It is open season on the Lakers now, and depending on who you talk to among NBA executives, they're trading Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol or -- gasp! -- Kobe Bryant. They're firing another coach, scrapping another plan, detonating an experiment that has gone spectacularly bad.
The Lakers' front office has already learned the hard way that changing the coach isn't always the solution. And not even the Lakers, with their gazillion-dollar regional broadcast deal, can think firing two coaches before the All-Star break and paying them $25 million not to work is a viable strategy.
Trading Howard or Gasol looks good on HoopsHype, but there are serious issues involved with moving either of them. The Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum for Howard, and a potential lottery pick for Steve Nash. They've played 15 games together. Even in the short attention span theater of the NBA, that's not enough time to blow up the five-year plan to have Howard carry the franchise beyond the end of the Bryant era.
Gasol? His stock couldn't be lower at the moment. He's 32, his knees hurt and he's having the worst season of his career. And oh, by the way, he makes $19.3 million next year. There are a few teams that might be willing to make that investment, and we'll get to those later.
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First let's look at whether the Lakers' problems could possibly be repaired from within. As one rival executive, when asked which teams would make sense for Gasol, told me, "I think he makes the most sense for the Lakers."
So let's take a few swings at fixing the Lakers, starting with standing pat and playing better with the group they have:
Option 1: Standing pat
As I mentioned, Nash and Howard -- billed as the deadliest pick-and-roll combo to come along in years -- have played 15 games together. There has been some talk, principally from Howard, that he needs more post touches and the Lakers need to play more inside-out offense. But the numbers say otherwise. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Howard already is getting 46 percent of his offensive touches on postups, and it's by far his least efficient way of scoring from the floor, with .766 points per possession. His most efficient? You guessed it: As the roll man on pick-and-rolls, Howard is averaging 1.167 points per possession, but those opportunities account for only 10 percent of his arsenal. A little more time with Nash, and the Lakers should get more production from Nash-Howard pick-and-rolls, which one would think would be helpful.
Gasol is a different sort of problem. He has been painfully average or worse on every play type logged by Synergy, and D'Antoni's offense is not built for two post players. Gasol also wants the ball in the post more? Well, he better stop shooting 31 percent on postups, which account for 20 percent of his offensive chances (just behind spotups at 21 percent). If anything, Gasol needs more pick-and-rolls and more spotups, which explains why D'Antoni sent him to the bench so he and Howard wouldn't have to share pick-and-roll opportunities.
Anyway, having them on the floor together might not work regardless of what offense you're running. Howard is good at passing out of double-teams to perimeter shooters, but the Lakers badly lack those. He's not good at passing to another 7-footer. Gasol is a gifted post passer, and worked well with Bynum in that way. But Howard does not cut to the basket or move instinctively without the ball, so he and Howard are just a bad fit all around. D'Antoni's hope -- a reasonable one -- was that Gasol would find his confidence and play more efficiently with the second unit, and then be able to translate that confidence and comfort to situations where he found himself on the floor with Howard. Again, there simply hasn't been enough time to figure all that out.
Time, however, is something the Lakers do have in the long term. Just look at their salary books. If this Bryant-Howard-Nash-Gasol experiment is a complete and utter disaster, if they squander Bryant's last, best chance to win one more championship -- and seriously, even if Howard were to leave money on the table and bolt as a free agent this summer? As one rival executive who has examined their options said, "So what? The Lakers are going to bet on their brand. They're going to play it out." What does that mean? In 2014-15, they have only one contract, Nash's at $9.7 million, on their books. In LA, you can afford to bottom out and reboot, because, well, it's LA. And while this option isn't optimal or even possible in 25 other NBA cities, it's one that can work in a handful of them -- one being the home of the movie and music industry, where it's 75 degrees 300 days a year. And guess who can become a free agent in 2014? LeBron James, for one. Carmelo Anthony, for another.
"All the other guys are playing with conventional arms," the rival exec said. "The Lakers have nuclear arms."
Option 2: Trading Gasol
As we mentioned, there aren't a whole lot of teams willing to double down on Gasol at this point and pay $19.3 million next season to make a playoff push this year. But that doesn't mean there are no teams. There are some potential trade partners if the Lakers decide Gasol has to go.
