What's next for Pau Gasol?
The headline says it all: two teams in win-now mode have to make this trade.
First, let's start with the Lakers, the team with the much more obvious, not to mention possible, title aspirations.
The Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades were supposed to propel the team to 60-win territory. As we know, injuries to Nash, Steve Blake and Pau Gasol have twisted the knife in a team that has already struggled to adapt to various offenses, most recently to the philosophy of Mike D'Antoni.
The defense has been strictly average and the depth, which was questionable to begin with, has been exposed. In an offense that necessitates aggressive point-guard play, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon have failed as the team's mercenary floor generals.
Part of the defensive struggles are linked to the team's turnover issues. While the team ranks 13th in opponents' offensive-rebound percentage, Los Angeles' total rebounds per game ranks second only behind Indiana.
The main problem is not second-chance points for opponents but turnovers.
The team ranks second in turnovers per game and leads the league in worst turnover differential per game (2.9 more turnovers than its opponent on an average night).
Less shot attempts—tied for 25th in the league with 79.2 shots a night—and more shots taken by opponents with 85.2 per game.
When Nash returns, his steady hand at the controls will alleviate the turnover issue. Kobe will have far less pressure to find his shot and force the offense through him. Assists will also rise significantly, while opponents' shots per game—and points per game—should decrease.
Despite the supposed lack of shooters, the team's respectable shooting rates have helped to make up for the disparity in field-goal attempts. The team currently ranks 10th in total field-goal percentage, sixth in three-point percentage and seventh in adjusted field-goal percentage.
Does that necessarily make the team a contender? Of course not.
Minnesota's current teetering position as a fringe playoff team that is not particularly built for the future can be attributed to general manager David Kahn.
While he deserves recognition for drafting Ricky Rubio, convincing Russian playmaker Alexey Shved to come to Minnesota and trading for Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham this past summer, Kahn missed on drafting DeMarcus Cousins (2010) and Stephen Curry (2009), selecting instead Wesley Johnson and Jonny Flynn, respectively.
The what-if game obviously serves no purpose at this time, but we can see the effects of these draft busts, as well as formerly acquired underachievers Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph.
Rick Adelman and Kahn reached out to veterans Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and J.J. Barea to complement the young centerpieces of Rubio and Kevin Love. Nikola Pekovic has also been a pleasant surprise, if not a revelation, over the past season or so, establishing himself as a tenacious yet effective inside scorer and rebounder.
The effect of roster instability over the past few years has been surprisingly generous this season. Despite Minnesota's pedestrian record of 11-9, the team had some winnable games if not the injury bug, which has decimated the roster.
Even setting aside the much-felt absences of Love and Rubio, the time bombs that are Roy's knees detonated disappointingly early, while Barea, Pekovic, Kirilenko and Budinger have also all missed time.
Budinger's injury was particularly unfortunate. He and Alexey Shved had brought fluidity and electricity to the second unit—along with Cunningham and Barea—to make the bench a clear strength in the first few weeks of the season. Josh Howard has not been able to provide a comparable lift to the bench but that shouldn't be a massive surprise.
So where does that leave us?
We have two teams that have been dominant on the boards, middling in ball movement largely due to injuries to point guards and victimized by injuries to key players. They also have limited time windows for slightly different reasons.
The Lakers' starting guard combination of Nash and Bryant only have a couple of seasons left, at least as top-tier guards. Gasol also only has two years left on his contract. The failure to win a championship within the next two seasons will precede a contender drought in the future, especially if Howard leaves the Lakers in free agency.
The Timberwolves, on the other hand, face a more complex situation. The team's owner, Glen Taylor, plans to sell the team within the next three or four seasons. That time frame parallels the most ambitious time span for Adelman to remain as coach before a likely retirement. Kirilenko, the team's most important acquisition of the summer, is only signed to a two-year contract.
While Love and Rubio are 24 and 22, respectively, their only other potential long-term teammates are Shved and Budinger (assuming a return to full health). Derrick Williams, last year's No. 2 overall draft pick, has struggled defending larger opponents and has also had problems in offensive efficiency.
Regardless of what the front office says, Taylor and Adelman are aware of their own time limitations and would like to challenge for a title before they move on.
In light of each team's situation, the Lakers should trade Pau Gasol to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Williams, Pekovic, Barea and a 2014 or 2015 first-round pick.
Upon reading this proposal, many Lakers fans will likely reject such a trade, despite their opinions on Gasol's current run of form. He has not been comfortable in the offense thus far in the season.
