The Los Angeles Lakers beat the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night, coasting to a 103-87 win over the Don't-Call-Me-Pelicans behind a record-setting performance from Kobe Bryant, strong second-half pressure defense and a combined 11-of-21 mark from beyond the 3-point line turned in by the foursome of Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Darius Morris. For Lakers fans wearied these last few weeks by their expected juggernaut's fits-and-starts opening to the season — and, more recently, talk of needed ass-kicking, possible exit-prepping, dismal foul-shooting and metaphorical pants-pooping — it was a good, calming night.
Lakers big man Pau Gasol took in the feel-good extravaganza from the L.A. bench, sitting out for the second consecutive game as he rests in the interest of recovering from tendinitis in both of his knees. News of Gasol's length-as-yet-undetermined siesta — which comes with his scoring averages (per-game and per-minute) and field-goal percentage at career lows, his rebounding and assist rates down from last year, and Bryant having openly questioned his conditioning — immediately stoked speculation that the Lakers were shelving him ahead of shipping him out to shake up the struggling L.A. roster. That speculation reached new heights following reports that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak had told Gasol's representatives the team could look to move the 32-year-old four-time All-Star if he proved unable to adapt to new coach Mike D'Antoni's more uptempo spread pick-and-roll system.
Perhaps emboldened by those reports, word's now trickling out about multiple teams reaching out to the Lakers to gauge Gasol's availability, though — thus far — unsuccessfully. From Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:
The Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves have both recently tried to engage the Lakers in trade discussions for Gasol, sources told ESPN.com, but the Lakers continue to tell teams that call that they will not consider dealing the Spaniard until L.A. can fully assess its roster after the return of injured point guard Steve Nash. [...]
Stretch power forward Andrea Bargnani, veteran point guard Jose Calderon and fellow vet Linas Kleiza are among the players, sources say, whom the Raptors have discussed making available to the Lakers in a deal for Gasol. It's an open secret around the league, meanwhile, that Timberwolves general manager David Kahn has been trying since last season to acquire Gasol to join fellow Spaniard Ricky Rubio in a three-man core with All-Star forward Kevin Love, but sources say the Lakers continue to resist Minnesota's attempts to build a trade offer around 2011's No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams and center Nikola Pekovic.
The Lakers' reticence to part with Gasol until they've gotten the whole band back together seems like basic sound roster management — remember, the team's gotten all of 1 1/2 games with a healthy Nash this season — but it could also represent Kupchak keeping a promise made during the offseason. CSN Bay Area sideline reporter/analyst Ric Bucher reported Wednesday that a source told him Nash made the opportunity to play with Gasol a prerequisite for agreeing to go to the Lakers in the sign-and-trade deal that Kupchak orchestrated with the Phoenix Suns this summer. From Bucher's source:
Conceivably, once Nash gets back and actually plays with Gasol, the Lakers could continue to struggle and Nash re-thinks his position. But as of right now, one of the enticements that brought Nash to LA was the big Spaniard and the organization would have much bigger problems than they already have if they backtracked on their promise to keep Gasol in the fold.
Regardless of whether Nash has demanded that Laker brass keep Gasol around, neither of the two reported offers seems to get the Lakers what they want and where they need to be, although Toronto would seem a more reasonable trade partner than Minnesota.
Any deal that would import the 31-year-old Calderon — an excellent shooter and floor spacer, a willing facilitator and a steady ball-handler whose 3.55-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks as the league's fifth best — would offer a major boost to a Laker backcourt that will reportedly be missing Nash for at least another week (and will have to work the 38-year-old back carefully as he returns from a fractured fibula), will be without backup Steve Blake for up to two months following his abdominal surgery and must now live dangerously with the duo of Morris (a second-year player who shows sparks of creativity, shooting range and defensive energy, but is a long way away from reliable) and Chris Duhon (one of the worst rotation players in the league over the past two-plus seasons). With starter Ricky Rubio still working his way back from knee surgery and ball-handling two-guard Brandon Roy unable to be relied upon at all, Minnesota's not likely to offer up any of its lead-guard depth, but even if the Wolves were, I'd much rather have Calderon than Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea. (Alexey Shved, on the other hand, as a Nash understudy ...)
