Wednesday, February 29, 2012

State of Laker Nation: Why the Rush to Trade Pau?

There's a lot of elements to the wave of Pau Gasol trade rumors, and it's taken me a long time to sift through what's sensible versus illogical. I understand that the press perhaps over-reports it because it's a very sexy story. You have one of the best 5 big men in the game potentially going to another team and changing the face of the league. In fact, the December near-trade involving Pau and others for Chris Paul verifies that such a story has legs (This alone, is enough to justify the plethora of trade rumors).

I understand the fan's perspective too, and how they can get swept up in the hysteria of the Lakers being less than title contenders for even a 8 week stretch. A spoiled Laker Nation sorely misses a highlight-reel offense which is so far from the anemic post-up game that this Lakers team employs.

I even understand the logic of it; we have two gigantic trade pieces in Pau and Andrew, and Pau is the more expendable of the two. It's really quite simple. I'm able to wrap my otherwise cluttered and over-priced mind around all these wrinkles in the complicated business of basketball.

What I don't understand is how everyone seems to think that jettisoning a 4-time All-Star and completely remaking the face of a team that's won at least 57 games in every season he's been in LA is the only solution to the Lakers' problems.

I've taken a lot of time to describe in detail the biggest weaknesses of the Lakers right here on MAMBINO, but let's hit the main one real quick. This is an older, slow team that puts a premium on defense and doesn't score points easily. They need to win 84-82 slugfests and forcing the opposing squad to play at their speed. The primary culprits behind the slow motion Lakers are new coach Mike Brown and his system, but more obviously by the lack of points, the well-documented lack of a true, pace-pushing point guard on the roster.

Just to better illustrate how not having a true point guard on the squad affects its play, just watch the Phoenix Suns for one game. Steve Nash, still an All-League point guard at age 38, controls their offense completely, including where every single man receives the ball. Watch Marcin Gortat. Gortat scores plenty (nearly 15 a game), but the key is where he gets the ball. If you'll look closely, Gortat gets the ball after he's already rolling to the rim, or so far under it that even Kwame Brown holding a cake in one hand couldn't mess up a lay-in. My point is, that by the time that Gortat scores, half the work is already done for him. The party's set-up, and all Marcin has to do is the keg-stand.

The Lakers don't have anyone on the roster that can replicate Steve Nash's Stockon-esque playmaking skills, nor do they have a poor man's version of him. Or even, a destitute man's version. They do have a desecrated corpse's version of him in Steve Blakers, but as you can tell, this is having no positive effect on the Lakers' offense.

The trade chatter, for the most part, is moving Pau Gasol for a point guard, with names such as Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams and even hated Celtic Rajon Rondo. All these trades make sense, in theory. The Lakers' other sizeable weakness is the lack of talent depth. After the triumvirate of Bynum, Kobe and Pau, the names drop off considerably. In the conversation for fourth best Laker is Matt Barnes, Metta World Peace, Troy Murphy and rookie Andrew Goudelock. Writing that sentence just made me want to drink my own pee out of spite. Wow.

With the trade for a guard that can set up scorers in their most efficient spots, this second and glaring problem gets solved to a certain degree. Part of the reason why the supporting cast of the Lakers plays like the supporting cast of RENT is that none of those guys are able to create their own offense (although I find this criticism a little hollow; they're not called role players because their role is to be complete NBA professionals). However, with a skilled point guard, each bit player will be much better equipped to score easy buckets.

Even with all of this - trading Pau Gasol is not the answer. And here's why:

Why are they subtracting one of Lakers two biggest advantages to address another problem?

First and foremost, the Lakers' biggest advantage is that they have the winningest superstar in the game on their team. Kobe robs victories from other teams more than The Big Bang Theory robs ratings from other shows that are actually funny.

But the other advantage? The Lakers have won 2 titles because they were just bigger than everyone else. You know how the Lakers won Game 7 against the Celtics two years ago? By outrebounding Boston by 13, in spite of shooting 32% from the field. LA has consistently won over the past 5 years because between Lamar, Pau and Andrew, no team could contain them on the defensive or offensive end. It's a sheer physical argument. The Lakers are bigger than everyone else, so they win games.

Even with the pointless subtraction of Lamar Odom (stay tuned to MAMBINO - we've got a massive rant coming up), the Lakers have won a majority of their contests this year because, in part that Kobe has rebuilt his leg with a procedure that will be league-illegal in 5 years T-800 parts, but also because the Lakers have two 7-footers in their line-up that can make plays without a point guard.