While many people assume that he will eventually adjust to his role or the offense will adjust to him, I do not believe that time or Nash will result in a grand return to form for the Spaniard.
While tendinitis has limited Gasol's range of motion and ability to perform, he will primarily operate beyond the low post. Nash should provide him with sufficient open looks—both around the paint and at the top of the key—but Dwight as the primary screener on the Nash-patented pick-and-roll will marginalize Gasol's effectiveness as well as the team's size advantage.
With that said, even without Gasol over the past seven games, the team has maintained its dominance on the boards, averaging 46.6 rebounds per game in his absence.
The bench will also continue to serve as a disadvantage, particularly if the Lakers make the playoffs and face deeper Western threats, namely the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma Thunder.
Even if the Lakers can stay healthy upon the returns of Nash, Blake and Gasol, its lack of consistent bench production will continue to haunt them and likely lead to an early exit in the playoffs.
The additions of Pekovic and Barea would instantly fortify the Lakers bench. Pekovic has been one of the league's most underrated players this season, stabilizing a team crippled by injuries and the slow return to form of Love.
While Pekovic has established himself as a starting-quality center, he would become the best backup center in the league for the Lakers, allowing Jordan Hill to play exclusively at power forward and providing much-needed scoring consistency for the second unit.
While Barea would hardly be the first choice of Lakers fans—dating back to his pivotal role in the Mavericks' sweep of the Lakers in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals—he would be an ideal fit in D'Antoni's offense.
Despite an occasionally erratic shot selection, Barea's ability to provide instant offense off-the-dribble, whether on straight drives or drive-and-kicks, as a lead guard off the bench is only surpassed by the Atlanta Hawks's Lou Williams, Denver Nugget's Andre Miller, Toronto Raptor's Jose Calderon and Detroit Piston's Rodney Stuckey.
Los Angeles would also serve as Derrick Williams' ideal location. He is a native of Los Angeles county, but much more importantly, his defensive deficiencies would have no better cover than that provided by the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard.
Williams would also benefit from playing with Nash—look at what Nash did with Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye. Since Williams was at his best last year when he shared the court with Rubio, there is no reason why Nash would not elevate Williams' game.
Adelman never took to Williams, who has primarily played at power forward to this point in his career. While he struggled with major consistency issues in his rookie season, playing as a stretch-4 would be a much more natural fit for him than for Gasol.
If Williams could stretch the floor like Antawn Jamison and serve as a reliable finisher on the break, he would either compete for minutes behind Metta World Peace at small forward or start over Jamison at power forward.
Williams would be the wild card of this trade, but his ability to adjust and grow in D'Antoni's offense would determine whether or not the players for Gasol represent more than just an upgrade in depth and young talent. (Pekovic, Barea and Williams are 26, 28, and 21, respectively, while Gasol is 32.)
If Williams could shoot at a 45 percent clip and serve as a much-needed running mate for Nash and Bryant in the open court, he could do something that he did not do under Adelman's watch—firmly establish himself in a rotation.
D'Antoni's system, as well as the presence of Howard and Nash, would give the second-year player the best possible chance for success in the league.
For the Timberwolves, Gasol would immediately slide in as the starting center alongside Kirilenko and Love to create one of the league's premier frontcourts.
While Pekovic has played well as the starter, Gasol's superior passing ability would facilitate the Euro-style ball movement that Adelman hopes to establish upon Rubio's return. The team's assist rate would soar with Gasol. He would also supply the shot-blocking threat that Pekovic has struggled to provide.
Since Rubio's arrival—and as alluded to by Love in recent comments to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski —Kahn's top priority as GM has been appeasing Rubio. Besides likely saving the team's premium five-year extension offer for Rubio, Kahn's known past attempts to acquire Gasol have supposedly been based on Rubio's desire to team up with his compatriot in the NBA circuit.
While Gasol may have lost a half-step from a couple of seasons ago, a return to low post and pick-and-roll opportunities—as well as his familiarity with Rubio's tendencies—would rejuvenate him.
While the trade would not necessarily make Minnesota a contender, acquiring him would at least allow the team to aspire beyond the best-case scenario of the present squad—a fifth or sixth seed likely one-and-done in the playoff picture, potentially a tough second-round out for the Thunder or Spurs.
Although this may seem like a disappointing ceiling for a team that was once believed to be on the rise in the Western Conference, the chance of a few deep playoff runs in the present is the best situation for a team and a GM without a clear plan for the future.