In the wake of the Los Angeles Lakers’ ouster from the playoffs, fans of all allegiances are calling for the Lakers to shake up their roster if they want to compete for a title any time soon. Naturally, the first name to be mentioned is Pau Gasol. As important as Gasol was for this organization in bringing two titles to LA, he has struggled mightily in the past two postseasons (13.1 points per game on 42.0% shooting and 7.8 boards in 2010-2011 and 12.5 points on 43.4% shooting this year). The Lakers are a team that desperately needs multiple consistent contributors to add depth to a roster than saw their bench score a meager five points in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. So if the Lakers choose to deal Gasol, where might he go and what might a potential deal look like? Here are six teams that would most likely entertain the thought of adding Pau for the 2012-2013 campaign, in order of least to most likely:
6. NEW YORK KNICKS
How it could happen: The question really becomes: how desperate are the Lakers for change? If down the road they are in fact reeling after being ousted in the second round, losing GM Mitch Kupchak, and looking like a team without a plan, the New York Knicks may sneak into this conversation. Why? Two words: Amare Stoudemire. Again, this is highly unlikely, but New York may, in Stoudemire, be able to offer a star who could use a change of scenery to resurrect his career as much as Gasol does. Rather than adding more depth to their bench, the Knicks could potentially send star power in return, something that few other teams can offer. The risks are obvious here, but gambling that Amare may bounce back to his 2010-2011 levels (25.3 points per game and 8.1 rebounds) after a rollercoaster 2011-2012 season might be worth it.
The trade: New York receives Pau Gasol and Josh McRoberts
Los Angeles receives Amare Stoudemire
Trade analysis: Los Angeles is not going to pull the trigger on this deal without receiving additional depth, salary cap relief, or draft picks from the Knicks. By trading away McRoberts, who had fallen out of favor in LA, the Lakers not only shed a contract, but preserve their amnesty to use on another player. LA would surely have to do some retooling of their offense to incorporate Stoudemire’s skill set but, considering the way Gasol struggled to fit in, that might not be the worst consequence. New York surely has to be thinking about ditching the idea of making a contender out of the Carmelo Anthony-Stoudemire pairing. Gasol certainly knows he is a second option and would not have as difficult a time coexisting within the same offense as Stoudemire seemed to.
5. ORLANDO MAGIC
How it could happen: There is only one person who has the power to make this trade happen: Dwight Howard. If Howard says that he would be open to signing a long-term extension with the Lakers then a Howard for Gasol trade immediately makes sense for both teams. However, the Magic are likely to ask for more than the Lakers are willing to give up, so this trade is still a long shot.
The trade: Orlando receives Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, and Christian Eyenga and future draft considerations
Los Angeles receives Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu
Trade analysis: Unfortunately for the Lakers, they may have to give up Bynum and Gasol to get Howard, something that may not be worth it for the Lakers. Hypothetically, a trade that has Orlando receiving Gasol and Bynum while LA brings in Howard and Turkoglu seems to be just too perfect for Orlando to ever happen. Instead, LA is more likely to offer something more along the lines of the above package for Howard. If Orlando is comfortable giving up Howard for Gasol, cap relief, and future draft picks, then this trade makes sense for both sides. The Lakers would then be able to flip Bynum, who is proving to be a major headache, for players to complement the Bryant-Howard pairing.
4. BOSTON CELTICS
How it could happen: With Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett becoming free agents this summer, Boston may be looking to revamp its roster. Rondo has got to be untouchable, unless an elite PG is coming back, so that leaves Boston with little else to offer. But again, if Los Angeles desires another star to pair with Kobe Bryant before his window slams shut, Boston should be getting a call from Lakers management about the following trade.
The trade: Boston receives Pau Gasol
Los Angeles receives Paul Pierce
Trade analysis: If LA could ever convince the Celtics to give up the face of their franchise, this might be the trade that makes the most sense. Sure, it would be interesting to see how Pierce and Bryant would coexist on the same court, but along with Bynum, they would form quite possibly the third best “Big Three” in the league behind Miami and Oklahoma City. Boston could then attempt to re-sign Allen and/or Garnett, or pursue other free agents to build around Rondo, Gasol, Brandon Bass, and Avery Bradley.
3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
How it could happen: Minnesota figures to be aggressive this summer in an attempt to make the jump from rebuilding team to playoff contender. The Timberwolves were slotted as the eighth seed out West before Ricky Rubio’s injury and in order to guarantee a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they need to improve the roster. Gasol would be a natural fit in Rick Adelman’s offense as a big man who can pass, knock down open jumpers, and create his own offense.
