Saturday, May 26, 2012

Revisiting Old Ideas for the Thunder and Lakers

Despite the typical excitement of a Game 7, another slugfest between the Celtics and Sixers is not expected to be the highlight of this Memorial Day weekend (I'm picking Boston at home to continue the streak of alternating wins in this series, by the way). That right is reserved for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the Thunder and the Spurs. This is the matchup we have been waiting for, and the two teams are a combined 16-1 so far in the playoffs, hardly encountering any speed bumps on their roads to face each other. I should have picked this fairly obvious Conference Finals matchup because, as I said in my playoff picks, if I'm being honest with myself, the Spurs are the best bet to win it all. They are just an absolute machine right now, going 32-3 in their past 35 games (which includes resting their starters), and they are an incredible 43-4 in their last 47 games in which Tony Parker plays, as John Hollinger points out.

I love Leonard 's game, but he lacks the size on KD
However, there are two key factors that I think could give the Thunder the Conference crown. The first is how coach Scott Brooks manages his rotation. As I have consistently argued, Oklahoma City's best lineup is when it goes small with Kevin Durant as the power forward, and as many have pointed out, this strategy can be especially effective against the Spurs. San Antonio prefers to only have one "bruiser" playing inside at a time: coach Popovich usually plays "stretch 4's" Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner alongside Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Durant would have no difficulties on defense against them, and this lineup would cause matchup  trouble for the Spurs because the Thunder would have an extra perimeter weapon on the floor instead of another non-threatening big man. San Antonio does not necessarily have anyone with the size to guard Durant (although rookie Kawhi Leonard, who I still maintain was the steal of the draft, has made things tough on him), so how Pop handles his rotations against him will be interesting to watch as well.

Furthermore, this series features two premiere point guards in Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker, but one has to wonder just how much time they will guard each other. With Danny Green and Thabo Sefolosha both starting at shooting guard as defensive specialists, I would guess that there will be a good amount of cross-matchups. This is what occurred in the Clippers series, with Green spending much of his time checking Chris Paul, and although Parker would certainly make Westbrook work for his offense, he can by no means shut him down. On the other hand, I hope that coach Brooks will try to manage Sefolosha's minutes carefully so that he will be able to guard Manu Ginobli on the second unit so that James Harden will be saved from the challenge of defending his prototype off the bench. This would make sense because although Sefolosha's length could cause difficulties, it may be relegated since Parker spends so much time pounding his defenders into pick and rolls.

This brings me to my second key factor: how the Thunder handle the Spurs' pick and roll. Parker absolutely abused Westbrook in this way during the regular season because despite all of Westbrook's defensive potential, he and the rest of the defense needs to be in sync with its strategy. Westbrook has all the tools to be a great defender with his length and athleticism and was outstanding in the Dallas series with his ball denial on Jason Terry, but he often lacks focus and is out of position, especially in the pick an roll. This can be said for a lot of members on this young Thunder squad so they need to make sure to have their defensive rotations in line against this excellent passing team. Having these extra days off between series could turn out to be crucial in the team's preparation.
Westbrook has to be careful not to get out of position in the pick and roll.
As for the team that the Thunder defeated in the last round, it would appear that a big change is needed for the Lakers to truly compete for a championship going forward. This team badly needs more depth and athleticism, and with such little salary cap flexibility and no first round picks this year, a trade seems to be the only solution. One trade idea has stood out to me since February: a swap based around Pau Gasol and Josh Smith. I have tweeted different ideas about the details of it recently, but the basics remain the same: trade Gasol (due almost $38.3 million for the next two seasons)  for Smith (just $13.2 million for this season), Marvin Williams (roughly $15.8 million total for the next two seasons), and a first round pick. The Hawks would receive the best player in the deal, albeit at a high price, and the Lakers would receive a comparably talented player who would fit the team better and an asset in the draft pick. L.A. would have to take on the salary of Williams, but I still believe he can be a solid contributor to a playoff team if in the right situation.

The trade idea that you will hear thrown out a lot is an exchange of centers Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard. It appears that the Lakers will only pick up the $16 million team option on Bynum and not explore an extension, and although the young behemoth had an excellent year, I don't think that is enough for the best center on the planet. The Magic have not yet hired a new GM or coach, but I believe that they are ready to trade Howard before he leaves as a free agent in the summer of 2013 in order to acquire as many assets as they can while simultaneously ridding their roster of the bad contracts it is filled with. Thus, the newest prospective deal that occurred to me was a 3-way trade involving the Lakers, Hawks, and Magic. 

My thinking is that the Hawks would be willing to send out Smith and Williams (combined $21.5 million this coming year) with a first round pick in order to save a bit of money and to pair Al Horford with an incredible big man partner in Gasol ($19 million). The Magic would be hard pressed to find a better deal than to shed Howard ($19.5 million), Hedo Turkoglu ($11.8 million this year, $6 million guaranteed in 2013), and Chris Duhon ($3.25 million this year, $1.5 million guaranteed in 2013) for Bynum ($16 million) and Atlanta's first round pick. The Lakers would have to trade their twin towers of Gasol and Bynum (combined $35 million) and use the the trade exception from the Lamar Odom trade to absorb Williams' $8.3 million in order to receive Howard, Smith, Turkoglu, and Duhon (combined $47.7 million this coming year). This is obviously a huge salary commitment by the Lakers that may result in Metta World Peace or Steve Blake becoming an amnesty clause casualty, but it would dynamically transform the makeup of the team with more athleticism, shooting, and overall team speed. 

As an aside, it is unfortunate that Atlanta does not end up with either of Smith or Howard, but it just does not appear that either of them wants to commit their future to their hometown.

1 comment:

  1. A new Laker trade idea that I tweeted about yesterday involves Kyle Lowry's recent discontent in Houston (

    If the Rockets can re-sign Goran Dragic, then it would make sense to me to try to package Lowry, Luis Scola, and either Chase Buddinger or one of their two first round picks for Pau Gasol.

    Rockets GM Darryl Morey is one of the best in the league at acquiring assets and maintaining flexibility with great contracts like Lowry's so that he can finally pull the trigger on a blockbuster move for a star big man. Of course, if it weren't for The Veto, he would already have Gasol AND possibly Nene, but let's move on...