Commentary

Back to the future: Lakers might again be NBA's brightest light

Originally Published: February 1, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Andrew BynumLisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesAs Chick Hearn might have said, "I'll bet you an ice cream no team has two, young 7-footers more talented than 20-year-old Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, who's still only 27."
There is too much focus on the short-term implications of the Los Angeles Lakers' trade for Pau Gasol, even by the man who made the deal.

Did it make the Lakers the immediate favorites in the Western Conference? Not necessarily, but that's not the point. Right now, the Lakers' mid- to long-term prospects look better than anyone else's in the NBA. And that's the real benefit, especially if they just increased the chances that Kobe Bryant will be part of their future.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak simply was trying to keep a promising season from going down the drain after Andrew Bynum injured his knee Jan. 13. With him, the Lakers looked like one of the best teams in the West. Without him, it became evident almost immediately that they would struggle to beat anyone.

"We were hesitant to do anything while we were playing so well before Andrew got hurt," Kupchak said. "But when he went down and you're looking at eight weeks without any presence in the paint, we decided to revisit it. At that point, you're not dealing with chemistry issues, you're dealing with a season that may be on the brink."

So the Lakers revived earlier trade discussions with the Memphis Grizzlies, who had been looking to move Gasol's salary. And over the course of three weeks, the teams put together a deal that sent Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton , Aaron McKie and two first-round picks to Memphis, along with the rights to Marc Gasol.

(Now, amazingly, both the Lakers and Washington Wizards can say they were better off for having Brown. Not better off with him, but Washington traded Brown for Caron Butler, and now the Lakers have Gasol. Brown netted All-Stars for two franchises. That's a pretty good accomplishment for a No. 1 draft pick bust.)

Here's why it's unlikely this trade will lead to a parade down Figueroa Street to the Staples Center come June: It isn't as if the Lakers added Gasol to the mix of a proven group. The best they managed over the past three seasons were two first-round exits from the playoffs at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. No team since 1982 has won a championship after failing to win a playoff series the year before.

The good news for L.A. is that team was the Lakers. The bad news is it was essentially the same team that won a championship in 1980. This current squad doesn't have the same experience, and now it has added a major new component to the mix in the middle of the season. We still need to see how well Gasol can adapt to being the second option behind Bryant, how Gasol and Bynum work together in the paint, how well Bynum recovers from his injury. All of this chemistry must develop without a training camp, in between games and flights.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesSays Kobe about the Pau trade: "It shows a great deal of commitment from the organization. It's a great step. ... Now it's time to walk the walk."

Maybe it will click as quickly as it did for Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics. But Boston had a greater sense of urgency. It has to work this year or next, or the Celtics might be out of time. By the end of 2008, Garnett will be 32, Ray Allen will be 33 and Paul Pierce will be 31. They will be taking the first steps toward the downside of their careers.

The new Lakers core features Bryant (age 29), Gasol (27) and Bynum (20). And it's hard to believe Lamar Odom still is only 27. Kupchak said Odom still fits into their plans, even if Gasol's presence makes Odom -- who already has been discussed in trade talks and who is believed to have personally inquired about trade possibilities in the past -- seem expendable.

"There's no reason why this can't be a longterm thing for Lamar," Kupchak said. "He's got a year and a half left on his contract. I think he's the perfect complement to these guys. He's so unselfish; he doesn't care about scoring. He may end up being [a guy who gets] 10 points, 12 rebounds, eight to 10 assists."

Derek Fisher, 33, is the oldest among the Lakers' regulars, but 21-year-old Jordan Farmar looks increasingly ready to take over for him down the road. There is youth everywhere on the roster.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs are starting to look older and slower. The Suns might start shedding players to avoid the luxury tax, or Shawn Marion could opt out of his contract and head elsewhere. The Dallas Mavericks could add weapons, or they could just keep imploding in the playoffs. The New Orleans Hornets haven't even made the playoffs yet, much less proved they can advance. The Portland Trail Blazers are ascending rapidly, ahead of schedule, but would you rather have Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, or Bryant, Bynum and Gasol?

The Lakers are more experienced than Portland, younger than the Denver Nuggets (in terms of key players), deeper than the Utah Jazz, and better suited to playoff basketball than the Golden State Warriors.There is no team in better position to capitalize on any slips by the recent ruling triumvirate of San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix.

And since winning breeds more winning, the Lakers also would be in great shape to build on their own success.

"It could be something that we sustain, for longer than three or four years," Kupchak said.

Then again, this project could end in the summer of 2009 if Bryant opts out and signs elsewhere as a free agent. But it's hard to come up with a reason for him to leave now. He can't say management hasn't done anything to get him better players, he would be hard-pressed to find another team that could provide more surrounding talent, and there is no contract he could sign that would pay more than the Lakers can offer.

But one of the other hidden benefits of this trade is that it provides some insurance in case Bryant leaves. That might remove them from the championship discussion, but at least it wouldn't send the Lakers straight to lotteryville.

So even their worst-case scenario doesn't look so bad now. And the upside, all of a sudden, looks brighter than at any point since the last presidential campaign. They could close out the decade the same way they started it, as NBA champions.

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.