The analogy I've most often been using is that the Lakers right now are like a BMW coupe, but not one that's running to its full capability. The car just isn't performing to capacity, not getting the acceleration you want and quite frankly, doesn't give you the same joyous experience that you're used to from such a premium automobile.

You know that something about the car is on the fritz, but you're aware that behind that hood is where the real money is. That v-8 engine is the most valuable facet of your car. Without that engine, the advantage of owning that automobile significantly goes down. The driving experience is what helps makes that car so valuable.

So now, if you're having problems with the car, do you remove one of its best features? Would you just tell your mechanic to take out the entire engine and try something different? Remove it completely and start over? Or would you try something...sensible, like checking the tires or changing the oil? Why try remaking the car entirely when you know full well that's why it's worth anything in the first place? Wouldn't trying a more simple, cosmetic change be what you try first before you take apart the damn engine?

Pau, combined with Andrew, is the engine of this Lakers team. Those two monsters in the paint, along with Kobe, is the reason why this team stands at 6 games over .500 despite zero practice time with a new coaching staff, the turmoil of a large roster turnover and no point guard play.

The Lakers don't need to trade Pau to get adequate pieces to improve the offense

Let's say that on a scale from 1 to 10, the Lakers have scored a generous 2 on point guard play this year, provided to us by Derek Fisher, Steve Blakers and scoring rookie Andrew Goudelock. I don't think there's a single Laker fan or NBA observer that would disagree with this.

Now imagine just how good the team would be if we magically replaced one of our cadavers in gold with someone who could score a very modest 5 on a 1 to 10 scale. Just a 5, nothing more, nothing less. Would that win the Lakers an extra 3 games, maybe? As many as say, 5 or 6? If that happens, LA has roughly between 23 and 26 wins. They'd be one of the best teams in the league.

Right now, the speculation is that the Lakers want to trade Pau Gasol for a guy like Rondo, Nash or Lowry, each of which would register between a 8 and 10 on the scale I just described. However, that'd take away one of LA's largest strengths, but filling, almost past the brim, their biggest weakness. Arguing the advantages of that team is pointless, seeing as the variables there are too large to forecast how good that team would be (let's put it this way, if the Lakers traded Pau for, say, Rajon Rondo straight up, Troy Murphy would be your starting power forward, and Josh McRoberts/Rasheed Wallace would be the backups. That's a bad situation).

Why are the Lakers, or perhaps just the perception of the Lakers, so desperate to ship out what comprises one of their biggest advantages when they could so vastly improve the team with trading for merely a decent point guard rather than one of the best in the league? Specifically, I'd mention guys like Ramon Sessions, Kirk Hinrich or Luke Ridnour. Anyone that can take the rock, push the pace and make some plays for otherwise limited players. I'll get into specifics later, but the Lakers do have the assets to trade for a capable, though unspectacular point guard who could run an offense.

Can we please, for the last time, lay off Pau a little bit?

I detailed this last month in another State of Laker Nation post, but the criticisms of Pau have been way too harsh. Yes, his numbers are still down from this year, and at times he hasn't seemed as aggressive as he's been in years past, but my defenses of him still stand. He continues to get double and triple teamed in the post, all with having the burden of creating his own shot. Trade rumors are still swirling, and the uncertainty of knowing whether or not he's going to be in LA tomorrow, next week or next month is clearly getting to him.

Going back to the Polish Punisher Marcin Gortat, he is averaging nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds a game on 55% shooting with a fantastic point guard hand-feeding him field goals. If Nash put the ball in Gortat's hands more effectively, it'd probably be considered cheating. On the flip side, Pau is averaging 16 and 10 on 49% percent shooting with NO POINT GUARD AT ALL. Think about that. If Pau gets 16 shots a game, how many of those are easy baskets? Maybe 2? Maximum of 5? Most of the time, the guy is working, back to the basket, mostly having to outpower whatever behemoth is in front of him. Is Marcin Gortat better than Pau Gasol? No, not in any universe. But you wouldn't be able to tell by those numbers.

Pau is still the player he always has been, but his circumstances have changed. With a playmaker to take some of the burden off of him, his numbers should slowly creep back up to where they've been in LA, and perhaps every would see the untouchable player he should be.

Can we closely examine the premise of these deals?

I've heard people call for Pau Gasol to be dealt for parts, such as a deal for Luis Scola, Chase Budinger and Goran Dragic. I've heard of a deal involving Gasol being dealt to Minnesota for rookie power forward Derrick Williams, draft picks and other pieces. Are you...serious?

