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When Pau Gasol arrived in Los Angeles back in 2008 it felt quite literally like the Lakers had robbed a bank and won the lottery at the same time. Their theft of Gasol seems less like an extortion in hindsight, but at the time, the Grizzlies taking back Kwame Brown, rookie Javaris Crittenton and two first-round draft picks was a heist on par with Barry Zito stealing $126 million from the San Fransisco Giants.
Lucky into such a deal took the Lakers from a sterile stasis right back into title contention. Had the NBA, I don’t know, vetoed the Gasol trade or something, there’s a good chance that the Lakers franchise would have changed massively and rapidly. The Lakers started off the 2007-2008 season with a starting five of Derek Fisher, Kobe, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown with Andrew Bynum (who missed the majority of the season after blowing out his knee) and Lamar Odom coming off the bench. Had that been the roster at the end of the season, knowing Kobe, there would have been hell to pay.
Instead, the Lakers struck gold with Gasol. Los Angeles went on a 22-5 run once Gasol put on the Lakers’ purple and gold and ended up making it all the way to the NBA Finals. Had Bynum been healthy, that series may have been the start of yet another Laker three-peat, but Los Angeles had to settle for two straight championships in the following years.
Gasol’s seamless transition into the Lakers triangle offense was basketball brilliance, resulting in one of the league’s prettiest offensive units ever. After spending many years with Hall-of-Fame caliber power forwards, Gasol’s skillset may have been the best fit for the triangle that Phil Jackson ever had. His point guard-like passing instincts, ability to play from the low-block or the high post and effective mid-range jumper made him the perfect complement not only for Kobe Bryant but also the young and developing Andrew Bynum.
Over the years it’s been impressive to watch Gasol further the growth of Bynum. This year the two have flashed better synergy than ever and Gasol’s passing ability has even infected Bynum a bit. The high-low combination of Gasol and Bynum is easily the best in the league and even with Lamar Odom gone, the Lakers still have one of the best personnel advantages in the NBA (Wade-LeBron is the only one I think comes close).
Because of an extremely common misnomer that Gasol is a fragile or soft player, his reputation has a Laker has always been unfairly sullied. Without Gasol, the Lakers wouldn’t have sniffed the NBA Finals, Bryant would have been as close as ever to leaving town and there’s good chance Andrew Bynum’s development would have been slowed. Admittedly, Gasol has been out-toughed and outplayed in the post-season during his time as a Laker but who haven’t Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki done that too? Let’s not downplay Gasol’s accomplishments and talent level just because he was outplayed by three of the greatest power forwards ever.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s column…
Trading Gasol isn’t about shipping out a veteran with deteriorating skills. It isn’t about getting rid of him because sometimes it doesn’t seem like he’s giving it his all. It’s not about punishing Pau for not coming through during the playoffs last season. Gasol remains one of the best big men in the league. He currently boasts a 21.11 PER and is averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds a game. Not bad for someone with the third highest usage rate on the Lakers.
Trading Gasol is necessary because it’s simply no longer feasible for the Lakers to have a roster with three players taking up over 100% of their cap space. Next season Los Angeles will be in the luxury tax with Kobe, Bynum and Gasol’s contracts alone with nine more roster spots to fill. And when two of those players are over 30 and when one of those two players is Kobe Bryant, the only option left seems to be dealing Gasol.
The Lakers would be in a much better position today had they not foolishly decided to deal Lamar Odom for a trade exception and a mediocre first round pick. Odom would have been an excellent trade asset had the Lakers taken their time and explored all of their options. His versatility and relatively cheap contract would have netted the Lakers at least one or two nice pieces. Even then, though, the Lakers would still be stuck with a salary cap nightmare with their trio of Bryant, Bynum and Gasol.
Gasol still holds tremendous trade value, especially for a team one piece away from title contention. He’s 31-years old and has a pretty hefty salary over the next two seasons but if you put him in the starting power forward/center spot for Philadelphia or Denver or even Houston he makes them much better teams, especially in the playoffs.
Any deal for Gasol must bring back two of these three things for the Lakers: 1) A significant upgrade at the point guard position, 2) At least two young pieces, 3) Significant cap relief for next season.
The proposed Chris Paul deal would have only done one of those things but in his case I think the trade off would have been worth it. Now that he’s off the market, unless the Nets are willing to part with Deron Williams, it’s hard to see any point guard being worth a one-for-one swap with Gasol.
As intriguing as acquiring Kyle Lowry would be, taking back Luis Scola seems to be necessary for any deal for Lowry to happen and that’s a bad idea. Scola’s contract is worth $30 million over the next three seasons, which means he’s on the books for one year longer than Gasol, he’s 31 years old and he’s got just a 14.16 PER at the moment. Lowry is so good, one of my favorite guards in the league, but taking back Scola creates similar financial problems that Gasol does and he’s not even close to being as productive.
The only other point guard that’s been mentioned in trade rumors this season that I think is worth dealing Gasol for is Rajon Rondo, and that appears to be the best pairing for a trade. In a deal with Boston the Lakers could get back Rondo and Brandon Bass as well as Greg Stiemsma as a cap filler. With Rondo on one of the best deals in the league ($36 million over the next three years) and Bass with a cheap $4 million player option for next season the Lakers would be cutting back on salary, getting one of the best point guards in the league and a serviceable power forward that they could keep around for next season or go in a different direction in the off-season (with Rondo in town they could have a shot at Kevin Garnett as a free agent).
Boston would probably ask for Steve Blake in any Rondo deal, which is fine. That would give them a Blake/Allen/Pierce/Garnett/Gasol starting five to make one last run with. After the season Boston can lose Allen and Garnett to free agency and if they decide to rebuild, Gasol and Pierce will be nice trade chips around the draft or trade deadline next season.
The Lakers would have a starting five of Rondo/Kobe/World Peace/Bass/Bynum and they’d still have a chance to go after a Michael Beasley or Ramon Sessions to help fill out the rotation. It’s not quite Chris Paul or Deron Williams but it’s the closest thing to it and with Mike Brown as the coach and Andrew Bynum on the backline, Rajon Rondo’s defense would be an incredible upgrade over what the Lakers currently have. And with Rondo’s play-making ability the Lakers would be sure to find more easy buckets than they currently have, not to mention Rondo is a capable scorer on the drive. A stern talking to from Kobe, the realization that there aren’t many spot-up shooters on the Lakers to feed and a bit of resent that he was traded may be the wake-up call Rondo needs to start being more aggressive as a scorer.
Trading for Rondo would also make Los Angeles more attractive to Dwight Howard (recent reports say playing with a star point guard is a must) and assuming Orlando lowers their asking price, a Bynum for Howard swap would still be possible.
Seeing Pau go will be tough for the Lakers – he delivered for that franchise when they were in desperate need of a wingman for Kobe. But it’s simply impossible for the Lakers to grow as a team from this point on because of the huge contracts they have their stars signed to. Unless the Lakers can turn Gasol into younger assets and a star point guard, their future looks bleak. Saying goodbye to Gasol will signify the end of a fruitful era but it will also open up a door for a new future.
I don’t know what the future holds but I know it holds the future.