Minnesota has long been intrigued by the idea of Ricky Rubio and Gasol playing together, and Gasol might give the Timberwolves the boost they need to get back into the playoff hunt. But while Minnesota would be able to make the money match with some combination of Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and Luke Ridnour (who D'Antoni has always coveted), the Lakers lack the picks and other assets to make it worth the Wolves' while. It's hard to imagine a Minny deal working without Kevin Love, but he's 1) Out until at least March after hand surgery, and 2) Too good to trade for Gasol under these circumstances, one would think.
Toronto is perhaps the most realistic landing spot for Gasol, given the uncertainty in the organization about whether Andrea Bargnani will ever develop into a star there. Bargnani wouldn't have to be a star in LA. He would simply have to stand at the 3-point line and make shots, a La Howard's former teammate in Orlando, Ryan Anderson. Toronto also has a point-guard problem to solve. And while Jose Calderon has frequently been mentioned as trade bait, league sources say the Raptors are far more amenable to trading Kyle Lowry, who has not made many friends in his new surroundings. The Raptors gave up a sure lottery pick for him (which Houston subsequently sent to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade), so Gasol might be a way to salvage that transaction. Plus, with the new CBA taking effect and shortening teams' windows for winning, a team like Toronto might feel better about committing 1½ seasons to Gasol than using its cap room this summer to sign a lesser player for four years.
Some league execs mentioned Atlanta as a possibility, while others expressed skepticism the Hawks would go all-in for a high-priced veteran like Gasol. It doesn't seem to fit GM Danny Ferry's personality and the centerpiece of the plan he laid out when he took over in Atlanta: long-term sustainability. For the sake of argument, there's no question prospective free agent Josh Smith would be the key piece included in any such deal -- and that his athleticism and defensive prowess would immediately make the Lakers better in numerous ways. With the potential for a league-high $36 million in cap room next summer, the question for Ferry will be whether to spend it in July, hold onto it or spend some of it now on a player like Gasol, who unlike this summer's free agents would only require a 1½-year commitment. What gets teams not located in LA, New York or Chicago in more trouble than anything? Overpaying subpar free agents for multiple years.
Among the other teams on the periphery for Gasol might be Utah, where Gasol would fit stylistically and give the Jazz a boost in the playoff hunt. (It's worth wondering whether Raja Bell, who the Lakers covet, has not been bought out yet in case his contract is needed to include in a trade.) Milwaukee is another possibility, and there's a deal to be made there with Monta Ellis and Drew Gooden -- though the Lakers do not want to take back future salary, so that option is dead on arrival, since Gooden is owed $13.4 million over the next two seasons. The Bobcats would be interested in having a conversation, sources say, but what could they offer beyond ball-stopping Ben Gordon and other fodder? A long shot? One rival exec mentioned the Grizzlies, who still need to trim future payroll despite the trade with Cleveland last week that delayed but did not solve their luxury-tax concerns. Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph for Gasol? It's far-fetched, but it would save Memphis tens of millions in luxury tax in 2014-15 and put the Gasol brothers on the same team. The basketball gods are rooting for that one, but as I've said, let's not get carried away. When it comes to trading Gasol, "It's not a big market," one of the executives said.
Option 3: Trading Howard
This one comes with the caveat that the Lakers have expressed zero willingness to part with Howard, who they view as the future of the franchise once Bryant likely retires after next season. (And if he leaves, well, so be it. They're the Lakers and can get anybody they want; they just have to wait a year.) Still, given how poorly Howard has played and carried himself in the locker room, exploring a possible trade is an undesirable outcome that the Lakers won't completely ignore.
So let's play along with this unlikely outcome. As a prospective free agent, Howard holds a certain amount of leverage because there are only so many places where he would re-sign. Rewind to the Nets' lengthy pursuit of Howard and recall the teams on his original list: Dallas, Brooklyn and the Lakers. Howard already is on the Lakers, the Nets have moved on without him and the only way a Dallas trade makes sense would be if Dirk Nowitzki were involved. Mark Cuban has proclaimed the "Bank of Cuban" to be open, but not that open. Plus, Cuban has cleared the decks for this summer, when he would be able to pair Howard with Nowitzki if only he could persuade Howard to take his four-year deal when the Lakers could offer five. A longshot, yes, but worth the gamble.
