Before the season, nobody saw the Phoenix Suns as a playoff contender.
New GM Ryan McDonough actually went out of his way to strip the roster down, moving Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola in trades and releasing Michael Beasley. On the flip side, he only acquired draft picks and young players.
A team that was already 25-57 in 2012-2013 effectively got worse on paper. McDonough was looking at the big picture, however, stockpiling picks for a loaded 2014 draft class and trying to build a championship contender—not just a fringe playoff team.
Now that we're 50 games into this season, McDonough's entire plan has been thrown out of whack.
Phoenix's dual point guard lineups with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have given opposing defenses fits, and the Suns are 30-20 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
Because this unexpected surge has sped up the Suns' long-term strategy, McDonough is now looking to bolster the roster with reported rumors, per ESPN's Marc Stein, of his acquiring the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol. (There has been a recent hesitancy on the Suns' part due to Gasol's strained groin.)
For the Lakers, the reasons for pulling off this deal are numerous: They've hovered at the bottom of the Western Conference standings all season, they are maxed out on cap room and in danger of paying the league's brutally punishing repeater tax.
The move also satisfies basketball's two main goals from an ownership standpoint—financial flexibility and long-term viability as a contender.
The Suns, meanwhile, are balancing more delicate agendas. Due to their enormous cap space and Gasol's $19.3 million expiring deal, they can afford to absorb the $4.8 million salary difference between Gasol and Emeka Okafor—the proposed piece going to the Lakers in this possible deal, according to Stein.
This immediately upgrades their roster without hamstringing their cap space, as Gasol would likely come back this offseason at a much lower rate or simply leave the team in free agency.
But realistically, the Suns are a developing team. While their surprising start has been refreshing for the fanbase, it's a bit of fool's good. Even if this Suns team does make the playoffs, they're a likely one-and-done candidate. They're nowhere near ready to compete with the elite teams of the Western Conference, and adding Gasol does little to change that situation.
For a young Suns team, he certainly does provide a veteran presence—something every team should value. But is Gasol a worthwhile piece for the future?
His production has slipped in recent years, and he's not getting any younger. He'll also take minutes away from the rapidly emerging Markieff Morris/Miles Plumlee/Alex Len frontcourt combination, and the Suns will certainly need their continued development for any future championship aspirations.
Simply put, the Suns are a major piece or two away from seriously contending in the West. Gasol is undoubtedly a great asset that could use a change of scenery, but the years in which he could play second fiddle to a championship squad are long gone.
There's also the matter of fit with the Suns—an important piece to this puzzle, especially if Gasol re-signs in the offseason. The Suns offense is predicated on ball movement, which in particular means throwing the ball out of the pick-and-roll early and keeping it moving on the perimeter.
It would be unfair to call Pau Gasol a ball-stopper since he's one of the best passing bigs in the league, but post-up players naturally hold the ball. Often they have to wait for the post-feeder to clear out to the weak side, or for the defense to reveal itself—whether it's digging, doubling or leaving the post player one-on-one.
For Gasol, he's been stuck in the high post for a number of years.
His pairing with Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard forced this positional change, subsequently moving him out of his area of strength. Now that he's with Mike D'Antoni, his four-around-one system once again has Gasol setting picks and rolling to the rim more than catching it on the block.
In Phoenix, he would likely expect more touches in the post. But it's already a logjam in that area of Phoenix's offense, both in terms of personnel and in style of play.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Suns post on 11.3 percent of their possessions, the 12th highest rate in the league. That would only go up with Gasol, but subsequently diminish touches for other players.
Here's a typical Suns post action, with Gerald Green exploiting a mismatch against Golden State's Stephen Curry. As Green catches it on the wing, P.J. Tucker, the feeder, clears out weak-side. Miles Plumlee, the opposite big, hovers in the weak-side short corner.
As he backs down further, notice what changes.
Nothing. The Suns just stand around, waiting for Green to create. There's no backside action or screening for shooters, and it's up to Green in isolation.
With Gasol, we can reasonably expect more of the same with him in the post.
The problem comes when he doesn't have the ball, as his talents are wasted. He can't spread the floor all the way to the three-point line, and he's not able to utilize his passing ability from the high post in these situations. The Suns strategy in post-ups stifles one of his greatest assets.
One of the great things about basketball is that the most talented team doesn't always win. There's an element of chemistry and parts fitting together, all of which a GM must take into consideration before throwing together talent haphazardly.
Just take a look at the Miami Heat, who, in 2010-2011, were far superior to the Dallas Mavericks from a talent standpoint. But Dwyane Wade and LeBron James simply took turns dominating the ball, and the Mavericks' ability to share the ball and play within defined roles guided them to the title.
In Phoenix, adding Gasol might have the same effect. Just as Wade and James aren't selfish players, neither is Gasol.
But sometimes the situation isn't a fit, which in turn might facilitate more selfish play. This is a possibility with Gasol in Phoenix, and is why acquiring him might not be the best move for the Suns.
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