It's clear that something is missing from the Los Angeles Lakers this year. Even after an offseason that saw them acquire both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers have struggled just to remain in the playoff picture.
On an aging, top-heavy team you're not likely to find very many assets to bait other teams with and get another championship-caliber piece in return for. That's true for the Lakers.
What it comes down to is trading either Howard or Pau Gasol. Not only are they the two most tradeable players on the team, breaking up the twin towers may actually give the team a boost.
But who do you trade? Howard should theoretically fetch a superior return, and he has the ability to walk away from the team this summer. Gasol is older and at this point in his career a less valuable a player than Howard is.
The clear choice here is to deal Gasol.
Howard was brought in to be the future of the franchise, While he is notoriously wishy-washy (just ask Orlando Magic fans), players don't just walk away from the Lakers. An organization with their history of success, particularly with big men, is truly one of the top destinations for players with championship aspirations.
If that is indeed, as he has claimed his goal before, Howard would be downright foolish to leave the Lakers.
It pains me to cast off Gasol so coldly. After all, he was the second-best player on two championship teams and really revived the Lakers as viable contenders in the post-Shaq era.
Even through all the media scrutiny and being thoroughly mishandled by Mike D'Antoni, Gasol has remained the consummate professional. But even Gasol knows his time in LA is up.
Earlier this week he told the LA Times that it would be hard for him to deal with another season like this and that he may possibly even request a trade.
It's time to grant Gasol some peace of mind and let him get a fresh start elsewhere. With the system the Lakers run, replacing Gasol with a more versatile power forward capable of stretching a defense makes more sense.
When Gasol shares the floor with Howard, the Lakers actually get outscored by their opposition per 100 possessions. When Howard is in without Gasol, the Lakers outscore their opponents by more than six points per 100 possessions, and both their offense and their defense improve from their overall marks. (Stats courtesy of NBA.com)
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Gasol injured his foot in the team's last game against the Brooklyn Nets. Depending on the severity of the injury, it may be tricky to move him for anything worthwhile.
It's really a shame, as Gasol had really picked up his play recently (albeit in Howard's absence) and surely had teams eyeing him as a valuable commodity once more.
Assuming Gasol is able to return from this setback and regain his form, what should the Lakers target in return? Here are the three most logical choices.
1. Pau Gasol to Atlanta for Josh Smith and Kyle Korver
Why the Lakers Would Do It:
Josh Smith is far more suited to Mike D'Antoni's uptempo system. He's much more versatile than Gasol and fits better next to Howard. He's a terrific passer for his size and can keep offensive sets humming with his vision and willingness to dish it.
The biggest impact Smith would have would be on defense. His potent blend of size, length, strength and quickness enables him to guard just about any position. In fact, just last week ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle ranked Smith as the best perimeter defender in the NBA (Insider only).
According to Synergy Sports, Smith ranks in the top 40 in the league in points per possession allowed against isolations, post-ups, and pick-and-roll roll men. He doesn't allow opponents to shoot over 40 percent on any of those three play types.
That's big for the Lakers, who rank in the bottom 10 in the league guarding isolations and roll men.
Also, Smith is known to be a close friend of Howard's and may play a part in Dwight deciding to stick around.
Meanwhile. Korver adds the NBA's top three-point marksman (he currently leads the league in three-point percentage) to a three-point happy team devoid of any dead-eye shooters (outside of Steve Nash, who's usually occupied with setting others up for those triples).
Among qualified players, Jodie Meeks ranks highest among Lakers in three-point accuracy. He barely cracks the top 70 league-wide.
Korver knows his role and sticks to what he does best. Per Synergy, about two-thirds of Korver's possessions come on either spot-ups or off screens, and he ranks sixth and 15th in the league in points per possession on those two play types respectively.
Why the Hawks Would Do It:
Josh Smith is a free agent at the end of the season, and the Hawks may actually want to part ways with the mercurial forward. The team recently suspended Smith and the two sides seemed to be at odds with each other.
Losing Korver would hurt, as he provides them with their lone outside shooting threat since Anthony Morrow seems to be buried on the bench, but he is also a free agent this summer.
Bringing in Pau Gasol would give the Hawks a reliable go-to guy to run their offense through, something they've lacked without Joe Johnson. Without an offensive hub, the Hawks' offense has produced its fewest points per 100 possessions since 2007 (the last time they missed the playoffs).
It would also allow Atlanta to move Al Horford to power forward, a position he's more naturally suited for.
Why It Might Backfire:
As I stated above, both Smith and Korver are are free agents at season's end, as is Dwight Howard.
Given Smith's insistence that he's worth a max deal, to re-sign all three at market value -- or even just Smith and Howard -- would send the Lakers even deeper into luxury tax territory, probably to the point of no return.
Although Smith brings athleticism and versatility to the power forward position, he doesn't do much for floor spacing. He's much more willing to play on the perimeter than Gasol is, but it is to his detriment.
Smith shoots an abysmal 29 percent on long twos (16-23 feet), per Hoopdata. Gasol shoots a much healthier 39 percent from that same range. Teams would invite Smith to take outside jumpers all day, and most likely he would be only too happy to oblige.
2. Pau Gasol to Boston for Kevin Garnett and Courtney Lee
Why the Lakers Would Do It:
A frontcourt of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett would easily be the most intimidating defensive front line in basketball. Garnett is arguably the best team defender in the NBA and also excels individually.