The trade: Minnesota receives Pau Gasol
Los Angeles receives Luke Ridnour, Nikola Pekovic, and Michael Beasley
Trade analysis: In order for this trade to work, Minnesota would first have to re-sign Beasley at approximately $6.4 million. Granted, this gets tricky as Beasley is a restricted free agent and would have to agree to be signed-and-traded to the Lakers. But if the Beasley signs on, this trade could have the desired effect on both teams. Minnesota would get a player Rubio is extremely familiar with who A) would compliment Kevin Love’s game reasonably well and B) would thrive in Rick Adelman’s system. The Lakers, on the other hand, would obviously add some much needed depth. Ridnour could easily compete with Ramon Sessions for the starting spot and, at worst, would be a great back up, thus freeing the team to amnesty Steve Blake. Beasley would add some scoring off the bench that the Lakers desperately need. Pekovic is one of the rising stars in the league who, although he may not have a obviously clear role with the team, has a bright future as a solid contributor. With this trade, the Lakers would address several needs by adding point guard depth and consistency, another scorer, and a big with a high motor who can score and rebound.
2. CHICAGO BULLS
How it could happen: We wrote earlier about how, after the Derrick Rose injury, Chicago needed to seriously look at bringing in another star to compliment Rose. Considering Gasol had been on the team’s radar at the trade deadline, with Rose supposedly advocating for his team to acquire him, Gasol is a natural choice.
The trade: Chicago receives Pau Gasol
Los Angeles receives Carlos Boozer, CJ Watson, and a draft pick (No. 29 this year)
Trade analysis: This is very similar to the rumored trade discussions that happened around the deadline this year. Chicago would do this trade in a heartbeat for obvious reasons, mainly the fact that they could add Gasol without breaking up much of their core group of players. Los Angeles certainly would be a little more hesitant. However, Boozer is a guy who put up 15.0 and 17.5 points a game, respectively, in his two seasons with the Bulls despite the perception he has been a let-down. Watson, likewise, could add offensive fire power off the bench to a Lakers team that had very few contributions on the wing outside of Kobe.
1. HOUSTON ROCKETS
How it could happen: It is well documented that the Rockets have been zealous in their pursuit to add both a star and a big man. With Gasol, a player they have long coveted and almost landed before the start of this season, they could accomplish both tasks. They certainly have plenty of assets to offer the Lakers; it could simply come down to how much they are willing to give up in exchange to bring Gasol to town.
The trade: Houston receives Pau Gasol
Los Angeles receives Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, and two draft picks (No. 14 and 16 this year)
Trade analysis: Houston is even more attractive because they possess two picks in this year’s stacked draft. Not only would this trade provide the Lakers with a satisfactory replacement for Gasol to start at PF and give them an intriguing prospect in Lowry, but they would be able to further add to the roster with these two picks. There will be an abundance of wing players who will still be on the board that could come in an contribute right away. This trade gives the Lakers a great deal of depth while replacing Gasol with Scola, a player who is only one season removed from a campaign in which he averaged 18.3 points and 8.2 rebounds. The Rockets would be ecstatic to add Gasol while holding onto key pieces such as Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Patrick Patterson, Samuel Dalembert, Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, and Chandler Parsons.
Don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but there’s a bit of a formula for success in the NBA. Get superstars on a team, surround them with quality role players, and you’re bound to succeed.
Take a look at the seven teams that most would consider are in the running to play for an NBA championship: the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Bulls, and Celtics. Every single one of them has bona fide superstars, guys that can take over a game at a moment’s notice, guys that can carry them to the Finals. Look even closer and at least five (I say “at least” because it depends on how you judge the Spurs) of those seven have two superstars.
Now, take the Chicago Bulls into consideration. They have one superstar (Derrick Rose) and have surrounded him by the highest-quality role players. Guys like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, and Carlos Boozer are very good players, but they certainly are not superstars. However, this chose team to go against the grain. They chose to build around their one superstar with very good players, play team basketball, get everyone involved, and play nasty defense. It is a formula that is rare in the current NBA, but a noble thought nonetheless.
Sad news is this: it doesn’t work.
The Bulls, now without Rose, are all but taken out of the conversation. They have no shot at winning a title this year. In the blink of an eye, they went from title contenders to a team that many doubt can advance past the second round.