The other thing that would make Toronto more enticing rests on a point made by BDL editor Kelly Dwyer on Tuesday: One of the primary non-injury reasons for Gasol's struggle to fit in alongside Dwight Howard (as it was, at times, in fitting him in alongside Andrew Bynum last year) is that the Spaniard is, at his base, a back-to-the-basket, low-post center who is being forced to play out of position as a pick-and-pop midrange power forward.
His stroke's good enough to do at least some of that — he's shooting 41 percent from between 16 and 23 feet out, well above league average for four-five types, according to Hoopdata's shot location stats — but it's not the best, most natural way to use him, and regardless of what type of pants Bryant wants him to put on, it's clearly limiting Gasol's effectiveness; he's taking more long shots than ever and fewer shots at the rim than ever, and he's playing arguably his worst ball ever. These things seem related. Given that, it's difficult to imagine Pekovic — a bruising pivot who's become an increasingly gifted finisher rolling to the rim off screens and does yeoman's work on the offensive glass, but has virtually no offensive game beyond 10 feet — fitting any better next to Howard than Gasol would.
As for Williams, the former Arizona Wildcats star, the news on him out of Minnesota has been mostly underwhelming. Rick Adelman's reportedly not that big a fan, his offensive game's scattershot at best and, while his effort on defense and on the glass have trended upward early in year two, he's neither a true small forward nor a real stretch four just yet; his 3-point accuracy is up (nearly 38 percent as a sophomore after hitting just under 27 percent as a rook), but he also takes a lot of long twos and hits them less frequently than Gasol does. Plus, if Williams has struggled to find his way in Adelman's motion-based, read-and-react scheme, he wouldn't seem to be a natural fit to contribute much quickly in D'Antoni's flowing, ball-movement-heavy system.
Toronto, on the other hand, could offer Bargnani, a player about whose game — because relatively few people regularly watch the Raptors — most people only know two things: He's tall and he can shoot. With Howard down low, the idea of a big man who could stretch the floor, provide an outlet for penetrate-and-kick passes and generally not gum up the works sure seems enticing.
There are two problems with that. For one thing, Bargnani's touch has faded a bit; whereas he was once a threat to connect on about 40 percent of his triples, he's jacking nearly five a game these days and making less than one-third of them, after posting a sub-30 percent mark last year. For another, as The National Post's Eric Koreen recently documented, Bargnani's vaunted offensive game is horrendously unreliable, shifting from virtually unstoppable to utterly invisible at the drop of a hat. Just check out his last six games:
• 34 points on 13-for-20 shooting (3 for 5 from deep) against the Detroit Pistons
• 4 points on 2-for-19 shooting (0 for 7 from deep) against the San Antonio Spurs
• 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting (3 for 4 from deep) against the Houston Rockets
• 4 points on 1-for-4 shooting (0 for 1 from deep) in 27 minutes against the Phoenix Suns
• 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting (2 for 8 from deep) against the Denver Nuggets
• 8 points on 3-for-14 shooting (0 for 6 from deep) against the Sacramento Kings
On the nights where Bargnani's either not hitting or not attacking, he gives you virtually nothing; he's an awful rebounder, a well-below-par defender and nothing to write home about as a facilitator. Those squinting at a tall guy with a beard camping out behind the arc and seeing fellow stretch-four-type Ryan Anderson, who paired so well with Howard in an inside-outside frontcourt for the Orlando Magic, would likely be sorely disappointed upon getting nightly looks at the 27-year-old Italian. Bargnani is a better long-range shooter who can more comfortably occupy different spots on the floor than Gasol, but he is a significantly, significantly inferior player who influences the game in fewer ways and, seven years into his NBA career, seems much less likely to suddenly find an entirely new life to his game than Gasol does to bounce back to a near-All-Star level following some rest. I like Jose Calderon a lot, but I'm not sure his presence alone bridges the gulf between what Bargnani is, what he isn't and his potential value relative to that of Gasol.
So where does that leave the Lakers? Right back where they were when we started this conversation — coming off a convincing win, sitting one game south of .500, hoping their nominal power forward's knees feel better soon, hoping their point guard's leg heals up soon, hoping their center's surgically repaired back feels better soon, hoping their top dog continues to play arguably the best basketball of his career, and loading up for a hot Friday night date with the 15-4 Oklahoma City Thunder. In a more significant way, though, they might well be back where they were nine months ago — considering their options before realizing that the best trade on the table is the one they don't make. The answers to what ails L.A. won't come easily, but they probably won't come with Derrick Williams or Andrea Bargnani, either.
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