Pau Gasol, Revisited

Feb 22, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol (16) celebrates with guard Kobe Bryant (24) in the first quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

First of all, congratulations to the Miami Heat. They overcame an injury to their only reliable big man, the most scrutiny a team has ever faced, and a pretty damn good team in the Oklahoma City Thunder to take their first championship in the "Big Three" era. They're likely the favorites to take a few more.

But, seeing as this is a Rockets blog, today we're going to talk Rockets for a while.

We know the Rockets are gunning to bring Dwight Howard to Houston. They hope that Deron Williams will follow him after they acquire Howard. But in the likely scenario that both of them go elsewhere, the Rockets will likely turn their sights on a past target: Pau Gasol.

When the Rockets acquired Pau Gasol last December, a significant part of the trade was the fact that it would clear enough cap space to sign a max level free agent, presumably Nene. Though both members of that duo had relative down years, there is no doubt that the pair would have challenged for the top front court in the league.

With a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, Nene, and Gasol, the Rockets surely would have challenged for home court advantage in the West at the very least. Now, with expectations of contention tempered, is it still worth it to acquire Gasol?

With Ramon Sessions opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent, the Lakers are in need of a point guard once again. They are also shopping Pau Gasol for about the millionth time. The Rockets, interestingly enough, have a young point guard who appears on his way out and have coveted Pau Gasol for years. Luis Scola can also replace a large portion of Gasol's production at a fraction of the price.

On paper, the pairing makes all too much sense. The rumored package of Lowry and Scola that the Lakers were asking for last spring was excessive when Lowry was playing at an All-Star level, but with Goran Dragic's emergence Lowry has become something of a spare piece. Surely, the Rockets could swap him for a late lottery pick, but an All-Star like Pau Gasol would appear to be more enticing than a prospect who may or may not pan out.

On some levels, the trade seems almost inevitable. However, as we all know, it is so much more difficult to complete a trade than it sounds.

If the trade were to go down, the deal would polarize Rockets fans. After all, the perception of Gasol is that he is an over the hill, soft big man whose only good attribute is his flopping. Perception and reality are often two very different things. Let's engage in an exercise that illustrates that. We'll be comparing Pau Gasol to Player A from their age 26 to 31 seasons.

We'll use PER for performance, one of the better "catch-all" stats to compare players across eras.

Age Player A Pau Gasol
26 20.0 24.1
27 20.7 21.6
28 21.6 22.2
29 24.0 22.9
30 21.9 23.3
31 20.3 20.5

Looking at that table, it's pretty clear that Pau Gasol outperformed Player A (at least statistically) through the course of their primes. Player A was Kevin McHale, widely considered the greatest low-post player ever. I'm not trying to make a definitive statement that Pau Gasol is a greater player than Kevin McHale, just trying to point out the company that he is in. There is plenty to criticize Pau Gasol about, but there is no doubt that he is a sure-fire All-Star and would be a worthy centerpiece to build off of.

Rebuilding by tanking for a few years sounds great on paper, but proposal of such a strategy ignores the simple fact that it is implausible in a Les Alexander-led regime. He has given Daryl Morey a mandate to improve the team while remaining competitive, and if Morey is to follow that mandate, acquiring Pau Gasol while he is available would be a good start.

Gun to my head, I'd have a challenge naming the Rockets' core. Dragic has certainly put himself in there, Chandler Parsons and Courtney Lee might as well, but past that it becomes a struggle. The Rockets are full of attractive but replaceable players. Pau Gasol would give them a centerpiece, a go-to player in the post, and a recruiting pitch to free agents.

A Gasol-led team with the expected contributions of Parsons, Lee, Dragic, Kevin Martin, Marcus Camby, and from a host of young players (Patterson, Morris, Motiejunas, 14/16th pick) has to be penciled in for a playoff spot and a chance to challenge any team they face in the playoffs. Obviously, landing Pau Gasol alone would not be the Rockets' endgame.

Barring other moves, the team would enter the 2013 off-season with well over $20 million in cap space as Gasol's deal has very little impact on the Rockets' cap situation. That summer, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson are likely to become free agents. Some would likely re-sign before then, but the Rockets would have another chance to make a run at a big free agent, this time with a centerpiece in Gasol to help woo them.

Houston has a lot going for it. Favorable taxes, low cost of living, and warm climate make it a place many NBA players call home in the off-season. All that has been missing has been enough talent to make Daryl Morey's pitch have merit. Pau Gasol is not in the same league as Derrick Rose or LeBron James, but he's one of the league's most skilled big men and other NBA players respect that.

And if the Rockets can't get anything going with Gasol, they can simply let his salary expire in two years and move on. But if the Lakers are so intent on making Gasol their scapegoat that they'll trade him for pennies on the dollar, I'd be inclined to make the move. What's there to lose? Another two seasons angling to move up in the draft only to be rebuffed by high lottery teams? Two more races to get into the playoffs as the 8th seed?

Outside of a Dwight Howard trade, I don't think there is another way the Rockets can upgrade their personnel as effectively as swapping Scola and Lowry for Gasol. In a competitive league, Gasol would allow the Rockets to take the first step towards building a contender. Treading water for yet another off-season is unacceptable.

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