Why Phoenix Should Pass on Pau
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, NBA.com/Stats 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