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The Road Not Taken

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Mitch Kupchak faces an unenviable position this summer. The Lakers have been dispatched from the playoffs rather easily in each of the last two seasons. They have an aging core, are significantly over the salary cap (and luxury tax threshold), have few assets worth any trade value, and a superstar who won't accept another rebuilding effort this late in his career. Mitch must trade one of the Lakers' All Star caliber big men; the big question is which one.

The decision he faces reminds me of the famous poem by Robert Frost: "The Road Not Taken". The final stanza reads:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -

I took the one less traveled by,

and that made all the difference.

The consensus view is that Pau Gasol is the player to be moved; after all he was already traded once for Chris Paul before David Stern nixed the deal. Perhaps the Lakers would be better served taking the road less traveled, keeping the older Gasol, and instead moving the younger Andrew Bynum.

It would seem ludicrous by many to move Bynum instead of Gasol. After all, Bynum has the brighter future while Gasol has been deemed the scapegoat for all the Lakers recent playoff struggles. The last two seasons saw Gasol play nowhere near the black swan level that led to back-to-back titles. It is no more evident than looking at Gasol's PER in the post-season. In the two championship runs, Gasol posted PER's of 22 and 24 respectively. In the two second round flame-outs, his PER was in the low 17's. However, this blame may be somewhat misplaced.

Darius Soriano over at Forum Blue and Gold noted yesterday that statistically Gasol is better at center than power forward. The two championship runs saw Gasol man the pivot while Bynum nursed injuries. The two second-round exits saw Gasol primarily play the power forward position. Perhaps the apparent decline in Pau's game is a function of him playing the wrong position. I won't go through all of Soriano's points but I found these excerpts to be particularly interesting:

Today's NBA is really about speed. The quicker and more athletic the player, the better suited he is to today's NBA.

... and...

As a [center], Pau has that advantage almost nightly. As a [power forward] it diminishes greatly.

Darius is spot on in that regard. The NBA is all about speed now. For proof, one need only look at the current NBA Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat are the two best teams in the league and neither has intimidating size. In fact, neither team starts a player taller than 6'10". The Heat have been utilizing Chris Bosh as the defensive stopper in the middle and Bosh is even less a center than Gasol. The Thunder, which have the tandem of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, has been blown out when playing two big men together. They have been much better against Miami when going small with Durant at the power forward position and only one big man on the floor. Having size in the middle is no longer the model that is winning championships. What is needed is floor-spacing shooting and athleticism.

The cores of the Heat and Thunder are young and will likely remain together long enough to play out the remainder of Kobe's current contract. They represent the standard that the Lakers must reach as they re-design their roster under the limitations of the new punitive collective bargaining agreement, and with Kobe's contract eating up half the cap. Any moves that don't result in a team of equal caliber to both of the current NBA finalists will not net the Lakers another title in the next few seasons.

This brings us to the current deals being talked about. Last week I discussed three of the more likely trade scenarios involving Pau Gasol. The gist of all the deals involves moving Gasol for another player of near All Star caliber. All deals look good on paper and each of the resulting teams is very good, but being very good may not be enough, especially for a franchise with the high standards of "title or bust". Does a trio of Bryant, Bynum, and Lowry best the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden or James, Wade, and Bosh? Probably not. Switching Lowry for Andre Iguodala or Josh Smith results in the same problem. The Lakers still wouldn't have the best "big three" in the group and don't have the supporting cast to make up the difference. Moving Gasol does not appear to land any group of players that would go toe-to-toe with new gold standards in the NBA. The Lakers need another certified All Star and not a second tier player who may make an All Star team in a good year. Gasol's contract and age put his market value below that standard.

That potentially changes, though, if the younger and bigger Andrew Bynum is dangled in trade discussions. Andrew Bynum is the type of player that could potentially land a Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo. The trio of Bryant, Gasol, and Williams or Rondo is the type of group that could go toe-to-toe with Oklahoma City or Miami (especially if a deal like Rondo and Garnett - via sign and trade - for Bynum and Sessions could be worked out).

Perhaps the biggest reason for a deal involving Bynum rather than Gasol is the long-term impact. It may be counter-intuitive for the Lakers to trade a young All Star center and discuss an improved future, but if a trade is properly structured, the Lakers may be better off in three years having kept Gasol. The Lakers have a two year window in which to compete with limited financial flexibility due to the contracts of Bryant and Gasol. A combination of Rondo or Williams and Gasol is just as good, if not better than, a duo of Bynum and Lowry or Iguodala for the next two years.

The third year, 2014, is where the Lakers would really reap the rewards of prudent foresight. If the Lakers were to go with the well-known Gasol for Scola and Lowry deal, the Lakers would enter the 2014 free agency period with Scola and Lowry (assuming he signs an extension in 2013) on the books for $20M plus Bynum at over $20M. That means over $40M tied up in the trio of Bynum, Lowry, and Scola. Assuming the Lakers re-sign Kobe for a cheaper deal to play out the remainder of his career (say $8M per season), the Lakers will have almost no cap space left to fill out the remainder of the roster. Does a Bynum, Lowry, and a well-past-their-prime Bryant and Scola sound like a contender?

If a deal for Rondo were made, the Lakers would enter that same summer with only $13M on the books for Rondo (all other current contracts will be expired). They could re-sign Bryant and Gasol for one final run at $8M each giving them a trio of Rondo, Bryant, and Gasol for around $30M. That would leave them enough money for at least one max contract and another major role player ($7-8M) range. They could be looking at Bryant and Gasol as options #3 and #4 on that team. The Lakers would have more flexibility going this route than if they had to take back another long-term contract as part of a Gasol deal.

The Lakers' financial situation doesn't afford them many luxuries. They must make changes to compete for a title and get past the likes of Miami and Oklahoma City. While Gasol is the consensus choice, a case can be made that Bynum should be moved even if for someone other than Dwight Howard. The Lakers' focus should be on fielding a championship contending team for two years while preserving as much available cap space in 2014 as they can when they'll be able to reload via free agency and attract the top tier talent they seem to have a penchant for getting. If that is the goal, then I would be remiss not to mention that the duo of Bryant and Gasol were better together than the duo of Bryant and Bynum each of the last two seasons when the other big was on the bench. Moving Gasol means going forward with the lesser of those two duos plus a third option of the Lowry/Iguodala mold and potentially having less cap space in 2014. Moving Bynum means going forward with the better duo plus a third option of the Williams/Rondo mold and more cap space in 2014. When viewed that way the decision appears to be a no-brainer.

The only strong case to be made for Bynum is that he is younger and so the post-Kobe era would be based on a better foundation with him as the cornerstone. This logic however ignores the potential for the Lakers to land a new cornerstone player in the 2014 free agent market. If the Lakers have enough cap space for a max free agent, then they will be able to hand pick any potential free agent they want. They could even land a player younger than Bynum, setting up for an even brighter future. Players coming off their rookie deals would be around 24 years old while Bynum would be 28 that season.

It may be in the Lakers best interests for Mitch Kupchak to take the road less traveled and trade the younger All Star away. Much like the Frost poem, the result of the decision will likely result in a sigh when looked back upon in 10 years. What isn't known in either the poem or the Lakers' future, is whether or not that sigh is a one of relief or regret for the decision made. The only thing known is that the decision now will make all the difference for whether or not another banner hangs up in Staples Center in the upcoming future.

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