Ever since the Lakers faltered in the playoffs after winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, critics have been looking to shake up their roster. That is the nature of analysis that lives in the present and takes a player's most recent performance as their most important one.
The player most often put on the theoretical trade block has been Pau Gasol. There's good reason for that, however.
Gasol, though a main cog in winning those aforementioned titles, quickly became the odd man out when Andrew Bynum developed into a vital contributor. His game became the one that overlapped with Bynum's and, thus, he became expendable.
When the Lakers actually traded Gasol in the Chris Paul deal that was vetoed by David Stern, the writing was on the wall for the big Spaniard. He was no longer the player that should be traded, but the player the Lakers actually did trade. Rumors became reality and even though that deal fell through, the implications remained.
Fast forward to the 2012-13 season and Gasol is once again being mentioned as the player who should be traded when any discussion about fixing the Lakers comes up. Point to the team's sluggish start to the campaign or to any game where Gasol underperforms, and the whispers about who should be dealt get louder and louder.
Why does the team need Gasol when they already have Dwight Howard? What the Lakers really need is a player who better fits with Howard so his game can be maximized. Get the Lakers a stretch power forward who can space the floor, or a better defensive player. Get more shooting and more depth. Get...you get the picture.
These are the things that fans and analysts say. And they say them constantly.
And while there is merit to the concept of trading Gasol, I don't see it as the logical solution for what ails this Laker team. Gasol is simply too valuable to the Lakers and remains a key player to their success. So while other people are ready to dump him, I think the opposite. Here's why...
Contrary to popular belief, Dwight Howard actually thrives playing next to Pau Gasol.
On the season, through 10 games, Dwight Howard is shooting 60.8 percent from the field. He's doing this in his typical fashion of dominating teams inside and converting close to the basket at a fantastic rate. Even though Howard has not shown his typical explosiveness on a play-to-play basis, he's still one of the elite finishers inside.
However, there's a marked difference in Howard's production when he shares the floor with Gasol and when he paired with any other power forward on the Lakers' roster.
In the 266 minutes that Howard has shared the floor with Gasol, his shooting percentage goes from the aforementioned 60.8 percent to 65.9 percent. That five percent bump may seem like a modest boost for a player who's already shooting as well as Howard, but this is not some small number.
Meanwhile, in the 85 minutes that Howard has played while Gasol has been on the bench, L.A.'s new franchise big man struggles to score efficiently. In these situations, Howard's field goal percentage drops to 48.6 percent. Doing simple math tells us that Howard shoots 17.3 percent better from the floor when Gasol is in the game than when he's not.
It's not just Pau's presence on the floor that matters here. Per NBA.com, Gasol has assisted on 11 of Howard's 46 assisted field goals. That's second on the team behind only Kobe Bryant's 13 assists to Howard. These stats only reinforce what our eyes already tell us: Pau Gasol is looking for Howard on many of the Lakers' sets and setting him up for easy baskets.
Some may want to argue that Howard would perform better without Gasol on the team, but visual and statistical evidence tells us otherwise. Gasol is making life easier for Howard, and if the goal is maximizing one of the best players in the game, the Lakers would be best served holding onto Gasol to help ensure it continues.
Every team needs players who are both supremely talented and willing to move the ball on to open teammates. These are the players you win with because they're not only talented enough to compromise a defense with their own offense, but also smart enough to make the right pass that further makes a team more dangerous.
In Pau Gasol, the Lakers have this type of player.
As of November 17, 2012, of power forwards averaging more than 20 minutes a game (basically, starters minutes), Pau Gasol is first in assist rate and fourth in assists per game. If there's a more skilled passing big man in the NBA, I've yet to see him.
As I mentioned earlier, Gasol proves every night how valuable his passing is to Dwight Howard, but he's also great at setting up his other teammates as well. How often have we seen Pau hit Kobe with a perfectly timed pass to set him up for an easy basket? How about for Metta World Peace? Or Jordan Hill? Or any other Laker he shares the court with for significant minutes?
Unquestionably, the answer is "often."
I understand that there are times where Pau needs to be more aggressive. That he needs reminders that he should look for his own shot more often due to how talented a scorer he can be. But the point still remains that Gasol's passing makes the Lakers offense run better and helps his teammates get better shots more often.
The proof is in the numbers. When Gasol is on the bench, the Lakers have an offensive efficiency of 90.6. When Gasol is in the game, that number jumps to 110.5. Of course Pau is not the only player affecting his team's efficiency, but due to the stature he holds on the team and how often he has the ball in his hands, he's certainly a major factor in this discrepancy.
There's no guarantee that any player the Lakers could trade for would have a similar impact to what Gasol is giving them now. Why mess with that?
Over the course of his career,there have been few big men who shoot the ball better than Gasol from mid-range. It's this shooting ability that allows him to space the floor for Howard while opening up driving lanes for Bryant.
