Making a Play for Pau

Before the season started, I advocated trading for Andre Iguodala. He was reportedly being shopped at the time, but I doubt that’s true anymore. The Sixers are playing too well to trade their best and most marketable player. So, now that Iggy’s presumably off the table, what can the Bulls do to improve the roster?

The most common response is to trade for Dwight Howard. This intuitively makes a lot of sense. What could be better than pairing an elite young point guard with an elite center in his mid-20s? However, there are two major stumbling blocks: (1) Dwight Howard doesn’t seem to want to play for the Bulls, and (2) the Bulls probably would need to give up two All-Star caliber players in their mid-20s to get him. The first issue is especially important because Howard will be a free agent at the end of the year. If the Bulls traded for him, didn’t win this year, and then lost him in the offseason, it would be a disaster. Also, given the compressed nature of the schedule, the Bulls would more likely take a step back than a step forward this season. There wouldn’t be much practice time to familiarize Howard and Turkoglu with the schemes and the other players’ tendencies. In addition, even if Howard is the best defensive player in the league, there could be an adjustment period in which the team suffers from the loss of the two best defensive starters on the team. The Bulls would be gambling that any adjustment period is short and that the resulting team is better than the previous one.

There’s another trade possibility that isn’t exactly novel but hasn’t generated much discussion in a long time: Pau Gasol. Four years ago, the Bulls attempted to acquire Pau from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies ultimately accepted an offer from the Lakers that appeared worse than whatever the Bulls were reported to have put on the table, but in the end the Grizzlies fared pretty well as a result of their decision. The Lakers also fared well, winning a couple championships with Pau and Kobe leading the way. Now, the Lakers face a bit of a dilemma. They’re structured like the Heat, except that both their Big 3 and their supporting cast are notably worse than Miami’s. In fact, their supporting cast is objectively horrible. The fifth-best PER on the team is 10.6, which is easily exceeded by all 14 players who have suited up for the Bulls this year. Although I don’t believe that Scalabrine, Lucas, or Mike James would merit a substantial role on the Lakers, everyone else probably would.

The Lakers seem to recognize that the current roster is not ideal. They already thought that they had traded Pau prior to the season in the Chris Paul debacle, and they’re frequently rumored to be active in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. After the Chris Paul deal was vetoed by the league, Lamar Odom was so upset by his inclusion that the Lakers traded him at a seemingly discount rate. Pau similarly appears unhappy with his position in the organization. He has already voiced his displeasure with Mike Brown’s Kobe-isolation offense which keeps him on the perimeter, and his numbers are down across the board. He has also been targeted as a scapegoat for the team’s failures in last year’s playoffs and for their early struggles this year. The Lakers have a difficult 10-game stretch before the All-Star game, including games in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Philly, Boston, and New York in addition to hosting the Blazers and Hawks. If they don’t win a majority of those games, the pressure to make some major changes should increase. Kobe isn’t going anywhere, and Bynum would only be moved for Howard. None of the role players have significantly positive trade value. Unless the Lakers can acquire a difference-maker with Odom’s trade exception, dealing Pau is their best option to address the team’s deficiencies.

After that lengthy introduction, I’ll get to the point:

Presuming that Joel Przybilla would sign with the Bulls if playing time were available, I think that the Bulls should offer Boozer, Asik, Brewer, and their first-round pick to the Lakers for Pau and Derrick Caracter.

The biggest reason for this deal is that Pau would be a great fit on the Bulls. Although his numbers are superficially quite similar to Boozer’s, he would be a substantial upgrade both offensively and defensively. On offense, his primary advantages are shot creation and passing. According to Hoopdata, 72.0% of Boozer’s field goals are assisted, compared to 59.7% for Pau. These numbers are in line with their recent careers, as Pau has consistently been at 55%-60% and Boozer around 70%. This may not seem like a big difference, but consider that the functional range of values for big men is only from roughly 50% (e.g. Zach Randolph creating in the post / facing up) to 80% (e.g. Antawn Jamison working mostly in catch-and-shoot situations). Pau and Boozer are on opposite ends of the spectrum. With respect to passing, both Boozer and Pau have low turnover rates around 10% of their possessions used. However, Pau’s assist rate (18.1% of possessions used) is nearly double that of Boozer (9.83%). Boozer’s passing is typically somewhat better than it has been this year, but it’s still not nearly as strong as Gasol’s. Pau would improve the team’s ball movement to help generate more easy shots.

On defense, we all know that Boozer is subpar and limited. In contrast, Pau is a fine defender who can play not only power forward but also center. His versatility has been tremendously important in recent years with Bynum often nursing injuries. He’s a +1.4 defensively by regularized adjusted +/-, compared to -1.8 for Boozer. With Pau on the team, the Bulls would have more options to improve the lineup offensively without sacrificing their defensive dominance, such as by playing Korver with the starters or by using Pau at center for stretches with the second unit.

Although the team’s depth and defense would take a hit with the losses of Brewer and Asik, I think that overall the benefits would outweigh the costs, especially in the playoffs when rotations are shorter. We have seen flashes from Butler that suggest that he can handle a larger role and duplicate much of what Brewer has provided. The loss of Asik would be softened by Pau’s ability to play center and the presumed addition of Przybilla. It seems that Przybilla wants to join a contender, have an established role with the team, and stay close to home. He is rumored to be considering only the Bulls and the Heat. Right now the Bulls have no role for him, while the Heat could offer more of an opportunity but no guarantees. In a twist of fortune, the Bulls have the location advantage, given that Przybilla and his family live near Milwaukee. If the Bulls trade Asik, the backup center role will be there for him. Also, while it’s tough to give up Asik and his potential, there’s a good chance that the Bulls wouldn’t match the highest offer for him this offseason despite the lower cap on his salary. Przybilla is nearly identical in his offensive limitations and defensive prowess in the short term.

For the Lakers, it is difficult to justify a trade in which you give up the best player, but they would be adding much-needed depth, youth, and athleticism. Brewer would lend some stability on the wing beside or behind Kobe, and Asik would be an extreme upgrade over their current backup center options. Bynum can compensate for some of Boozer’s defensive issues, and Boozer seems to prefer playing outside the lane at this point in his career, as Pau has been asked to do in that lineup. In addition, the Lakers would gain assets that should be more attractive to the Magic if they’d like to facilitate a trade for Howard. Since Ryan Anderson has emerged as the second-best player in Orlando, Gasol doesn’t have much value there. The Lakers potentially could add Asik, Brewer, and/or the Bulls’ pick to their offer of Bynum and picks for Dwight to get a deal done.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Caracter is involved in the deal because it would be fitting if the Bulls added a guy whose name is pronounced "character." He’s injured and likely wouldn’t contribute anything on the court.

Here would be the Bulls’ new rotation:

Rose / CJ / Lucas

Rip / Korver / CJ

Deng / Butler / Korver

Pau / Taj / Deng

Noah / Przybilla / Pau


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