May 19, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) guards Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) in the second half of game four in the Western Conference semi finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Thunder won 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Pau seems ticketed for Atlanta, Minneapolis or Houston. He's still really good, which is why he's got to go.
The Lakers' offseason has so far been memorable for the preposterous, though understandable, statements issued by the front office. First, on June 19, prince regent Jim Buss said he didn't want to trade Pau Gasol and warned fans not to expect it. Then last week GM Mitch Kupchak opined that if the Lakers' roster is kept substantially intact, he doesn't see why they can't be in the hunt for a title next year. No one believes either of these things. The latter flies in the face of two straight seasons' worth of evidence - two seasons in which the Lakers didn't sniff the conference finals, let alone another title. The former is discredited by a report over the weekend that the Lakers have already offered Pau to the Atlanta Hawks (the team that originally drafted him, btw) for Josh Smith and "another major piece." The Hawks rejected the opening bid like Smith swatting a floater, but those talks aren't dead. Pau's the key to any meaningful improvement the Lakers might make this offseason and the whole world knows it. He'll get dangled in front of every team that might offer solutions to some of the Lakers' many needs.
Those needs haven't changed in two years, which explains why the Lake Show hasn't won a title in two years. They require - they still require - the services of a point guard (Ramon Sessions is a free agent, though the Lakers can outbid other teams via Bird rights), someone who can make a three-pointer, and a frontcourt reserve (Jordan Hill is a free agent and attracting much interest). Speed and youth are preferred, and if a trading partner could take on some of the Lakers' deadweight salary, that would be great too. In his noble, very possibly doomed, effort to fill these holes, Kupchak will be hemmed in by the new collective bargaining agreement that limits the Lakers to a $3 million mini-midlevel exception and threatens nut-crushing luxury-tax penalties should they get too loose with the spending. And nobody's taking on the contracts of Metta World Peace or Steve Blake unless they get something sweet along with it. Something like... Pau Gasol.
It's worth taking a moment to assess who exactly Pau is at this moment of his career. Many Laker fans have soured on him to a startling and not quite defensible degree. No question he's declined from his 2009-10 peak, his scoring efficiency in particular. In 2008-09, his first full season as a Laker, he posted a stellar 62 percent True Shooting mark. That fell to 59 percent over the next two seasons before dropping to 55 percent last season. Even without the stats one can see in his play his diminution as an offensive weapon. Rarely do we see his full range of once-devastating post moves. He's become indecisive, visibly uncomfortable in Mike Brown's offensive schemes. In the playoffs he's turned in more straight-up bad performances than one would expect from a guy with his talents. Much of the criticism he's received is justified.
More of it, though, is not. Pau's had to transition into the third option in the Laker offense, which forces him to spend a lot more time on the perimeter. That's not an ideal spot for him, but he's managed it reasonably well. He does good work on the glass, posting strong rebounding numbers even with Andrew Bynum sucking up a lot of caroms. His passing touch and court vision are sharp as ever. And despite an unshakable reputation for "softness" he's been impressively durable. Over the past couple seasons he's led the Lakers in minutes played, covering for a lack of frontcourt depth and Bynum's all too frequent injuries and suspensions. All the while he's been as pleasant a teammate and off-court ambassador as a franchise could hope for.
In other words, Pau still has a ton of value. The Lakers aren't trying to move him because of what he's lost but how much he has left. Aside from Kobe Bryant (untradeable for about eight different reasons) and Bynum (deemed untradeable unless Dwight Howard is the guy coming back) no other Laker has a shred of appeal to other teams. The time for a trade is now: in a year Pau will be older, with one season left on his deal, and nobody's giving anything good for a single-season rental. (Actually the time for a deal was probably a year ago, but whatever.)
Gleaning what we can from colliding trade rumors, Pau's likely to end up in Houston, Minnesota or Atlanta. A Rockets deal would involve point guard Kyle Lowry, Minny would involve Derrick Williams and pieces, and of course there's Atlanta offering Josh Smith. (Speculation has it the other "major piece" Mitch requested from the Hawks is Jeff Teague.) Without knowing specifics it's hard to judge mooted transactions, but Kupchak is thinking along the right lines: youth, speed and no bad contracts.
I'm most tantalized by the idea of adding Smith. He'll be 27 years old when next season starts and would be the most athletic big man the Lakers have had since early-period Shaq. Together he and Bynum could be a fearsome combination, especially at the defensive end. If they subdue their knuckleheadery and play focused, cooperative ball (I know, I know) the Lakers could become a top-five defensive team. Smith's scoring efficiency is subpar but we could expect that to improve as he moves into a tertiary offensive role. His existing deal has only one more year left on it ($13.2 million, not egregious) but better the deal expire too early than late, and the Lakers will hold his Bird rights if they want to extend him. Gravy? He's close to Howard and might persuade D12 to drop his weird insistence that he'll only sign a new deal with Brooklyn.
The Lakers probably won't find a better deal than this, but I get why Mitch went big in his first offer. The free-agent period is just starting, and the worst that happens is Atlanta says no. Odds are the deal will still be there if nothing more spectacular surfaces.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.