Through nine games of the 2012-13 season, Gasol is shooting 41 percent on shots from 16-23 feet. In 2011-12, that number was 43 percent and the year before that he hit 49 percent of those shots. This caliber of shooting has tremendous value to any offense, but especially for the Lakers who have elite talent on the low block and guys who want to penetrate and cut into the paint.
With Gasol able to hit shots from the top of they key and either elbow, Dwight Howard can roam the low block with little fear he's going to be double-teamed by Gasol's man. Furthermore, when Howard is involved in a pick-and-roll, Gasol can be the big man standing in the opposite corner along the baseline waiting for the kick-out pass while simultaneously providing Howard room to dive to the rim.
These same elements of spacing help Kobe and Steve Nash as well. If Nash or Kobe want to penetrate, Pau's presence opens up lanes for them to dash into and threaten the defense. If defenders help off of Gasol, his shooting makes him a threat to score an easy basket while his passing creates opportunities for his teammates should the defense rotate to him quickly.
Plus, Gasol's shooting makes him a versatile pick-and-roll threat as he can not only dive hard to the rim but pop out to the wing after setting a screen. When he does pop out (rather than roll), it forces the defense to rotate to him or risk surrendering a wide-open jumper. When the defense does rotate, Pau can again flash his superb passing skills or put the ball on the ground to create for himself.
Few big men provide the type of floor spacing that Gasol does while also bringing his passing ability to the table. In fact, I'm not sure I can name a single one. So, why trade him?
For all the talk about how good a power forward Gasol is, the fact remains he's playing out of position in that spot. Gasol is, and has been since he came to the Lakers, an elite center whose skill allows him to play on other spots of the floor when asked to.
But Pau is really a center. And while some will argue that's just a reason to trade him (why do the Lakers need two centers?), I see it as the opposite.
When Dwight Howard goes to the bench, who better to play center than Gasol? Nothing against Jordan Hill, but he can't anchor the Lakers' offense from the post, nor can he operate in the pick-and-roll at the same level Gasol can.
Having a center as good as Gasol on the roster who can also do an excellent job at power forward gives the Lakers a tremendous advantage over teams whenever their bench units come into the game. Gasol can thrive against second-unit big men and be the guy the offense runs through whenever they want to run a post-centric option.
This type of positional versatility—especially in a big man—can't be overvalued. Gasol can play next to any other big man on the Laker roster and not suffer next to him. When Howard is in the game, Pau is content to space the floor and get a post up chance once every blue moon. When Hill comes into the game, Gasol can work more from the post while still drifting to the wing if more spacing is needed. The same is true if he were paired with Antawn Jamison.
Basically, the Lakers have two centers of All-Star caliber, and that makes their team so much stronger than it would be if they were to swap Gasol out for a more traditional power forward. Gasol's presence has the ability to maximize the starting and reserve units, simply because he's versatile to play multiple positions and adapt to any role.
Good luck finding that in any player he would be traded for.
In today's NBA the trendy thing is to be smaller and quicker than you're opponent. The Miami Heat won a title this way and since the league is full of copycats, this is the direction a lot of teams are moving in.
But, in reality, there are only so many LeBron Jameses or Kevin Durants in this world. And if you don't have one of those elite tweener forwards that can be the anchor of a small-ball lineup, you're better off having elite size to counter those small lineups and force those coaches to adjust to you.
In Pau Gasol, the Lakers have that size and they should look to take advantage of it in as many ways as possible.
That means running post up plays for him when he's matched up with Kevin Durant. Or running him in high pick-and-rolls if he's being guarded by LeBron James. Gasol is gifted enough on offense to combat small-ball lineups in a variety of ways that can force opposing coaches to decide if their strategy of playing him with a smaller player can really be successful over the course of a single game, much less a playoff series.
Defensively, having a second big like Pau in the lineup can be problematic. The Lakers will have their struggles dealing with quick teams in transition that take advantage of Pau's lack of foot speed. They'll also try to draw him away from the basket in pick-and-rolls, hoping to get a switch where he is forced to guard a smaller player, or just using his lack of foot speed against him when he has to hedge and recover.
But, his size can still be an asset on defense when protecting the rim against dribble penetration and as the second helper in the paint when Howard is defending the pick-and-roll or contesting a shot on the wing through L.A.'s normal defensive rotations. Having a second seven-footer patrolling the paint makes scoring in the paint difficult at all times, and the Lakers are one of the few teams that can deploy such a lineup.
Having this much size is also a killer on both backboards. With Gasol and Howard (or Hill) crashing the glass on both sides of the ball, teams have to deploy extra resources to help rebound, and that has a trickle-down effect the Lakers can take advantage of. Teams can't run offensively and will have trouble getting back on defense if they're consistently sending extra players to the glass to contest the Lakers' size.
And while Dwight and Hill are important, Gasol is the glue between them. He's the one who plays effectively with either one of them and the can adjust his game in any way that's needed to stay on the floor and be that second big man with true size.
There are just too many benefits that come with having so many skilled bigs, and if I were the Lakers I wouldn't give that up.