In the summer before the 2007-08 season, Kobe Bryant publicly expressed a desire to be traded from the LA Lakers. At the time, the Lakers had come off a 42 win season where they actually started Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. At the start of the 2007-08 season, the Lakers let it be known that they would blow up their entire roster to pair another star with Kobe. GMs across the league exulted with glee and refused to consider trade possibilities that didn’t begin with the names Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The Lakers had been favorites of the NBA for too long; too many stars had spurned other teams for the glitz of Hollywood. Every NBA team, it seemed, was going to relish watching the Lakers lose their franchise player.
Until Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace decided to trade All Star forward Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, two first rounds picks (ended up in the 20-30 range), the rights to Lakers second round pick Marc Gasol (of whom nobody had heard of) and cap ballast. Some called it the most lopsided trade in NBA history.
Before the 2007-08 season, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley put the team on the market. The Grizzlies had moved to small market Memphis (with no other American pro sports teams) from Vancouver. Heisley got no buyers for the Grizz at market value.
As the season entered February, the Grizzlies’ record was a pathetic 13-33 with little hope for the future. Both Rudy Gay and Michael Conley, the young cornerstones for the franchise, were having up-and-down seasons. With little in the way of salary cap flexibility, Pau Gasol was the biggest asset the team had. Only, Gasol’s giant contract decreased the value and attractiveness of the Grizz for prospective buyers. The imperative at 13-33 was always going to be a fire-sale of all large contracts on the roster. At the end of 2007-08, it appeared that it would only be a matter of time before the Grizzlies moved from Memphis. Most speculation suggested that any prospective buyer for the franchise would seek to move it out to a bigger market.
When the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, they had won 28 of 44 games in the season. With Gasol, they had three seven footers on the roster each capable of turning in game changing performances. They made it to the NBA Finals in three consecutive years, winning two NBA championships. Turning Kwame Brown into Pau was the biggest coup of Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak’s career. How ridiculous was the trade? Javaris Crittenton courted arrest as recently as a year back and had done nothing suggest he would be a good player at the time of the trade; late first round picks rarely have fruitful NBA careers…and then there was Kwame Brown. In the words of the inimitable Stephen A. Smith:
“Kwame Brown is gone. The city of angels, Hollywood should be celebrating. Throw a parade already, whether you win a championship or not. This guy was a bona-fide scrub. He can’t play. He cannot play the game of basketball. He has small hands, he can’t catch the ball. He’s got bad feet, he can’t really move even though he’s mobile, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, doesn’t have a post move he puts to memory that he can do two times in a row, he has no game whatsoever, he plays no defense, doesn’t have the heart, the passion, anything that comes with it…and you’re asking me if the Lakers gave up too much?”
Even Stephen A. Smith got it right; that’s how messed up the trade seemed in 2008.
The trade frustrated SA Spurs coach Greg Poppovich so much that he publicly aired his disgust with Grizzlies team management.
Four years on, it now appears that the Grizzlies might have actually won the Gasol trade. Here’s how:
First and foremost, the Grizzlies got Pau’s brother Marc in the deal, a little known quantity at that point. Marc has turned into a franchise player for the Grizzlies, averaging 15 point, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks a game last season on 48% shooting from the field. The Grizz run most of their offense through their big men – Randolph and Gasol – and are a hyper-efficient team when they do so. When ranked by Win Shares, Basketball-Reference’s advanced metric on the wins contributed by each player, Pau Gasol ranked 10th in the league while Marc ranked 11th. Pau’s stat-line for last season: 17.4ppg/10.4rpg/1.4bpg. Considering that Pau’s 32 and in decline while Marc’s 27 and in his prime, a Pau for Marc straight up trade today would be equal value. In fact, the team getting Marc would probably win the trade. And yet, Pau helped deliver two championships to Laker-land. What has Marc done? Hold on for a bit.
The Grizz cleared up a big chunk of cap space when Kwame Brown’s expiring contract came off the books. They used part of it to acquire Darko Milicic (ugh) who they flipped for Quentin Richardson (ugh!!!) who got traded for Zach Randolph (the Grizz had 10 million in cap space plus Richardson’s contract). The two first round picks basically became Darrel Arthur and Greivis Vasquez.
The Grizzlies finished the 2007-08 season with a woeful 22-60 record. But by 2009-10, with a rejuvenated Zach Randolph and strong play by then rookie Marc Gasol, the Grizz had their best season in years, winning 40 games. By 2010 Zach Randolph was an All Star, averaging 20/12 on 50% shooting. Within two years of the trade, the Grizzlies had basically turned Pau Gasol into a front court averaging 35 points and 22 rebounds a game on better than 50% shooting, plus two key rotation players, including a hugely talented young athletic forward (Arthur). And still, Pau delivered two championships to Staples. That matters more.
By 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies had made the NBA playoffs for only the second time in their 10 year history in Memphis.
In the 2011 playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies became only the third team in NBA history to beat a #1 seed as a #8 seed in the playoffs when they beat the San Antonio Spurs, many would say the best team of the last decade, in the first round of the playoffs. The pushed a young OKC Thunder team to seven games in the second round, including a Game 6 triple overtime thriller that will go down in NBA playoffs lore as one of the greatest ever. The player who hit an off-balance three pointer to tie the game and send it to second overtime at the buzzer? Greivis Vasquez, one of the first round picks in the Gasol trade. Zach Randolph averaged 22/11 in the playoffs and proved to be a go-to player in the clutch. Marc Gasol averaged 15/11. To sum up: by this point, the Grizzlies had turned Pau Gasol (with whom they had gone 13-33) into a franchise center, two rounds of the playoffs, the most exciting moments in Memphis sports history, the most consecutive sold out games for the Grizzlies and national visibility for their brand. All this by only the Pau Gasol trade. And oh, by the 2011-12 season, several prospective buyers lined up to put in a bid for the next Cinderella team of the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizz had gone from household joke to the hottest upstarts in the league. Michael Heisley agreed to sell the team to Robert Pera, a dude on the Forbes list of top 10 youngest billionaires in the world.
This offseason, California native Pera reached an agreement with several Memphis entrepreneurs that will add local investors to his bid, with the terms of the partnership essentially meaning that the Grizzlies cannot leave Memphis for the next fifteen years. In other words, the events triggered by the Gasol for Gasol trade ensured that the city of Memphis would not lose its basketball team.
Yes, Pau won two championships with Kobe in LA. Big deal; the Lakers have more than a dozen championships spanning pretty much every decade in NBA history (barring the 90s). The Grizzlies had nothing.
Now, four years down the line, is there any question as to which team benefited more from the trade?