by Robert Reeves
In 2008, the Memphis Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for perennial punchline KWAMAY Brown (to paraphrase Stephen A.) and a bag of peanuts.
The deal was universally panned. Clearly the deck was stacked in favor of the big-market juggernaut. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave voice to the collective disgust emanating from the rest of the league:
“What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension,” said Popovich. “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I’d like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.”
Three years later, Popovich was staring down the barrel of a fully reloaded Grizzlies squad in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. The number-one seeded Spurs, winners of 61 regular season games, lost the series in six brutal contests to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies. Two seasons later, a healthy Memphis team fought all the way to the Conference Finals and a rematch with the Spurs, this time bowing out in seven games.
What the heck happened there? The Grizzlies were a sad, middling squad before the ignominious Gasol trade (Pau infamously lost all twelve of his playoff games in a Grizzlies uniform).
So they traded away their best player for practically nothing, shook the snow globe around for a couple seasons, and came out a bonafide contender? Does that mean Popovich was wrong?
In a word, yes. Very wrong.
What Popovich and the angry masses failed to comprehend was a simple maxim. It had yet to become conventional wisdom, but Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace already knew it well.
It's the rule of the modern NBA: contend or tank.
Contenders have a shot at a title. Bottom-dwellers have a shot at nabbing a generational talent in the draft. But middling teams live to serve: they lose to the contenders and beat up on the bottom-dwellers. Which - if you're catching on - is exactly what the bottom-dwellers want.
Wallace's trade made perfect sense, if not to us at the time. Jettison your unhappy All-Star for cap-space. Nab a couple of picks and some promising peanuts. Sacrifice your lost season to the basketball gods, save some money, scour the free-agent market with your newfound cap-space, and develop from within.
Give up mediocrity and embrace the tank.
Wallace's master plan unfolded uncommonly well, if not to perfection. They certainly could've done better than O.J. Mayo with the #3 pick in the 2008 Draft, but their cap-space yielded Zach Randolph. And one of those peanuts in the Pau Gasol trade was his brother, Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Meanwhile, they nurtured Mike Conley into the NBA's most underappreciated point guard. Core complete.
If this sounds like a belated defense of an old and much-maligned trade, offered up by a Lakers fan, well - it is. But stick with me here.
This is the dance that small-market teams must do. They're doing it now more than ever. Sam Presti and the Thunder are Exhibit A, the poster-child for team-building via awfulness. Now the 76ers are hell-bent on assuming that throne.
Strangely enough, bereft of assets as they appear, the Lakers are again poised to strike a symbiotic deal with a small market team looking to join in the waltz. Their bargaining chip is the corpse of two-time MVP Steve Nash.
These days, out for the season (and probably for good), "Seven Seconds or Less" is what Nash calls his speed chess strategy. But he's more tradeable than you think. His $9.7 million contract is expiring and he straight up can't improve your team - perfect if you're trying to shed a big contract, clear cap-space, and get worse for the draft.
The Lakers will almost certainly need to aim lower than they did in 2008. There aren't many Gasol-types lurking on bad teams. But if they're determined to get better for the last few years of Kobe Bryant's career, make no mistake - Kupchak and co. will try to strike on one of these potential deals.
Before passing judgment, take note: more teams than usual will scramble to clear cap-space for the coming offseason, meaning more interest in Nash.
The NBA just signed a new $24 billion TV deal that will raise the salary cap by an estimated $30 million. Player contracts will go up with it. But contracts don't get richer until 2016, when the TV deal takes effect. As a result, a max contract signed in 2015 will suddenly look like a bargain come 2016. 2015 is the year to throw money at a big-time free agent and lock him in for a great price (this is actually a good reason the Lakers could opt NOT to trade Nash and maximize their own cap room. It's all about strategy.)
Without further throat-clearing, let's look at the ways the Lakers could fleece your favorite team:
- Nash to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo or Jeff Green -
Rondo must feel like he was born on a trade block. Rumors have been trying to usher Rondo out of Boston for years now. Many observers assumed that by selecting rugged point guard Marcus Smart in the 2014 Draft, the Celtics signaled they were finally ready to part with him.
It hasn't happened that way. Rondo is still a Celtic, presumably because Danny Ainge wants him to get back in some games and up his trade value.
But Rondo was just cleared for his first full contact practice of the new season, and he hasn't been the same player since tearing his ACL in early 2013. The question is, do the Celtics want to make a deal while Rondo still has some residual trade value, or run the risk that he disappoints on the court? Point guards are a dime-a-dozen in today’s league, and if Rondo is a step slow, the market for his services will evaporate.
Trading Rondo for Nash would be a straight-up tanking maneuver, but it also would pull the Celtics under the taxpayer line. Great news for a bad team.
Another option for the Celtics is to offer up Jeff Green and the remainder of his head-scratching contract. It wouldn't get them under that tax line, but it would set them up for massive cap-space in the coming offseason, when both Rondo and Marcus Thornton come off the books.
