Pau Gasol Trade Talk Resets Expectations For Suns, Lakers

Jeff HornacekIf you’ve mocked Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose for placing the Phoenix Suns 29th out of 30 teams in their NBA preview, stop.

The Suns are nowhere near last place, of course. They sit just 3 1/2 games away from securing home-court advantage in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, doing so with stud guard Eric Bledsoe on the shelf for more than a month. They were supposed to stink. They don’t.

Bill and Jalen were wrong. Lots of us were. If you had the platform to put out 30 preseason preview videos, you almost assuredly would have been wrong, too.

As truly honest analysts beg forgiveness for being so far off base, the Suns are resetting their own expectations. First-year general manager Ryan McDonough — a former assistant GM with the Boston Celtics — has admitted to restructuring his long-term plan. One of the Suns’ four 2014 first-round picks could be available, and recent reports that Phoenix has been in talks with the Los Angeles Lakers about a possible trade for Pau Gasol underscores the Suns’ shift in strategy.

Simply piling up losses and looking to strike gold in the most stacked draft in years is no longer the operating procedure. Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Channing Frye have made sure of that. But the Suns’ surprising success doesn’t mean this is a failed season, nor does it mean they can’t temporarily ride the wave without mortgaging their future.

Swapping Gasol or Emeka Okafor and at least one of their first-round picks, which seems to be the most likely scenario, wouldn’t put the Suns into championship-contender territory. They would be doing the Lakers a massive favor in taking the rest of Gasol’s $19.3 million salary off L.A.’s books in exchange for Okafor, who is out for the season and whose contract is 80 percent covered by insurance. Gasol is battling a groin injury and has played horribly, by his standards, for most of the season.

Still, the Suns are going to need a dynamic big man to compete with one of the West’s top four teams in a seven-game series, or even to hold off Golden State, Memphis and Dallas in the playoff race. Gasol was quietly excellent in January, averaging 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. Frye is a prototypical three-and-defense center, but coach Jeff Hornacek can’t run an offense through Frye the way he could through Gasol.

Most importantly, getting Gasol has little to no adverse effect on Phoenix’s future. Gasol is a free agent at the end of the season — as is Bledsoe — which means the Suns will still have plenty of valuable salary cap space to work with moving forward. And if they want to re-sign him, they would have his Bird rights and potentially some good vibes from a surprise playoff run to finagle into a discount.

As for the picks, those four first-rounders aren’t as plum as they might seem. Due to their being 11 games above .500 and various protections built into their other three picks (from Minnesota, Indiana and Washington), the Suns are unlikely to have a single selection above the very, very low lottery. As much as scouts love this draft class (and despite the success of mid-round guys like Bledsoe), the research of past drafts shows that Gasol, even on a half-season rental, could be better than any player the Suns nab at, say, No. 14. The attraction of late first-round picks is almost entirely in value, as first rounders get gradually less guaranteed money as the round proceeds.

Because it’s not our money, the best thing we can say about a Gasol trade to Phoenix is this: It would be fun. Given the low risk to the Suns, it would be enjoyable to see a new face try to beat the big boys in the West, injecting some of the old Steve Nash- or Charles Barkley-era magic into northern Arizona. The current generation of NBA executive is all about numbers and spreadsheets, and McDonough is definitely cut from that cloth. But going for it with Gasol now would show that McDonough can read the wind as well as an Excel document. Sometimes, fans and observers want to see decisions made out of emotion as well as analysis.

This is one of the rare cases when the Suns can do both. If it turns out to be a disaster, then we’ll have been wrong. Add it to the list.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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