As the NBA lockout drags on, we'll be re-visiting some of the biggest trades that set up the league as it stands now. Trades are just one part of team-building, along with the draft and free agency. But fans and observers put more energy into the trade market than all else, and a huge trade has ramifications that can shake the entire league.
When the Memphis Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers in February 2008, no one considered it anything other than a gift to the NBA's glamour team. The Lakers had struggled since trading Shaq to the Miami Heat in 2004. Take a look at the team's annual winning percentage since 2000. Boldface is with Shaq; normal font is after trading Shaq and italics enter when Pau was acquired.
2008: .695 (.636 before trade, .763 after trade)
Before trading Shaq, the Lakers won 50 games every year, and hadn't had a winning percentage under .600 since Phil Jackson arrived. That 2005 season was a disaster; as Shaq thrived in South Beach, Kobe Bryant struggled with an injury, Rudy Tomjanovich walked into a hornet's nest, and doom had arrived. Jackson returned in 2006, and things got better ... but still not close to the levels attained when Kobe had an elite big man to help. Lamar Odom and a (very) young Andrew Bynum could only do so much.
Things were looking up in the 2007-08 season, thanks largely to Bynum's improvement. In his third season, Bynum began to figure out both what he needed to do to stay in the game and how to best help Bryant, Lamar Odom and the Lakers' odd cast of roleplayers. (Free Smush.) That improvement manifested in a double-double average, 13 points and 10 rebounds. With Bynum becoming that which Kobe had missed over the previous three seasons, the Lakers were as good as they'd been since Shaq left, with a 25-11 record by January 13.
Then disaster struck. Bynum went down in Memphis on that night, blowing out his knee and watching his season disappear. The Lakers would go 3-5 in the immediate aftermath, ending January with a 28-16 record and a bad outlook, given the history of the previous three seasons.
Meanwhile, in Memphis, the Grizzlies were stuck in the mire. Gasol had been injured in international competition in the summer of 2006; he didn't get on the court until December 15 in the 2006-07 season. By that point, the Grizzlies -- who had been to the playoffs the past few seasons -- were stuck at 5-17, with Mike Fratello headed for the gallows.
Memphis managed to win just one of its first eight games with Gasol back in the saddle, and Fratello was replaced by first-time head coach Tony Barone. The season continued as it had begun, with the Grizzlies finishing with a league-worst 22 wins. The next season, with D'Antoni acolyte Marc Iavaroni taking over, was just as bad. Memphis entered January with an 8-22 record, and with Gasol drawing palpable ire from the fans. The Grizzlies fell apart with Pau was gone, but he had failed to put them back together. Things were unraveling, and fast.
By the end of January, then, it was no surprise that the Lakers were looking for a stud big man to replace Bynum for the season and provide help going forward. The Lakers didn't have a whole lot to offer beyond Kwame Brown's nice, fat expiring contract ($9 million), and some young, unproven prospects like Javaris Crittenton and Jordan Farmar. It was no surprise that the Grizzlies would consider trading Gasol, who obviously couldn't carry a broken team any further than the cellar by that point. The Grizzlies needed to stockpile flexibility and add some young pieces to the high draft picks they were accruing by virtue of being terrible.
Neither teams' individual participating in the trade mill was surprising in 2008. But when the deal went down, it shook the NBA hard. No one expected this.
The Lakers sent Brown, Crittenton, a 2008 first-round pick, a 2010 first-round pick and a stashed prospect who happened to be Pau's brother Marc Gasol for Pau and a 2010 second-round pick. The best asset going from L.A. to Memphis was considered to be Crittenton, who to that point had played all of 171 minutes as a rookie. (The Lakers had landed him with the No. 19 pick in the 2007 draft.) Brown was a straight-up salary dump; to trade for stars in the NBA, you need at least one fat contract to send back, and Kwame, who was otherwise as much a disaster in L.A. as he'd been in D.C., served his purpose. The picks would be low; they ended up at No. 28 in 2008 (Donte Greene, eventually conveyed to Sacramento after a series of trades) and No. 28 in 2010 (Greivis Vasquez).
Marc was an interesting addition, and Memphis' strong foreign scouting staff obviously thought plenty of him. The Lakers had taken a flyer on him midway through the second round in 2007, 30 picks after adding Crittenton. He was successful playing professionally in Spain; when the Lakers traded him, he was actually in the middle of an MVP season in the ACB. But given that he was already 23 and had never played a minute of NBA ball, observers were understandably skeptical. If he was anything close to Pau, wouldn't he have already been in the NBA at a younger age?
As it turns out, Memphis knew exactly what it was doing. While Crittenton frittered away his career -- he played 35 games for Memphis, and was traded to Washington in December 2008 for a future first that became Xavier Henry; now, he faces murder charges in Atlanta -- and Brown went quietly into the night, Marc joined the Grizzlies for the 2008-09 season and excelled. He made first-team All Rookie at age 24 and has been a rock of stability since. With all due respect to Zach Randolph, Gasol may have been Memphis' MVP in the 2011 playoffs, as he averaged 15 points a game on 51 percent shooting, with 11 rebounds and two blocks. He's among the best defenders in the league at center; he will no doubt be the most sought-after restricted free agent on the market if the lockout ever ends and Memphis allows him to test the waters. (The Grizzlies are expected to retain Marc at all costs.)
The maligned first-round picks didn't turn out too bad for Memphis, either. The Grizzlies got Darrell Arthur from the Donte Greene pick in a trade; Arthur has since become a decent third big man off the bench. Vasquez had a rough rookie season but really came on during the playoffs, giving solid, vital minutes to Lionel Hollins.
Of course, Pau remains the star of the trade. The Lakers, after all, took three straight Western Conference titles after acquiring Gasol and grabbed two more NBA championships. Having Gasol now makes the idea of potentially trading Bynum for a megastar like Dwight Howard feasible. (May God save us all.) While Marc has succeeded and Memphis bounced back strong, the Lakers have come away with the treasure. The trade set off a firestorm of anger at Memphis for gifting L.A. a star, and it set off a chain reaction of additional trades as contenders tried to answer the Lakers' coup. Five days after the Gasol swap, the Phoenix Suns traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal. Two weeks later, the Dallas Mavericks landed Jason Kidd in a massive, expensive trade. But neither could top the Lakers.
The criticisms of Memphis ended up looking pretty silly, but given the inputs, it's pretty easy to see why we were all so skeptical, and the Lakers' incredible success has justified a good bit of that. Marc is just a part of the story of Memphis' comeback; the cap space afforded by the Kwame Brown contract helped get Zach Randolph, eventually, and hitting rock bottom without Pau allowed Memphis to pick up O.J. Mayo and, uh, Hasheem Thabeet. (Whoops. Even then, Thabeet was flipped for Shane Battier, who was integral in the 2011 playoff run.) But while all of that had to come together to get Memphis into the playoffs, adding Pau instantly took the Lakers from a mid-rung playoff team to a champion. Three trades in the last 10 years have legitimately created champions: Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, Shaq to the Heat and Pau to the Lakers. No one saw the Memphis revival coming. But when the Pau trade went down, we had a sense that this would be the result for L.A.
On Tuesday: we look at Kevin Garnett to the Celtics, four years later.