We are in an age where teams are selling off pieces for quarters on the dollar and tanking seasons as a time to acquire top 20 players. The Miami Heat threw away two seasons to be able to sign Bosh and LeBron. The Dallas Mavericks did not re-sign many of the core members of their championship team just so they could make a run at Deron Williams and Dwight Howard this summer. Last year, the Knicks traded away everyone just to get Carmelo Anthony.

Teams do anything to acquire a top 20 player. That's what the book reads - you do anything to get that core together. The Lakers have that. It took them three years to get together Andrew, Pau and Kobe. And now there are potential trades in the rumor mill regarding second tier, fringe, never-All-Stars in Scola, Dragic and a rebuilding piece in Derrick Williams? And more importantly, writers and critics are endorsing these trades?

Pau is one of the best players in the entire world. Every night I hear Mike Breen, JVG, Marv Albert and Reggie Miller say it on national television. He is a top-20 player and the most skilled post scorer in the league. And also -- he wants to stay! We're in a league where the big stars are asking to be traded away from the teams that drafted them - teams that haven't won a title or have had even half the success the Lakers have had with Pau. So now, you have a guy that wants to stay, is a building block for one of the Lakers biggest offensive and defensive advantages, and more than likely, won't fetch equal value. The lack of recognition Pau is getting for his value is maddening. Why would we trade away this guy for anyone that wasn't another superstar?

So what options do the Lakers have? And why are they waiting so long?

The Lakers are waiting to see if they still have a chance at acquiring Dwight Howard. If there is a way to get him (without giving up both Bynum and Pau) and sign him long term, then a frustrating 30 games of basketball will be worth it (how silly is that? Lakers fans are upset because of 2 months of poor shooting). Once Howard's situation in Orlando is settled, the Lakers will spring into action. So what do the Lakers have to offer, besides Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, to improve their team?

As I see it, we primary trade chips that the Lakers have besides Pau and Andrew are...

Two 2012 first round draft picks: Their own and Dallas'. These picks will be anywhere from 18-25 in a loaded draft.

A friend of the blog (The King, whose MAMBINO posting debut is coming tomorrow) asked me a couple days ago what type of impact players can you get with non-lottery picks. Let's look at the last two strong drafts, 2008 and 2009.

2008: Robin Lopez, Roy Hibbert, JaVale McGee, JJ Hickson, Courtney Lee, Ryan Anderson, Serge Ibaka, Darrell Arthur, George Hill, Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan

2009: Ty Lawson, Austin Daye, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Eric Maynor, Darren Collison, Omri Casspi, Roddy Beaubois, Toney Douglas, Taj Gibson, DaJuan Blair, Jonas Jerebko, Marcus Thornton, Chase Budinger and Jodie Meeks.

While two first round picks from two top Western Conference teams might not seem appetizing, they're both actually really solid trade chips. With even those late first round picks, as you can see, in a good draft, a litany of talent is still available.

$8.9 million dollar trade exception: This doesn't seem like much of an asset, but the upside would be to be able to take another team's bad contract without giving up anything besides a 2nd round draft pick. If a good player is making under $8.9 million, the odds are that a team is going to want to keep him. So bad contracts for overpaid players like Josh Childress' ($20 million over 3 years), Jason Richardson's ($19 million over 3 years) and Amir Johnson ($19 million over 3 years) could be absorbed as a carrot to deal guys like Steve Nash, Jameer Nelson or Jose Calderon.

Andrew Goudelock: The 2011 2nd round pick might not be a household name yet, but his play this year has been nothing short of stunning. In only 11 minutes a game, he's averaging 5 points on 38% 3 point shooting. Though he's more like a JJ Barea type of energy scorer, rather than a traditional point, he's been named "Mini-Mamba" by the big guy himself for his fearlessness and scoring aptitude. When Kobe gives those kind of props to a rook, there's some sort of cred to his being a legit NBA prospect.

I could be completely wrong. Maybe the argument here is that this Lakers squad, and more importantly its supporting cast, is so far beyond help that a complete make-over is necessary. Maybe guys like Troy Murphy, Steve Blakers and Andrew Goudelock can only become championship-worthy players with a point as strong as Nash, Deron or Rondo. Maybe plugging in a fair to good point guard to run the offense isn't enough to propel the Lakers past the Thunder, Bulls or Heat. I know that this is team basketball, not a fantasy NBA team. You can't just throw a guy into the mix midstream and predict that he'll make the team better because "he fits in on paper". But there has to be a way to improve this team's most glaring weakness without completely dismantling what's gotten them this far to begin with. Trading one of the best players in the game, especially for guys whose names will be forgotten in 15 years, isn't the answer.

1 comment:

  1. Nice read! I agree for the most part!

    I think Ramon Sessions would be a nice fit.