The news generating the most buzz around the NBA this past week has all come from the Los Angeles Lakers and what they might do with 32-year-old power forward, Pau Gasol.
After the Lakers preemptively fired their head coach Mike Brown just a few games into the season, bringing in former New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni to replace him, it was clear this was not the Lakers team everyone was anticipating based on their off-season moves.
They were not clinching games and Kobe Bryant’s 30- and almost 40-point efforts were not leading them to wins. Injuries took an early toll, sidelining their top two point guards inSteve Nash and Steve Blake.
But before all of this, the Lakers were already a formidable force in the Western Conference with a cast of players including the Black Mamba, Andrew Bynum, Gasol and Metta World Peace. With these players, they were a perennial powerhouse and playoff caliber team. But that was not good enough for their existing stars or their front office.
When Dwight Howard made it clear that he wanted out of Orlando last season, the Lakers were one of the first teams on the phone trying to work out a trade that would bring the best center in the game to Los Angeles. Eventually, a trade was worked out, as Bynum was sent to Philadelphia, some of the Lakers players and draft picks went to Orlando while LA received the services of the 26-year-old star big man.
With this move, and the addition of Nash, the Lakers had suddenly vaulted themselves to the top of the Western Conference contenders. Or had they?
Most NBA teams are now roughly 20 games, or a quarter of the way, into the regular season. Though it is early, the playoff picture is already rounding into shape and contenders are being separated from the bottom-feeders and the pretenders.
The Lakers currently sit at 9-11 and are third in the Pacific Division of the Western Conference. If the NBA season were to end today, the Lakers would miss the playoffs and would again be looking at major team alterations.
What they must remember is that they brought Howard to Los Angeles to be the next superstar of this team. If they cannot win, make the playoffs or keep him happy this season, there is a chance he will enter unrestricted free agency and they will again be at a loss.
There have been flashes of what this team could potentially be, specifically in their 122-103 drubbing of the Denver Nuggets back on Nov. 30, as many were able to witness on national television. They were dynamic, they were moving the ball, everyone was involved, they were hustling at both ends of the court and they looked like they were finally having some fun out on the court with each other.
That looked like a Lakers team that could challenge the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs in the West. But then they settled right back into their old ways with back-to-back losses to the Magic and Houston Rockets, neither of which are considered playoff-locks this season.
So where are all the troubles coming from and how can they fix them before they play themselves right out of playoff contention? It begins and ends with the personnel issues the team is faced with and to “right the ship” so to speak, a trade or two may be on the horizon.
The number one problem with coach D’Antoni’s offense and style of basketball is that it is not an ideal offense for Gasol to play in. Some might argue that this does not matter too much and that as long as Kobe is producing, the Lakers will win; however, that has not been the case at all this season.
Bryant would love to do it all by himself, but he simply cannot. Opposing teams are too good at letting Kobe get his points and focusing on shutting everyone else down to still beat the Lakers. They need Gasol to come out of his funk and find his place on the court if they are going to start winning games.
He is a career 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per-game player, but this season he is only averaging just 12.6 points and 8.8 rebounds. That decrease is due to him feeling uncomfortable out on the court, his injury and his coach’s partiality to Howard over him in crunch-time.
It is evident in every phase of the game that Gasol is not the same this season. He and Howard do not co-exist in the paint the way NBA analysts figured they would. However, now his role and importance to the team has been greatly reduced.
So, NBA minds started to think and tried to come up with solutions for the Lakers’ woes. Several scenarios were released in which the Lakers would try to trade Gasol, and his bulky contract that has $19 million left for the next two seasons, for more of a stretch power forward who could give them an inside, outside threat to loosen the defense on Howard and Bryant.
Once these ideas got out and became rumors of an impending Lakers move, they spread around the league like wildfire to every team that might be in need of a 7-foot big man who can still play at an All-Star level when healthy. Several teams came calling and at least two known offers have been posed to the Lakers.
The Toronto Raptors’ offer that we know of included at least sharp-shooting power forward Andrea Bargnani, veteran point guard Jose Calderon and fellow veteran Linas Kleiza. I am not exactly sure why the Lakers shot this offer down so quickly.
Bargnani would probably fit very well into D’Antoni’s system and Calderon would provide them the point guard they are in dire need of until Nash’s return. Denying this offer makes me think the Lakers are looking for a king’s ransom in return for Gasol.
After all, they would have received the pieces they needed, plus salary cap relief for moves next off-season (they are hoping to re-sign Howard to a max-contract before he elects to go to unrestricted free agency).
The second known offer to have been put on the table for the Lakers came from the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that has been seeking Gasol’s services for quite a while. The T-Wolves offer was centered on the former No. 2 overall pick power forward Derrick Williams and center Nikola Pekovic.
If they are serious about pairing Gasol with their two youngsters, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, they will definitely have to sweeten the deal. As is, I understand why the Lakers did not like this offer; it is not enough of a return for a player like Pau Gasol.
I do still believe that if the right team, with the right offer put it out there for the Lakers, they would move Gasol. A team cannot just sit back and watch one of its stars become obsolete as the team moves in a different direction.
Financially, the Lakers are not getting their money’s worth out of Gasol and this might be the perfect opportunity for the Lakers to get younger and start building for next year’s team. They hope Howard is their future centerpiece and now is the perfect time to start assembling his supporting cast.
I think the Lakers should initiate talks with other teams in an effort to sell high on Gasol while he still has considerable value. This could set the Lakers up for a bright future and put to rest all the consternation surrounding this team in the present.