When ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the Phoenix Suns were exploring their options to make a trade for Pau Gasol two days ago, for me, Super Bowl Sunday was essentially played under the same dark cloud that pundits will tell you now hangs over Peyton Manning’s legacy. Personally, I think Mr. Omaha’s legacy is just fine. But if Suns general manager Ryan McDonough goes through with this potential trade to bring the Los Angeles Lakers veteran over, there might be some storm clouds setting in on his otherwise brilliant tenure so far.
To his credit, McDonough did not fail the Suns once in a summer filled with genius moves that were impressive before Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and Eric Bledsoe turned out to be the kind of absolute steals that made The Italian Job look like petty shoplifting. When this team turned out to be far too good for tanking, the next step became acquiring a star piece that could transform the Suns into a real playoff contender. A long-term rebuild turned into “win now” mode.
That being said, Pau Gasol is not the star piece that will morph Goran Dragic and company into an elite Western team. He’s not even necessarily a compatible piece. Trading for Pau Gasol at this point in his career would essentially be karmic payback for the Suns sending Steve Nash to L.A. and him only playing a grand total of 56 games in the past two years (even to this day, Nash is Phoenix’s hero when it comes to that Suns-Lakers rivalry). Returning the favor and trading for a declining big man would put an abrupt halt on this team’s surprising season.
Pau Gasol is the ore from Settlers in the trade market. You don’t actually want it that bad but have to trade a lot for it.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 3, 2014
The most likely deal would be Emeka Okafor‘s expiring contract and one of the Suns’ possible four first-round draft picks. With Okafor injured for the foreseeable future, there’s no problem with letting him go. But those draft picks are sacred, even for a team that no longer has a solid chance of scoring a top-five selection. Gasol’s not the caliber of player to command that kind of a deal anymore. Looking to acquire guys like Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng, or (ideally) Thaddeus Young each presents a different complication, but at least those acquisitions would definitively make the Suns a more serious contender.
Gasol is an extremely skilled big man and his shaky 2013-14 season got a big revival in January, when he averaged 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. His athleticism is clearly not what it once was, but Gasol makes up for it with a plethora of effective post moves and
flop finesse work in the paint.
However, Gasol’s style of play doesn’t fit with the Suns’ versatile offense. With Channing Frye, Markieff Morris and/or Marcus Morris running the stretch-4 position, Phoenix has a ton of perimeter threats out of pick and rolls, pick and pops or just plain old-fashioned dribble penetration and kick-outs. Pairing the Western Conference Player of the Week, Goran Dragic, with Gasol in a pick and roll set is intriguing, but Gasol’s never been a 3-point shooter and at this point in his career, you can’t teach an old Laker new tricks. Quick Dragic aside:
Most amazing part of Dragic’s statline (26.8 pts, 6 ast, 4 reb) from his award winning week is he posted it in 29 mins per game. Wait what?
— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) February 3, 2014
“But what about Gasol in the center spot?” is what you’re thinking. It’s true, the Suns would receive a boost on offense if Gasol took over the center position for the hard-working but inexperienced Miles Plumlee. Sky Miles is a ton of fun to watch and has a penchant for approaching double-double territory on a nightly basis, but any time he’s met with contact at the rim, it turns into quite the turbulent flight to the basket that usually results in a miss. Gasol could help and is much
better at flopping smarter about attacking the basket.
However, the Suns’ biggest need lies on the defensive end, not the offensive end. Phoenix is sixth in the league in points scored per game at 104.9 and their offensive rating of 109.3 is eighth best in the NBA. Most important of all, their pace (a measurement of how many offensive possession a team has per 48 minutes) is 95.6, the sixth highest mark in the NBA. Gasol isn’t the kind of big that gets up and down the floor, which is exactly what the league’s highest scoring team in the fast break needs from an offensive perspective.
On the defensive end, the Suns need to batten down the hatches. Phoenix gives up 101.3 points per game to opponents, a mark that has them in the bottom half of the league (16th). Their defensive rating, which measures how many points the team gives up per 100 possessions, is 105.5 and has the Suns at 13th best in the league. It’s nearly impossible to win an NBA title without a top-10 defense, and although that’s not a realistic goal for this season, making a trade to win now should also help Phoenix move closer to the long-term goal.
Simply put, Pau Gasol doesn’t fit the long-term rebuild and he wouldn’t help the team improve in the short-term because he’s a gaping minus on the defensive end. He’s not getting any younger, so when you consider his defensive inefficiencies and the fact that there’s no guarantee he’d even stay in Phoenix after his contract was up at the end of the season, a potential deal makes less and less sense.
The only move in McDonough’s limited tenure so far that’s even been close to questionable was drafting Alex Len, and even that decision is looking better every day. But trading for Pau Gasol would be a mistake, even if he only turned into a one-year rental. Gasol is an emotional player and has dealt with trade rumors for the last few years; the Lakers trading him to a Pacific Division rival would be the NBA equivalent of wooing a new girlfriend with severe daddy issues. The Suns don’t want, or need, any of that kind of baggage.