The Lakers also hold a certain amount of leverage because none of the prospective free-agent stars in recent years has taken less money to change teams. LeBron didn't, Carmelo didn't, Deron Williams didn't and neither will Howard or Chris Paul if they re-sign with the Lakers and Clippers, respectively.
But as the Jazz showed when they traded Williams to the Nets, that leverage can be transferred to another team. Which brings us back to the Hawks. If they were willing to trade Smith, who they might lose as a free agent anyway, they would be the only team able to give Howard the five-year, $100 million contract he'll be seeking this summer. If it didn't work out, they would be right back in the same position they would've faced had they kept Smith and he had left as a free agent -- plus lots of money from selling out their building for the rest of this season and at least a couple of playoff games. Given where the Hawks are, where they've been and where they're going, the flight risk might be worth it -- and it wouldn't compromise Ferry's allegiance to long-term planning.
The rest of the Howard options strike me as fantasy basketball scenarios or something the Internet randomly spat out. The Nets spent the better part of a year pursuing Howard, and I just don't see them jumping back on that merry-go-round. The Mavs may prefer to watch the Lakers disintegrate rather than help them. And unless the Lakers can find a taker for Gasol or find a way to play better with him, we all might be doing the same. In the end, the Lakers know that if their empire burns to the ground, it's easier to rebuild it where they are than just about anywhere else.
And with that, on to the rest of this week's Postups (and by that, Dwight, we mean NBA news, not more post touches for you):
• Kyle Lowry, who has quickly worn out his welcome in Toronto, could be an option for the Mavs or Hawks, who are both in need of point-guard help. With only $1 million guaranteed next season, Lowry would be a short-term fix without clogging up future cap space.
• Rival executives continue to believe the Grizzlies are open to trading Rudy Gay, despite last week's trade with Cleveland that got Memphis under the luxury tax this season. Based on the same logic I applied to Pau Gasol, there are several cap-space teams doing their due diligence on Gay, knowing that getting a B-plus player on a max contract via trade might be preferable to committing four years this summer to a worse free agent. By getting under the tax this season, the Grizzlies avoided a $7 million bill in the short term and the added penalties of being a repeat offender in the future. But they still can't afford to carry three players -- Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol -- making more than $50 million for the next two seasons. Sources say the Grizzlies continue to make and accept calls on Gay, though they're doing so from a position of strength because they no longer have to trade him before the Feb. 21 deadline. If they don't, they'll be open for business around draft time and in July.
• Alvin Gentry's exit from Phoenix didn't go as smoothly as Suns owner Robert Sarver might have hoped. Assistant coaches Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, both passed over in favor of Lindsey Hunter for the interim job, followed Gentry out the door. The shouting match between veteran Jermaine O'Neal and GM Lance Blanks earlier this week was only a hint of the frustration brewing in the locker room. This is nothing against Hunter, who might very well turn out to be a good coach. But the way Gentry's exit was handled, with more experienced assistants who had the players' trust being passed over, was a symptom of a greater cultural collapse within the organization.
Based on Sarver's comments in a Phoenix radio interview this week, it would seem Hunter's job performance over the second half of the season could very well determine the future of Blanks and team president Lon Babby, who both are in the final year of their contracts.
"I want people working for me who are committed to doing what they think is in the best interests of moving this franchise forward," Sarver said. "That's what they did. Whether they made the right decision or not, time will tell. In this business, everybody has a track record and time tells, and you can go back and check on it."
Asked if anything that had transpired over the past few days had shaken his confidence in Babby and Blanks, Sarver said, "Over the last few days? No. No. They haven't. Time will tell whether some of those decisions were the right decisions or not. This is a business where not all decisions are right. Some are right, some are wrong. There's 20-20 hindsight and we'll all have the ability to have that and we'll see what kind of leader Lindsey Hunter is. We'll see."
• The Sacramento-Seattle saga has predictably continued with yet another unanticipated twist. A bankruptcy attorney overseeing 7 percent of Kings shares claims that minority owners are being denied their legal opportunity to match any sale purchase offer for the franchise. A hearing is scheduled for next Thursday in the bankruptcy case involving Kings minority partner Robert Cook. Meanwhile, Sacramento's best chance for a local savior to step forward appears to be a combination of two buyers: Supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, Burkle and Mastrov have met to discuss teaming up. Mastrov also plans to be in Sacramento next week to meet with other potential local investors.