should improve LA's already-efficient offense. But Pau is going have to learn how to function when the Lakers push the ball up the floor. L.A. has been playing at a fast tempo this season and Gasol wasn't really comfortable when the Grizzlies' new coach, Marc Iavaroni, brought a Phoenix-style approach to Memphis. Gasol is going to be fine sharing the post with Bynum--he works best out on the floor, anyway.
Bynum was averaging just 8.5 shots per game, so Gasol's presence shouldn't affect his production if/when he returns. What happens with Lamar Odom, though? It won't matter until after Bynum gets back, but when he does, that makes Odom a three and that's not a position at which Odom has much had much success.
This is where many of the pundits are missing the boat. Sure, you can write down the five names--Bynum, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Odom, Gasol--and say, "Wow, that's the best starting five in the league." Except it's got to work on the court, too. Odom hasn't played the three-spot primarily since he was with the Clippers, and he barely has at all with the Lakers. When he last played the position full time, he struggled mightily on defense. Odom is going to see a whole different set of matchups on a nightly basis and he's going to have to adapt. If he doesn't, Trevor Ariza's healthy return from a broken foot may become more important to the Lakers than most people realize.
NBA nostalgists shouldn't be digging out those Chamberlain/Russell, Magic/Bird videos just yet. A Celtics/Lakers final is a possibility but the Lakers have a lot to prove before that comes to pass.
As for the Grizzlies...
If the Grizzlies are really doing what they say they are doing--clearing cap space for this summer or next--then I don't really have a problem with the deal from their perspective because it's not likely that they could have accomplished that goal any better with another deal. As I mentioned, Gasol, while still Memphis' best player, wasn't ideally-suited for Iavaroni's system. If you compare where the Grizzlies are going to what's in place in Phoenix, Memphis has its most important piece in place with rookie point guard Mike Conley playing the role of Steve Nash (not to mention the understudy, Kyle Lowry).
Rudy Gay, I suppose, is developing into a reasonable stand-in for Shawn Marion. All they need now to complete a Big Three is a premier big man who can run the floor. (Sure, no problem.) Without Gasol, Memphis is surely a contender to have the most balls in the hopper on lottery night so if they get lucky, Michael Beasley would look mighty nice alongside Conley and Gay. In addition, they'll have plenty of cash to fill in the spots around their new core.
Do they want to spend the cash? The Grizzlies have been on the market for three years now, and even if they are sold, they aren't likely to move to another city because of a lease agreement on the FedEx Forum that would be cost-prohibitive to break. So, in the meantime, the diminishing group of cash-paying Grizzlies fans are left to twist in the wind.
My concern for those fans is that there really is something nefarious going on somewhere in the shadows of Beale Street. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley is losing millions on the franchise. Does a team with a stripped-down payroll look more attractive to potential buyers? Beats me. If it is the case, then how could anyone expect Memphis to be a player in the free-agent market this summer? Meanwhile, Memphis' attendance is near the bottom of the league and continues to shrink with every passing season. Memphis is already a marginal market, so can the franchise really afford to operate with a skeleton crew until some new ownership group emerges from the vortex of a sinking economy? By the time a new ownership group is in place, who would be left to care?
Perhaps even more indicting of the wisdom of the team's management was another transaction. Lost in the shuffle over the weekend was Memphis' trade of Stromile Swift for the Nets' Jason Collins, reportedly to be finalized on Monday. This trade makes no sense. Swift and Collins earn similar paychecks and both have contracts that run through next season. Swift has generally been pretty disappointing as a pro, but at 27 he's in his prime. He can run the floor and is a premier shot blocker, two positive attributes that should fit in with what Memphis is trying to do. Collins is a nice guy, highly articulate and intelligent and always acquiesces to the wishes of his coaches. He's just not much of a player. In fact, he's one of the worst in the league, a guy whose usage rate (-13.2 percent of league average) is non-existent yet he still manages to fashion an efficiency ratio 3.5 percent below the league standard.
Other than the denizens of Madison Square Garden, I can't think of a fan nation more in need of sympathy than the Grizzlies' faithful. Is it really possible Memphis is only one season removed from three straight playoff appearances? Seems like a really long time ago. Where have you gone, Hubie Brown?
Where was Bulls general manager John Paxson in this scenario? Of all the other teams that didn't get Gasol, it is perhaps most distressing for fans of the Bulls. The addition of Gasol could have saved a season that has spiraled out of control and shows no signs of getting better.
Unfortunately, Paxson probably didn't have the chips to get the deal done. The Bulls don't really have any significant expiring contracts to unload and that is apparently what the Grizzlies coveted. While Joakim Noah or Tyrus Thomas would be attractive to Memphis, for any trade to work under the cap, Chicago would have probably had to include Thomas AND Noah. They would have also had to convince Chris Wallace to take someone like Joe Smith plus a roster filler to get the dollars in order. The Bulls do not currently have a trade exception available. The only future first-round draft choices they hold are their own. If they trade those and end up losing disgruntled Luol Deng and Ben Gordon as restricted free agents, where does that leave the franchise?
I don't know if Chicago was in on any Gasol discussions, but it's doubtful, given what Memphis was trying to accomplish, that the Bulls could have beaten L.A.'s offer.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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