It is a Very Good Time to be a Lakers FanLakers' fans have not had it this good since Shaq was in his prime and in shape--2002, in other words. The Lakers have the best player in the league on their roster, he is still in his prime and if he is not as good as Michael Jordan was he certainly is every bit as driven to succeed; they also have a promising young center who, although currently injured, should be able to return at some point fully healthy and continue to improve. The coup de grace is that the Lakers have just now added a third piece to the puzzle to complement Kobe Bryant's all around brilliance and Andrew Bynum's dynamic inside game: Pau Gasol, a multi-talented former All-Star whose game should blossom while playing under the tutelage of Coach Phil Jackson. Even better, the Lakers did not have to give up Bynum, Lamar Odom or any other key components of the current team's nucleus; they traded Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie (who is retired but whose contract is still owned by the Lakers), the draft rights to Marc Gasol (Pau's brother) and first round draft picks in 2008 and 2010. The Lakers have already issued a statement that explains the details of the deal and it is well worth reading. Of course, fans are less interested in financial matters/salary cap rules and more concerned with something much more basic: how will the addition of Gasol affect the Lakers? Obviously, if you are a Memphis fan, then you are wondering if the Grizzlies got enough value for dealing away the team's best player.
Let's take the Memphis perspective first, because there is less than can be said about it right now. Obviously, the Grizzlies have hit the reset button and are rebuilding from the ground up. To do that in the NBA, you need draft picks, salary cap room and young players. This deal provides all of those things to the Grizzlies. That does not mean that it will work, though; there are too many uncertainties: to name just a few, (1) has Brown peaked or can he still improve, (2) how good will Crittenton become, (3) how good will Marc Gasol be when he comes to the NBA, (4) who will Memphis choose with the newly acquired draft picks? All that can be said at the moment is that this is the right kind of move for Memphis to make, because there was no future for the team the way it was composed prior to this deal. In an odd way, there is a slight similarity between what Memphis is doing now and what the Lakers did with Shaq several years ago; the Grizzlies are getting rid of their best player and taking a short term step backwards with the hope of being better off long term, while the Lakers are shedding some youth in order to make a championship run now. Two obvious differences are that Gasol is not nearly as good now as Shaq was in 2004 and the talent that the Lakers acquired as a result of the Shaq trade (which, after several deals, has crystallized, essentially, as Bynum, Odom and Gasol) should give the Lakers a multiple year window in which to try to win titles, while the Heat narrowly escaped with one championship before the bottom fell out.
The Lakers have struck gold from their perspective because, as I mentioned above, they added an All-Star level player without having to give up assets that have much current value. That means that the team that they put on the floor now is instantly upgraded. No one can say for sure how much the team has been upgraded but I will go out on a limb and say that the difference will prove to be very significant. No one really seems willing to acknowledge just how bad the Lakers were by the end of last season; their roster was depleted by injuries (even the players who returned were out of shape and therefore not close to being 100% effective), Bynum had shown little sign of becoming a significant contributor, their starting point guard belonged in the NBDL and had a horrible attitude--and Bryant carried that team to the playoffs with the biggest post-All Star Break scoring barrage in four decades, culminating in a five game stretch during which he scored 65, 50, 60, 50 and 43 points for an average of 53.6 ppg! He averaged 6.8 rpg in those games, all of which the Lakers won, and shot 91-173 (.526) from the field. What does all of that mean? Simple--Bryant proved that he is unguardable even when he takes the court with players who the opposition can safely disregard. No one player can literally win a game by himself but Bryant is the one player in the league who comes closest to being able to do that because of his ability to impact a game as a scorer, passer, rebounder and defender (LeBron James is the only other player who even comes close to Bryant in this regard; any thoughts of putting Dwyane Wade in this group vanished when he presided over a 15 game losing streak). How much more deadly will Bryant be now that the opposing team has to deal with Gasol (and eventually Bynum as well)? Another important factor to consider is that part of why Michael Jordan was a great closer is that Phil Jackson could strategically rest him while Scottie Pippen and four reserves held down the fort (Jackson even did this in a big Finals comeback victory over Portland). The Lakers can run their offense through Gasol in the post while Bryant gets a little rest at the end of the third quarter.
Gasol can score both on the block and as a faceup player and he is a long player who blocks shots. He has a somewhat deserved reputation for being a little soft but Jackson coached a similar player in Toni Kukoc and got the most out of him--and despite whatever softness Gasol may have he is bigger and stronger than Kukoc and has averaged 8.6 rpg during his career, so he is not afraid to go into the paint. David Robinson was called soft by some (I think that the charge was bogus but that is a story for another day) but he won two rings as the second star to Tim Duncan. Gasol's passing skills will fit in perfectly in the Triangle Offense. In Memphis he was forced to be the top guy but, perhaps like Odom, he may be more temperamentally suited to being the second guy (and Odom may be best suited to be the third or perhaps even the fourth guy, someone who is not expected to put up big numbers every single night).
Keep in mind that if the Lakers had not traded Shaq then they would have lost Kobe because owner Jerry Buss would not have gone into luxury tax territory by paying max dollars for max years to both players. That means that this year's Lakers would likely have had Shaq and little else and would probably be worse that the Heat are now, if that is possible. Yes, Shaq got his one more ring without Kobe but the Lakers have set up the possibility of winning championships with a Kobe-Bynum-Gasol nucleus.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM