As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the Eastern Conference champions are going after the big man this summer:
Free-agent center Pau Gasol had a telephone conversation with Miami Heat president Pat Riley on Tuesday and could talk again with the franchise in the near future, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
The cost for Gasol could still be prohibitive for the Heat, but there's little doubt he could be an intriguing part to a supporting cast in Miami. So far, Gasol is still pushing for a $10 million-$12 million annual salary, league sources said.
It's worth clarifying that Gasol wouldn't be coming to Miami as a replacement for a member of the incumbent Big Three. He'd be joining as a fourth option, one using up the leftover cap space so that he can make the roster even more appealing.
But is it appealing enough? That's the important question after ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst explained the roster was what mattered most in LeBron's free-agency decision.
And strange as it may be to think about, Gasol isn't guaranteed to increase the appeal of the Miami roster by the amount that's necessary to force a return. Not when the Cleveland Cavaliers boast as much young talent as any roster in the league. Not when the Phoenix Suns have the ability to keep Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee while offering contracts to LeBron and the free agent of his choosing (Bosh, please).
Gasol would make the Heat better, sure—just not by enough.
Does He Protect the Rim?
The Heat desperately need a big man who can successfully guard the restricted area, especially after they were flat-out tortured in the 2014 NBA Finals by a San Antonio Spurs squad that seemed intent on making that section of the half-court set their personal playground.
The new NBA champions converted 68.5 percent of their attempts from the aforementioned zone during the Finals, per NBA.com. That's not supposed to happen, especially against a team that usually boasts a high-quality defense.
But this wasn't anything new, merely an exaggeration of a problem that already existed.
According to SportVU data on NBA.com, the Heat finished No. 22 in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim, and they didn't exactly spend much time swatting away shots. They also did not even change the trajectory of many, instead relying on keeping opponents out of the paint.
If Miami is going to use its cap space on a big man, it needs to be one who can remedy this problem. And yes, it's problematic that the Heat can't protect the rim, even if the overall defense hasn't exactly struggled.
So, does Gasol deter opponents from recording high percentages at the basket?
During the regular season, the Spanish 7-footer faced 9.6 shots per game at the rim, per SportVU data. Only DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert were more involved, but "involved" isn't exactly the equivalent of "effective."
Gasol allowed opponents to convert 54.6 percent of their looks when right next to the tin, a percentage worse than each of the names mentioned up above. In fact, let's take a gander at the worst rim protectors the NBA had to offer, among those who faced at least six shots per game:
- Kevin Love, 57.4 percent
- Nikola Vucevic, 56.4 percent
- Nikola Pekovic, 55.2 percent
- Ersan Ilyasova, 55.1 percent
- Pau Gasol, 54.6 percent
Obviously, that's not good.
"If he [Gasol] starts, he has to play center, getting banged around and being relied on as a rim protector, which isn't great for him at this point in his career," writes CBS Sports' Matt Moore regarding the prospect of Gasol joining the Heat.
Even Bosh, who faced 7.1 shots per game and allowed opponents to post a 52.4 field-goal percentage, played better defense around the rim.
Good, but Redundant
Let's keep going with the Gasol-Bosh comparison.
After all, the former Los Angeles Laker would end up starting at center while pushing the incumbent to his more natural spot at power forward, or he'd come off the bench at the 4. But that's just creating a massive redundancy in the frontcourt.
Bosh's role involved spacing out the court, providing some three-point shooting and mid-range work for the Heat. He could put the ball on the floor and capably distribute it from either the post or the high blocks, no questions asked.
The power forward has even admitted that he no longer enjoys playing with his back to the basket.
"I don’t bang with anybody anymore," he said after a shootaround during the Eastern Conference Finals, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann. "It’s a tired thing for me. It’s not my strength and I understand that. So, be smart and play within the team offense, but be aggressive at the same time."
The area around the hoop is no longer his sweet spot.
Doesn't Gasol fill a largely similar role?
Sure, the Spaniard is a better post-up player, but he prefers getting touches away from the hoop. Miami would be left with two big men playing out on the perimeter or near the free-throw line, leaving the area around the hoop empty and the more-distant areas far too crowded.
"If he can put up anything close to what he did last season, Gasol would be the best player Riley has put next to the Big Three over the past four years," Jason Lieser explained for The Palm Beach Post. "He is a 7-foot, 250-pound center who can play inside and outside."
And it's not just outside analysts who speak highly of Gasol, even at this advanced stage of his career.
"Pau is probably the most skilled big man that this game has ever seen," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak while appearing on ESPNLA 710's ESPNLA Now, as ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin relayed. "I think Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] would be up there with him, in terms of understanding and passing the ball and seeing the floor."
Are those sentiments true? The first certainly is, and while the latter is hyperbolic, it's not that far removed from being valid.
However, Gasol's is a style of play that's less valuable because Bosh is already going to be on the roster. We're not talking about replacing one big with the other, but rather bringing Gasol aboard at a discounted price so the Big Three can remain together.
Even if he'd be a worthy addition, there are just other needs, ones that need to be addressed with a greater level of urgency.
Other Needs More of a Priority
Gasol isn't going to be brought aboard for a minimum contract. Chances are, he'll be the recipient of the mid-level exception or slightly more than that, as Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley explains:
They cannot afford to break the bank on the big man.
Would Gasol actually accept a lower salary than his former teammate Meeks? Probably not, but he could sign on at a rate low enough for the Heat to afford him.
If the Heat are going to use that type of cash to add to the roster in a manner that aids the Big Three, they might as well address a need. So, what are the deficiencies that need to be fixed for this squad that has advanced to four Finals in the past four years?
Hard as it may be to believe when thinking about a team that's experienced so much success, there are a bunch of them.
Point guard is one, as Shabazz Napier and Norris Cole are currently the only players manning the position. The former is a rookie attempting to make the transition from Connecticut to the NBA, and the latter clearly isn't meant to be a starter at this stage of his career.
The Heat could also use a small forward, assuming LeBron is going to keep playing at the 4 in the small-ball lineup. But if that's not the route of choice—which it should be, given the players available this summer—finding a center who can protect the rim and rebound is the top priority. We've already covered the former skill, or lack thereof, for Gasol, but he's not a substantially better rebounder than Bosh either:
|Bosh vs. Gasol on the Boards in 2013-14|
Are Gasol's numbers better? Without question.
However, context is important. While the 7-footer needed to crash the boards for the Lakers, Bosh was often asked to play on the perimeter. He was taken away from the glass too often to put up big numbers, and playing in Gasol's LAL role would likely lead to him putting up comparable stats. If not comparable, only slightly worse.
Let's not forget that Bosh's rebounding percentages in Toronto were better than what Pau posted this past season. At 30 years old and only five seasons removed from his old stomping grounds, it's far more likely that a decline this significant—a surface-level decline, I should say—is the result of a changing role, not just less effectiveness.
So, is a slight upgrade on the glass going to keep LeBron in South Beach? Not when it comes at the expense of upgrading more important areas.
Gasol very well could be the best fourth option James has ever played with, and he'd undoubtedly be a valuable addition to the Heat's quest for a third title in four seasons. However, he's not the piece that will push their pitch over the top.
If LeBron is basing his free-agency decision off the appeal of the roster he'd be playing with, the Heat still wouldn't be his No. 1 choice. He could very well decide to come back to Miami for the next stage of his career, but Gasol would be a fringe benefit, not a deciding factor.