- Nash to the Milwaukee Bucks for O.J. Mayo or Larry Sanders -
Hard to imagine that the Bucks are ready to give up on Sanders, but lately he’s been a disappointment. A phenomenal athlete with elite shot blocking ability, Sanders was hampered by injury in the first season of his big contract extension, and has just been cleared to play. The Bucks can back out on the monstrous four years, $44 million left on his deal, and cash in on another season of abject failure.
Here's another option: Jason Kidd sees O.J. Mayo as a major cog in their new system, which is all the more reason to ship his outsized contract to LA. Kobe was an outspoken advocate for Mayo in his rookie year, for what that's worth.
As a side note, Nash would be an awesome mentor for the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
- Nash to the Indiana Pacers for Roy Hibbert -
In a previous article, Hibbert was named one of the players most likely to disappoint big time this season. I'm inclined to agree. What does Larry Bird think?
Hibbert has been on a crash-course with awfulness since an All-Star berth pumped his ego up to match his height. At this point he looks shook out there on the court. Allow me to illustrate simply using his playoff PER: 21.2 in 2013, 12.1 in 2014. Yikes.
The Lakers are probably one of the few teams still interested in bringing in a 7'2" center to help slow games to a crawl. They may be the Pacers only hope to get out from under the final two seasons of Hibbert’s max deal. The question is, can the Pacers swallow their pride and accept a year of tanking in the absence of Paul George and Lance Stephenson, or will they wallow fruitlessly in the no-man’s-land of mediocrity?
- Nash to the Detroit Pistons for Josh Smith -
Josh Smith was born on that trade block with Rondo, going back to his Atlanta days. Popular wisdom agrees there isn't room for Smith and Greg Monroe on the same roster; the same popular wisdom tends to agree that Monroe is the long-term choice and that Smith is kind of a knucklehead. But newly minted head honcho Stan Van Gundy hesitated to extend Monroe in the offseason with three years still remaining on Smith's massive deal (Monroe didn't seem too thrilled to resign in Detroit either...).
The Lakers have long been linked with Smith. Lamar Odom, another trade block favorite, was the centerpiece of those bygone scenarios. But can they bring in Smith now by offering a salary dump and sweeteners? Better question: do they want to? With Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle, and Ed Davis already on roster, power forward is the one spot that's already too crowded.
- Most likely to happen -
For now, the Celtics will hold out hope that Rondo performs well on the court and ups his value. The Pacers and Bucks will take a similar tack with their respective centers, even if they're quietly shopping for the right deal on the side.
Meanwhile, the Lakers walk away from the table if the Pistons offer up Smith. His contract hamstrings their future flexibility while failing to shore up a position of need.
That leaves Green and Mayo.
Green fills a need for the Lakers. Wesley Johnson is the only true small forward on the roster, which is an awfully sad state of affairs. He could step in immediately at the three and be a focal point on offense.
Mayo doesn’t have the size to play big minutes at the small forward, but would instantly shore up the rotation behind Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin. He can fill in anywhere from 1-3 in the likely case that Xavier Henry is slow to round into shape (if he can even find his way onto the court). Always a superb shooter, but also an underrated playmaker and defender, Mayo would step into that sixth-man role with ease. But would he become redundant once Nick Young returns from injury?
Since both players are owed similar money - $19 million for Green, $16 million for Mayo - over the next two seasons, contracts wouldn't be a deciding factor.
Compared to the Bucks, the Celtics have the savvier front office and might be quicker to cut ties with a solid player for the sake of their long game (Tank for Jahlil!). Then again, this is the team that just signed Avery Bradley to a $32 million contract, so all bets are off.
The hell with it; let’s call it a draw. Either scenario is perfectly plausible.
But if you’re the Lakers, do you pull the trigger on either option? Neither Mayo nor Green turn you into anything resembling a contender. They both chew into your 2015 cap-space, which makes a run at a big free agent more difficult.
I say they make the swap, only because the 2015 free agent crop is likely to turn their collective nose up at the Lakers.
LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t going anywhere. Marc Gasol isn’t going to the Lakers, and neither is Rondo. For reasons already discussed, the elite crop of guys with player options will be angling to go on the market in 2016. That list includes LeBron James, Kevin Love, Dwayne Wade, Al Jefferson, Monta Ellis, Roy Hibbert, Luol Deng, Arron Afflalo, and Goran Dragic.
It’s the 2016 offseason that the Lakers have circled, not 2015. Kupchak has consistently refused to throw huge money at anyone but the very best. 2016 is when they’ll have a chance to court the likes of Kevin Durant and Kevin Love with max money.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if the Lakers swipe an O.J. Mayo or a Jeff Green from a team that’s better off bad.
Oh, and try not to get upset about it. It's just how business works in the NBA.