Derrick Rose was the motor that kept this team going. He was the guy that could neutralize any advantage any opposing team had over these Bulls because, simply put, there is no one in the league like him. He is a point guard who creates matchup problems no matter who you put on him. He is always looking for his own shot, but this benefits his teammates as much as a pass-first point guard because the attention he receives from opposing defenses creates quality shots when he does give it up. He was the guy who the Bulls could give the ball to in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Now all of that is gone and there is no one to replace him.
So now, the Bulls are left to pick up the pieces to try to contend without their leader. And you know what? They have a fantastic roster and coach and are sure to give teams headaches. They will still beat the 76ers in the first round, might even beat the Celtics or Hawks in the second, but they sure as hell are not beating the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. When Rose went down, any chance this team had of competing with the Heat, and for a title, was thrown out the window.
Therein lies the problem: Rose was far too important to this team’s success for them to have much of a chance. This year he goes down to an ACL tear and the season is over. Last year, the Heat threw so a wide variety of defensive combinations at him, stunting his game, and none of his teammates could effectively step up. Who knows what’s to come if the Bulls keep on this same course?
That is why the Bulls need to make a move this offseason. They need to lessen Rose’s burden and get someone on their team who can take the pressure off of him.
Just look at the Heat this season. In LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they have two of the ten best players in the league. But they aren’t too reliant on either one; you need not look further than Miami’s 14-1 record when Wade was out of the lineup and James was in as proof. Sure, James is the best player on the planet and he’s not going anywhere, but a team like the Heat can stay afloat without their best player.
Surely, you can cite the Bulls’ 17-8 record without Rose as proof that they can do the same, but not a single sane person reading this is going to argue that the Bulls can still win the title. Not the same for the Heat; if Wade were out for the rest of the playoffs there is no doubt in my mind that the Heat could still contend for a title.
So what are the Bulls to do? It is clear to me that they need an additional superstar that will complement Rose as well as the team itself. A player that will not demand an inordinate amount of shots, but can still take opposing teams’ attention away from Rose. A player that will buy into the defensive intensity that this team prides itself on. A player that can step up when Rose is down or out. A player that has seen his team go through a similar process (although to a lesser extent).
Yes, that is right, the player the Bulls need is none other than Dwight Howard.
The Bulls were rumored to have had internal discussions about dealing for Howard at the trade deadline, but did not pull the trigger for many reasons, including Howard not guaranteeing he would sign an extension. But this injury to Rose absolutely has to change management’s thinking.
Howard could come in, be a secondary scoring option to Rose, and anchor their defense. It would give the Bulls one of the top 3 one-two punches in the league.
After the season, once Howard once again makes it clear to Magic management that he does not intend to sign long-term, Orlando will look to trade their franchise center. The hysteria will begin all over again and the Bulls would be wise to be in the mix. A package of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and draft picks for Howard and Hedo Turkoglu would work mathematically and would certainly give the Magic a competitive offer.
Until the Bulls reassess their situation and understand that their current formula is doomed, Chicago can get used to the disappointment they have felt since they heard about Rose’s injury. But that can all change with one move: a trade for Howard.
5. Rose vs His Body
Well, this matchup has already been decided. The main concern for the Bulls during the post-season was going to be keeping their star player healthy in an effort to maintain their title hopes. Unfortunately for Chicago fans those hopes were all but dashed last night when Rose tore his ACL while driving into the lane. In spite of their recent success without Rose it is highly unlikely that the Bulls will make it far in the absence of their best player.
4. Roy Hibbert vs Glen Davis
Without Dwight Howard the Magic have a distinct size disadvantage in this series and Roy Hibbert will look to exploit that. Both Davis and Hibbert were pretty inefficient offensively last night going a combined 11 for 31, but the discrepancy becomes immediately apparent when you look further into Hibbert’s stat line. The Pacers’ big man grabbed 13 boards and swatted away 9 shots giving Indiana an inside presence that will pay off in this series, even if it did not carry them to victory in the first game.
3. Paul Pierce vs Joe Johnson
If the Hawks want to make it past the surging Celtics they will need Joe Johnson keyed in on both sides of the court. Johnson finished the last 4 games of the season shooting 61.67% and averaging 23.8 points, numbers he will need to continue to put up against the 2nd best defensive team in the league. His task on defense is to impede Paul Pierce, a man who has averaged 21.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 110 career playoff games, not to mention one of the most clutch shooters in the league as evidenced here. Good luck to the both of them
2. Luol Deng vs Andre Iguodala
Both Deng and Iguodala are underrated players who excel on the defensive end and contribute in multiple ways offensively. Iguodala has taken a dip in scoring in favor of a more team-oriented style of play for the Sixers but continues to spread the ball around (5.5 assists per game) crash the boards (6.1 rebounds per game) and pick pockets (1.7 steals per game). Deng, on the other hand, now becomes the Bulls most important offensive player with Rose out for the rest of the playoffs. With Rose attracting most of the defense’s attention Deng contributed 17 points on 8-14 shooting last night, but the game will be completely different with Iguodala focusing all of his efforts on Deng.