According to Synergy, he's in the top 45 in the league in points allowed per possession against post-ups, pick-and-roll roll men and spot-ups. He holds opponents to under 40 percent shooting in all three cases.
Garnett also provides the Lakers with floor spacing. His offensive game revolves around catch-and-shoot perimeter jumpers, a skill that would integrate seamlessly into LA's half court offense. He is a prolific shooter as well, knocking down an astonishing 49 percent of his long twos, per Hoopdata.
Courtney Lee gives the Lakers a reliable three-point threat. His shot has been off so far in Boston, but he hit over 40 percent of his triples in three of his first four seasons.
Lee is also one of the best one-on-one wing defenders in the league. Opponents shoot under 25 percent from the field in isolation situations against Lee.
Why the Celtics Would Do It:
Celtics GM Danny Ainge has hinted that change may be coming to Boston. Without Rajon Rondo for the remainder of the season, the Celtics need a shakeup to stay relevant in the East.
Trading for Pau Gasol is far from rebuilding, but it would be an intriguing move for this season. Boston's offense relies on long jumpers, and without Rondo's creative abilities, those shots are now less frequently open.
Gasol's presence in the paint would be a source of easy buckets and open more room on the perimeter for Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. The Celtics would finally have a legitimate center and also get a massive boost in rebounding. They are currently 29th in the NBA in rebound rate.
Plus, Gasol's size and scoring ability may be the only advantage the Celtics could gain over the Miami Heat should they meet them in the postseason.
Boston would also be rid of Courtney Lee's lengthy contract. Lee hasn't fit in as well as the Celtics had hoped, and Gasol's contract ends sooner than either Lee's or Garnett's.
Why It Might Backfire:
First of all, KG has a full no-trade clause in his contract, giving him veto rights on any potential deal. Garnett turns 37 in May and is on the books for two more seasons after this.
Despite Garnett's ability to stretch a defense, he makes the Lakers even older and slower. He certainly won't be any more suited to an uptempo system than Gasol.
Taking on the contracts of Garnett and Lee would also muddy LA's cap sheet. The Lakers have meticulously crafted their roster so that the only salary on their books after the 2014 season is Steve Nash and (hopefully) Dwight Howard.
Both KG and Lee would be on the books as well in 2014-15 and that would hinder the Lakers' financial flexibility. All the more so if Kobe Bryant decides to keep playing as well.
3. Pau Gasol to Milwaukee for Monta Ellis and Ersan Ilyasova
Why the Lakers Would Do It:
At this point, the best stretch-four the Lakers can realistically hope to acquire is Ersan Ilyasova. Though Ilyasova has been knocked for an extremely slow start after signing a lucrative contract in the offseason, he has come on like gangbusters of late.
Over his past 20 games, Ilyasova has averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes on scorching 48/53/82 (FG/3PT/FT) shooting splits.
He has knocked down better than 43 percent of his triples on the season, a mark that ranks sixth in the league and comes on the heels of a season where he finished second in three-point accuracy. He would be a perfect fit in Mike D'Antoni's offense.
Meanwhile, Monta Ellis would would finally fulfill his destiny as one of the NBA's premier microwave scorers. He would anchor a Lakers second unit that really struggles to score and lacks a dynamic player who can create his own offense.
Ellis can do that and set up his teammates as well. He is having the worst shooting season of his career, but is only two years removed from shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three.
The best part of having Ellis come off the bench is that the Lakers won't be relying on him like his previous teams have. If he has it going, he can swing a game all by himself. If he doesn't, just send him back to the bench.
With his breathtaking speed and attack-oriented mindset, Ellis would thrive in D'Antoni's system as well. Think of him as a turbocharged version of Leandro Barbosa, who managed to snag a Sixth Man trophy under D'Antoni in Phoenix.
Why the Bucks Would Do It:
Moving Ellis would alleviate Milwaukee's dilemma of starting a super-small, all-offense-all-the-time backcourt.
Adding Gasol would give the Bucks an efficient hub to work their offense around, rather than watching Ellis and Brandon Jennings brick terrible shots all the time. Larry Sanders would be free to move to power forward, where his defense would superbly complement Gasol's offense.
Ilyasova is expendable given Milwaukee's deep pool of big men (Sanders, Sam Dalembert, John Henson, Drew Gooden, Ekpe Udoh) and starting Gasol at center would bring balance to their lineup.
Which trade package should the Lakers target for Pau Gasol?
Swapping Ellis' ugly shooting for the efficiency of Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih, plus the wing defense of Marquis Daniels would actually make the Bucks an intriguing playoff team in a weak Eastern Conference.
Finally, clearing Ilyasova's contract would mean that the Bucks would have no contractual obligations outside of rookie deals after the 2015 season.
Why it Might Backfire:
Although the Bucks sport a top 10 defense, it's not thanks to Ellis or Ilyasova. Neither one of them bring much to the table on that end, and the Lakers already struggle defensively.
It would be especially difficult to play Ellis alongside Nash, as they might constitute the worst defensive backcourt in the league. The Lakers would also have no rim protector when Dwight Howard is not on the floor.
Ilyasova's contract is sizable and runs for four more seasons after this (although his final year's salary only has $400K guaranteed), once again cutting into the financial flexibility the Lakers have created for themselves after next year.
These three deals are the most logical moves for the Lakers to pursue. LA's front office has proven they can make something out of nothing, and they might have to do just that if Pau Gasol's injury issue cannot be resolved quickly.