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Why Phoenix Should Pass on Pau

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Phoenix Suns are looking into dealing for Los Angeles Lakers big man, Pau Gasol. The general speculation is that the Lakers would receive a package built around Emeka Okafor — whose contract expires this summer — and one of Phoenix’s four 2014 first-round picks.

The goal of such a deal from the Lakers’ perspective is clear — dealing a declining but still useful player for a first-round pick and an expiring contract to further their rebuilding situation. For the Suns it’s about making a big statement in the playoffs this season, and even with their current standing (29-18, sixth in the West) and masterful play on both ends, many believe they are still one piece away from being a true contender. Is Pau Gasol really that piece, though?

The Suns offense is predicated on their transition game and long-range shooting — two things that aren’t a part of Gasol’s game. The Suns are third in the league (pace adjusted) in both three-point makes and attempts. Phoenix is also sixth in pace and atop the rankings in pace-adjusted fast break points per contest. These are major contributors to the Suns’ eighth-best offense, if not the pillars of which this attack stands upon.

Gasol has taken 29 shots on the break in Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense this season per mySynergySports, scoring 0.94 points per possession in these opportunities. That is a low but unsurprising number when you acknowledge the fact that Gasol is old, slow, and oftentimes hurt.

As for providing floor spacing, Gasol’s usually-dependable mid-range game is still running strong. Pau is shooting 44.1% from 10-16 feet. However if Gasol plays the four as a Sun, his mid-range ability provides far less spacing than current starter Channing Frye does, who connects on a tremendous 41.6% of his threes. It’s not just Frye, either. You’ll basically never see a traditional frontcourt for Phoenix, with the Morris twins both shooting in the mid-30’s from deep and even P.J. Tucker – who makes 40% of his long bombs – playing some four. Gasol has put up 13 threes on the year, making 4 of them. He’s never been a three-point threat and won’t become one now.

If Gasol slid over to the center spot and played alongside the sharpshooting Frye, the spacing troubles are alleviated. But this does bring along a whole other issue – defense.

There is zero to like about Gasol on the defensive end this season. His athleticism having deteriorated, Gasol is a gigantic detriment on that end, a liability turned cancer if he dares man the front line at the five spot. The Lakers give up 108.5 points per 100 possessions with Gasol in the game, a number inflated to 109.8 when Gasol isn’t on the court with a Laker center – Chris Kaman or Robert Sacre. With Gasol on the pine, Los Angeles’s defensive rating improves to 102.6, or the 12th best team defense in the league. With Gasol on the hardwood, the opposition hits on 64.9% of it’s shots within 3 feet of the basket, compared to 59.2% with Gasol on the bench. Meanwhile, the Suns rank 12th in defensive rating, probably the lowest mark possible for a team looking to make serious noise in the West.

Does this mean the Suns are well equipped to handle the Western Conference Playoffs as the roster stands? Maybe, but it’s doubtful. Luckily for them, there are other players across the league acquirable with the presumed Gasol package that could push them over the hump.

A few long shots are Minnesota’s Kevin Love, New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki. All of these players play the power forward spot and do it better than the large majority of the league, but in all likelihood none of their teams are going to be interested in trading them.

A more realistic target would be Josh Smith, who the Pistons would trade “if they could.” What makes the Smith approach appealing to the Suns is his ludicrous transition game and the boost he’d bring on the defensive end. Lost in his cringe-worthy offense this season is that his defense is as exceptional as ever. Detroit allows 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Smith takes the floor, or 3.4 fewer if Smith and Andre Drummond are in with Greg Monroe on the sideline.

Smith’s love for the three-ball would be a major issue — a 23.5 percent shooter from deep on 3.5 attempts a game — but if head coach Jeff Hornacek could keep him away from the three-ball and base his offense around pick-and-rolls with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Smith could be the perfect piece. That’s a major stretch, making trading for Smith a risky venture.

Another option is Houston’s Omer Asik, who is a pre-prime defensive specialist at the center bound to be moved by the Rockets sometime before the trade deadline. Asik has basically no offensive game whatsoever, from teams ignoring him on pick-and-rolls to being a career 53.4% shooter from the charity stripe. However his defensive presence is a leg-up on Miles Plumlee and Alex Len — at least for now. Asik’s contract expires at the end of 2015, and it’s feasible that Plumlee or Len could grow into strong defenders around that time. Thus, Phoenix could trade for a quick short-term upgrade at the center in Asik if owner Robert Sarver is willing to swallow Asik’s bloated final-year paycheck.