1. LeBron James vs Carmelo Anthony
After Game 1 it’s already advantage LeBron. Last night was a perfect example of a worst-case scenario for this matchup. Carmelo couldn’t get his shot going (3-15 from the field) and LeBron was aggressive on offense going 10-14 from the field and 11-14 from the line. Carmelo is going to need to continue shooting an exorbitant amount if the Knicks are going to have a chance against the championship hopeful Heat. He’s already shown he can be an efficient scorer (29.1 points per game over 16 games since 3/26) but LeBron’s DPOY candidacy can and will effectively stop both him and the Knicks.
Now that the playoff field is set, let’s take a look at how teams stack up in their chances to win a title. Below are my rankings of the each team’s chances to win the NBA Championship this postseason:
16. Orlando Magic
With Dwight Howard ruled out for the entire playoffs, this team has to turn to Ryan Andeson, Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, and JJ Redick as their primary scorers. There is absolutely no way this team, without Howard can knock off any team here in a 7-game series. And to be quite honest, I don’t think they would be much higher on the list even if Howard were playing.
15. Utah Jazz
Yes, they made an incredible run to the playoffs. The team should be commended for being able to rebuild and win all at the same time, something very few teams in the past couple years have been able to do. But no, they are not getting out of the first round.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
Despite busting out of the gate at 20-9 the Sixers managed to go a mere 14-21 since then. This team relies on its superior defense, which is 2nd in the league in opponents’ points per game, and team play, with 8 players playing over 24 minutes per game and averaging at least 8 points per game. Unfortunately their defense will only get them so far against a healthy Bulls team or the star-studded Miami Heat. Expect this offense to struggle against the playoff-level intensity their opponents’ defenses are likely to impose.
13. Atlanta Hawks
After a season that saw teams play 66 games in roughly 120 days, depth is going to be big come playoff time. That’s bad news for a team without arguably its best player, Al Horford, and a terrible second unit.
12. New York Knicks
I just don’t see it with this team and I don’t think I ever will. Amare Stoudemire is not the player he once was. JR Smith drives me crazy every time he touches the ball. Carmelo is playing out of his mind right now, but he will come back to Earth sooner rather than later. However, with Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense and Steve Novak and Smith able to knock down threes, they can give any team a run for their money…just not a run at a title.
11. Denver Nuggets
This team will certainly cause its first-round opponent some headaches with its depth and blistering pace of play. Ty Lawson has been playing great all year, Arron Afflalo is firing on all cylinders right now, and Danilo Gallinari is finally healthy again. Although their model of star by committee is unprecedented, letting whoever is the hot hand take over in crunch time, it is also unproven. That and the fact that they give up 101.2 points a game, second-worst in the league, truly hinder their chances at making a deep playoff run.
10. Indiana Pacers
I love this team, absolutely love them. They roll 10 deep and play great team basketball. They don’t lean on any one player too much, so any guy can be their lead scorer any night and even if Danny Granger is cold, they can win. But this team is still a couple years away from being a title contender. They simply do not have that one player who can take over at the ends of games. Every other team ahead of them has what they don’t: a player who will take over in the fourth quarter and carry them to wins. Until they have that superstar, they will continue to simply be a good team, nothing more.
9. LA Lakers
Metta World Peace. It’s all been said, he’s clearly not sane. Fortunately for the Lakers, despite the impressive April World Peace was having, their playoff hopes do not rest on the far from level head of that man. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have plenty other problems, their lack of depth chief among them. Also, their 3-7 record against the five teams above them in the standings (Oklahoma City,San Antonio,Chicago,Miami, andIndiana) is disconcerting. Having said all that, anything is possible with Kobe Bryant leading your team. And don’t forget they haven’t lost any of that length that gave them an advantage over every team they played en route to winning titles in 2009 and 2010.
