Pau Gasol: MVP Candidate to Trade Bait in Six Months?
*-Also today: check out Jay Aych's analysis of Sunday's Euroleague Final
So far, the 2011 NBA Playoffs have delivered just about everything one can ask for in the event: competitive games and series, with some unexpected results; superior individual performances and plays; compelling storylines.
In particular, the main overarching storyline which continues to develop is a thorough changing of the guard, as eras of championship contention appear to be ending for the Spurs, the Lakers and possibly the Celtics all at once. As Nate Jones noted on Twitter, this could be the first season since 1998 in which the NBA Finals have not included at least one of Shaq, Duncan or Kobe.
What's shocked me is the stunning swiftness with which it's all transpired. On January 15, around the midway point of the season, the top three teams in the standings were San Antonio (34-6), Boston (30-9) and the Lakers (30-11). The Spurs and Celtics, in particular, were playing beautiful basketball and looked like the clear favorites of their respective conferences, while the two-time defending champions were certainly still lurking dangerously. Now, less than four months later, two of these teams are dead and unceremoniously buried, while the banged-up Celtics need to win Monday night to avoid putting their backs up against the proverbial wall.
That sharp trajectory matches what Pau Gasol experienced this season. Way back in mid-November, when the Lakers started the season 8-0, there was a fledgling narrative building around Gasol as an MVP candidate, after the big man averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists on 55% FG shooting in those eight games. Now, six months later, Gasol is the whipping boy of the basketball world after producing just 13 and 8 on 42% shooting in the Lakers' disappointing playoff run.
While Gasol clearly underperformed this spring, I think that the venom with which he's been targeted by some has been excessive and unfair, in part because every single Lakers rotation player let them down at some point in the playoffs.
Nothing that Pau's done this year negates what he provided as the key second piece who lifted the Lakers over the top to two championships, and it doesn't negate the unquestionably Hall-of-Fame-worthy resume that he's built. He's not soft, and I'm confident he'll come back strong.
All that said - and somewhat amazingly - it's now time for the Los Angeles Lakers to trade Pau Gasol.
I write this while trying to retain as much level-headedness as possible. I try not to overreact to playoff results, and feel like I have a pretty good track record in that regard with the Lakers in this space. The last time the Lakers absorbed such a devastating beating - Game 6 of the 2008 Finals vs. Boston - they were eviscerated (Gasol in particular for being too soft). I wrote that the Lakers could challenge 70 wins in 2008-09 by simply staying the course. (They won 65.)
Now, times have changed, and it's really the circumstances around Gasol which make a trade seem necessary, more than anything the big Spaniard has done himself.
Most notably, it's been the roster management around the Lakers star players which is catching up with them. Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake and Luke Walton are all declining players over 30, each overpaid for at least two more years. (It could have been even worse if Raja Bell had accepted the roster spot which went to Matt Barnes.)
As a result, the Lakers are an old, slow, capped-out team with very few desirable assets. L.A. essentially has only four good players, with a major problem being that only three of these four can be on the floor at any given time, due to the Gasol-Bynum-Odom lineup being untenable for anything other than small stretches.
Kobe Bryant isn't going anywhere, and the Lakers don't have anything else that anyone wants. One player out of the Gasol-Bynum-Odom needs to be traded, ideally to balance the lineup and add youth and athleticism at the point guard and wing positions.
At 23 years old, Andrew Bynum must be retained. Bynum will be either the Lakers center of the future, or the asset who attracts Dwight Howard via trade.
[First, let's note that Dwight has taken umbrage with any suggestions that he wants to leave Orlando, as he's never said that. Still, talk persists that the 2012 free-agent-to-be would like to end up with the Lakers, Knicks or Nets.
There's been some early speculation that it would require Bynum *and* Odom to pry Howard away from Orlando. I believe Bynum plus draft picks would be sufficient, as all the leverage would be held by Howard (who could threaten to sign with the Nets, who should have cap space, for no compensation) and the Lakers (a worst-case scenario of retaining Bynum is not a bad one), as opposed to the Magic, who could end up with nothing.]
Even if the Lakers acquire Howard, they'll likely still need more. The Fisher/Blake combo would make Dwight yearn for the halcyon days of Gilbert Arenas. Also, as Gasol ages, he's going to have more trouble playing the 4 (see: his defense vs. Dirk Nowitzki). I'd prefer to retain the more versatile Odom, who also has a much smaller salary - Gasol can bring back more in return.
The Lakers need to make a move, and have so few options, that it's really something of a process of elimination. The bigger trick would be finding the right trading partner for a Gasol deal. At almost 31 years old with 3 years/$57 million remaining on his contract, Gasol really only appeals to teams on the cusp of true championship contention, and very few of those teams have a need for him, or the right assets to return.
One team which stands out is Denver, with Ray Felton seemingly available, though rising young star Danilo Gallinari could be the sticking point. Felton and Gallinari seems like it might be more than Denver would be willing to give up; Felton and Wilson Chandler (a restricted free agent who would have to be signed-and-traded) might not be enough for L.A.
Of course, a sexier scenario for Lakers fans would involve Chris Paul forcing his way out of New Orleans. If we've learned anything over the last few years, it's that anything is possible, though it would be interesting to say the least if a league-owned team ended up shipping Paul to the Lakers for what would inevitably be less than a full return on the dollar.
After the loss, Jeanie Buss tweeted that Dr. Buss knows how to fix things.
Indeed, Lakers owner Jerry Buss has never been afraid of the bold move, such as trading Shaq to Miami in 2004, which looked disastrous for the first couple years, but is still paying dividends, both directly with Odom and indirectly with Gasol (via Caron Butler via Kwame Brown). I fully expect the old poker player to continue to try to pay it forward and flip his asset anew.
And actually, it's a reminder that the most vital personnel question for the Lakers going forward is at the position of owner. The Lakers have been the dominant NBA franchise of the last 30 years not by destiny or divine right, but because Dr. Jerry Buss has been the greatest owner in league history.
Now 78 years old, Buss said last year that "eighty percent of the basketball decisions are made by [his son] Jimmy." How involved will Jerry Buss be in the upcoming summer? A lot, I'd expect, with several major decisions looming. But changes to the ownership chair are coming sooner rather than later. Will Jimmy Buss be up to the task? Will he be able to share power amicably with sister Jeanie (who runs business operations)? More than anything involving any individual player, these are the vital questions regarding the future of the Los Angeles Lakers.
[Thanks to the indispensable Larry Coon for answering a CBA-related question I had.]
*-Also today: check out Jay Aych's analysis of Sunday's Euroleague Final