Moving away from big men, Luol Deng would be a fine fit in Phoenix as a more polished P.J. Tucker in the 3-and-D role. Deng was recently traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an effort to ship out Andrew Bynum and improve the roster, but Deng hasn’t been able to remedy the disaster that is Cavaliers basketball. Trading him for a first-rounder and an expiring deal wouldn’t be a terrible option considering Cleveland’s chances of making the Playoffs and the inevitability of losing Deng to free agency for nothing.

As viable as some of these preferences are, the perfect trade piece for Phoenix would be Thaddeus Young of the 76ers. Young is a dynamic four, with the ability to stroke the three and score by any means inside the arc, not to mention rebound, defend decently, and run the floor like a mad man in transition. This stat line almost seems unfair: 0.93 PPP when isolating, 1.13 PPP as a pick-and-roll man, 1.08 PPP in transition, and a 34.3 percent three-point shooter. When listing players who would be awesome to watch on a good team, Young is often one of the first few names listed. A trade to Phoenix would be the best thing to happen to both Young and the Suns this season.

Rumor and hearsay are in most cases just that, but if the Suns are truly looking at Pau Gasol as their difference-maker, they’re looking in the wrong direction. Phoenix has shocked the NBA world with it’s success through the high-paced, efficient offense and Thibodeau-esque defense. To trade for a player who negates the characteristics of which the Suns have thrived upon would be counter-productive, if not destructive.

Unless otherwise noted, statistical evidence for this article provided by Basketball-Reference, and nbawowy. Also, h/t to Bryan Gibberman for a late-night Twitter conversation that spawned a lot of the ideas mentioned in this article. Follow him at: @Gibberman10

  • WhereOffenseHappens

    Two things, 1) I think you’re underrating Plumlee. I don’t think there’s another player in the league who better combines speed and rim protection aside from maybe Ibaka.

    2) If thinking ahead to playoffs, Gasol’s half-court ability is precisely why he WOULD be useful for the Suns, as they don’t have a single player aside from maybe Dragic who is a dynamic half-court offensive player.

    • David Vertsberger

      1) Could be, but I see Asik as an upgrade at least for a year.
      2) I suppose, but I’m under the opinion that Dragic could do a well enough job running the offense in the halfcourt if need be.

  • Daniel Lewis

    Hasn’t the PHX medical staff unlocked the secret to taking old players and making them productive? Grant Hill was great there, and a whole lot of people thought he would never play basketball again. I think Pau would be great, especially with his ability to play either the 4 or 5.

    • David Vertsberger

      This is true, but even with Gasol fit and healthy I don’t think he’s a good fit.

      • Rich Kraetsch

        It’s an interesting debate. It seems a lot of people are in favor of them getting Gasol merely because it represents a big splash for a team that may have issues bringing in stars. However, you do have to weigh: a) if hes still a star and b) if he’s a good fit.

        To me, if they give up Okafor and the first round pick, it presents a pretty good risk because I’m not sure they get a better FA with that extra space but who knows.

        • David Vertsberger

          Gasol is expiring, but also note how this package or a similar one can nab other (much better when it comes to fit) players.

          • Mike Lupica

            You’re trying to pull an okie doke. None of the players you mentioned as alternatives or “better fits” are available for the corpse of Okafor and a late 1st Rd pick. Man please. Carmelo? LOL. You seem like a Laker hater that doesn’t want them to have 2 1st Rd picks in the 2014 draft while the NY bricks have none. Probably scared that Melo is gone too.

          • David Vertsberger

            Pistons would trade Smoove if someone would take him. A couple/3 picks of the Suns’ four would nab any of the guys not named Love, Dirk, Melo. I dedicated 3 sentences to those players for a reason – would never happen. Yes I’m a complete Lakers hater who hates the Lakers and all they do:

          • Ian Levy

            Speaking of okie-doke, I have a sneaking suspicion that you may not be the real Mike Lupica.

          • David Vertsberger

            He’s not? Lupica didn’t read my words? Damn it…

      • Daniel Lewis

        PHX has four first round picks. They can afford to trade someone who isn’t playing for someone who could play and roll with three picks instead.

  • Fezzy

    Josh Smith would be entertaining to say the least.

    Thaddeus Young would make a lot of sense for both teams I’d think. Phoenix has plenty of picks to choose from to give back to Philly.

    • Rich Kraetsch

      Thaddeus came to mind right away as a guy who doesn’t necessarily take them to the “next level” but would absolutely be an upgrade for them.

  • Ian Levy

    I also think you can’t underestimate lifting the psychic weight of getting out of Los Angeles. His soul has been slowly crushed in that place and a change of scenery might be all it takes to reignite the flicker that remains.