8. LA Clippers
I know the Clippers haven’t been to the post-season in a long time, but the fact still remains: they have Blake Griffin, and more importantly, Chris Paul. If you’ve already forgotten what Chris Paul did to the Lakers last year in the playoffs please reintroduce yourself. He took the series to 6 games on his own, averaging 22 points, 11.5 assists, and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 47.4% from the three and 54.5% from the field, utilizing his tear drop in the lane to perfection. Just imagine what he will do with another legitimate star and some solid role players (Jordan, Butler, Foye, Young, and Martin). They have a shot at making a deep run, but that inexperience certainly knocks them down on our list.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Everyone is scared to play this team in the playoffs and they should be. They have the most complete roster out of any team here with players who contribute in big ways at every position. On any given night they can kill you with their size (Marc Gasol), their speed (Mike Conley), or their perimeter length (Rudy Gay). If Zach Randolph, their best player from last year’s run, can get back to his old ways, this team is downright scary.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Sure, I am going out on a limb here putting the Mavericks this high. Most likely, they are going to face the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs and more than likely they will be knocked out in the first round. However, there remains a sliver of hope here that I see as greater than any of the teams I have already mentioned. Dirk Nowitzki, as he proved last postseason, has the ability to absolutely dominate a playoff series and that cannot be overlooked. If Dirk can catch fire, do not be surprised if the Mavericks shock the world again and make a run at the finals.
5. Boston Celtics
Everything about this team reads old. Old stars, old school, and, most importantly, old swagger. That’s right, this team has that hop in their step that they did back when they won the title in 2008. Their defense has been great all season long, currently ranking as the third best in the league limiting opponents to 89.6 points per game. But it has been their offensive output lately that has them thinking about a title. Avery Bradley has emerged as a reliable threat, Rondo has been playing out of his mind, KG is showing flashes of his former self, and Paul Pierce still has the ability to take over games. Their biggest issue right now is their rebounding. They currently rank No. 28 in the league in rebound differential at -4.4 a game. This team’s ability to corral crucial defensive boards at the end of games will be instrumental in any run they make.
4. Chicago Bulls
I want to put the Bulls higher on this list (read No. 1), but I just can’t do it until I see more out of Derrick Rose. Yes, I know, the team has played great basketball with Rose out of the lineup. But there is no way this team can compete with the elite in the NBA without their superstar. They cannot possibly expect Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, and Joakim Noah to hold their own over a 7-game series with the Heat. If Rose plays like the MVP he was last season, it is a completely different story. If that were to happen, the Bulls become my favorite to win it all with one of the three players most capable of taking over a game and a stingy defense.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
No, I do not think the blow to James Harden’s head knocks them down on this list at all. I am hopeful that he is going to bounce back just fine from the injury. However, OKC has other issues. Russell Westbrook is playing just poorly enough recently to make us all think that he might not be the best partner to pair with Kevin Durant again. In the month of April, Westbrook is shooting 38% from the floor. In the last five games he is 25-82 (30.5%) from the floor. Not exactly the numbers you want to see from your second option, especially when his shot selection indicates a first option mentality. Having said all of that, the Thunder have maybe the most talented roster top to bottom. They certainly have grown over the past couple years. Something just tells me that they are still a year away from knocking down the next two teams on our list…
2.San Antonio Spurs
It is shocking to me that the ole reliable Spurs have come to the forefront of the Western Conference. Just like every other year, I counted them out at the beginning of the season and said that this would be the year it all fell apart. But thanks to great moves by the front office, this is the deepest team in the playoffs. After an exhausting regular season, that depth may be more important than ever. And don’t you for one minute forget about Tim Duncan. The man is still a force to be reckoned with in the paint. Don’t let his numbers fool you, they are down because he is playing a career low 28.2 minutes a game. Yes, he is getting old, but he gives this team an inside presence that can cause huge matchup problems for lots of teams. And I haven’t even mentioned that Tony Parker is playing like he is 22 again, Manu Ginobili is bouncing back slowly but surely, and they’re second in the league in scoring at 103.5 points a game and first in three-point shooting (39.5%). Be afraid, be very afraid.
1. Miami Heat
I hate to say it, but to me the Heat are the favorites to win it all. You can talk about LeBron James’ inability to close out games all you want (and believe me, that is one of my favorite talking points) but the fact remains that this team simply has the most talent of any in the playoffs. They are certainly far from perfect, as I have my own doubts about their bench. But quite honestly, they are better than they were last year in all aspects and I do not see a team out East that can contend with them in a 7-game series. Try to name one team that can match up with this group. It’s not possible. LeBron James is a matchup nightmare all by himself. The one knock on the guy continues to be his performance when it matters most. I truly hope that storyline never dies, but right now, the odds say this is the year he overcomes that obstacle and claims a ring.