    • John

      This simply isn’t very accurate. He hates D’antoni but loves everything else about LA. The “Pau hates LA” narrative is funny but doesn’t hold up when he’s repeatedly said he would rather stay in LA. His agent has never pushed for a trade and in fact has done the opposite. I’m not sure Pau would like the system in PHX either since, as the author pointed out well, he’s not a good fit for this uptempo team.

  • Abe

    i don’t agree with you.
    If we can’t get Kevin Love……
    Huge Suns fan, Gasol would be nothing but an improvement for the team. He could help develop Len and Plumblee into better players/shooters.
    Bledsoe, Dragic,Tucker, Gasol, Frye.
    He’s slow and bad defensively, but Suns have the best coach in the league as of now. keep that in mind.
    Gasol wants to win another championship.. that by itself is worth okafor and a late first pick.
    Dragic will have more options offensively, phoenix could spread the floor better with Pau and Channing.

    • David Vertsberger

      The best coach in the league isn’t going to make Gasol a good, or passable interior defensive anchor. I’m not arguing that he isn’t worth the package, but that he won’t fit well and there are better options out there for the same package.

  • Daniel Lewis

    You know a player they should try to trade for? Avery Bradley. With Bledsoe out “indefinitely,” Bradley would be able to help fill the defensive gap, and when Bledsoe comes back, Hornacek would just have two pitbulls he could pair together at will.

    • David Vertsberger

      Okafor + first for Hump and Bradley? I like the idea.

      • Andrew Johnson

        So do I. McMiracle was an advocate for drafting Bradley in Boston. Let’s make it happen.

  • Danny

    So here are here are the players you said they can realistically acquire- Young, Smith, Asik.
    Josh Smith- He is having a horrible season and has a bad contract situationjkr
    Omer Asik- Hasn’t picked up a basketball in 2 months and has a multi year deal. Is he really a huge upgrade over Plumlee?
    Thaddeus Young- Not a bad idea
    Now to Gasol
    Having a very underrated year on a bad team. His numbers have improved month which is amazing considering how many lineups the Lakers have had. Gives the Suns a post player and a rebounder. Gasol isn’t a great defender but the Lakers are a horrible defensive team altogether so those numbers don’t say much. The playoffs are about executing in the half court and Gasol gives the Suns the change to do that. If the move doesn’t work out he only has a one year contract.

    • David Vertsberger

      I know what Gasol and is not, my point is that what he is – even if he exceeds his time in LA this season – doesn’t fit PHX’s playstyle. How does the number saying the Lakers are a GOOD defensive team w/Gasol benched mean nothing? The Suns can execute in the halfcourt, without Gasol, decently enough. Once the clock strikes postseason the whole game doesn’t turn into halfcourt sets.

      • Danny

        LA and PHX have similar playing styles. Gasol has done well with the Lakers especially since the Lakers started using a true point guard. ( 20.8ppg 11.9 rpg 51fg in January) How can you say he doesn’t fit their playing style when he has done ok in a similar system. It is a half season low risk move. Acquiring Smith puts this team in a difficult situation. They can’t afford to pay him and Bledsoe.

        • David Vertsberger

          1. Defense is a thing.
          2. A player can have good individual stats and still hurt his team.
          3. Yes, they can afford both, not that Smith is the only alternative here.

          • Danny

            How and do you really want to settle for Josh Smith? Young also seems to hurt the defense.

          • David Vertsberger

            How to what? If you read my thing on him I’m not too enthused at the idea but still do believe he’s a better fit than Gasol. Those on-offs read that picture but for his career he’s a net positive on defense and this season Philly’s opposition shoots 2% worse within 3 feet with Thad on floor rather than off.

          • Danny

            Not really statistically significant. Also if you want to talk about shooting and playing into the Sun’s system FRYE/GASOL is better than YOUNG/PLUMLEE.

          • David Vertsberger

            Um, yes it is. And also that frontcourt would give up approximately four billion points per 100 possessions.

  • Danny

    Btw Lakers also play a fast pace style of basketball too. Lakers are 3rd in pace and Gasol has played ok in that system.

  • Evan

    So far Ryan McDonough has done an all-star job. He will make the right decision for the Suns. Even if they do trade for Gasol and it doesn’t work out, it would be short term. I believe Gasol will be rejuvenated, both physically and mentally in Phoenix, and remember why he plays basketball. It is a NO LOSE situation for the Suns without mentioning his experience winning 2 championships and all the nontangibles he brings to a team which lacks experience, it is a win-win-win for all three (Lakers, Suns, and Gasol)

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