Panning For Gold In The NBA West

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 27, 2008
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When the next great chronicle of America western expansion is written, historians will focus not on the need for fertile lands to plow nor space for religious freedom as reasons for the daring treks into the unknown.

As before, the search for gold leads the masses.

Much like the nuggets found in the American River near Sacramento by James Marshall in 1848 spurned the rush of some half-million people in search of instant wealth, the action of a shabbily dressed man with shorts far too revealing and who is often surrounded by silicone-enhanced valets some 384.4 miles south along I-5 has thrown the NBA West into a flurry of speculation. But while the famed California Gold Rush produced an annual production value of $81 million by 1852, the rush led by Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss will not enrich hundreds, but in fact only one. Well, two if you count retired forward Keith Van Horn, who hit the mother load with a $4.3 million pay day to become part of the deal that brought Jason Kidd to the Mavericks.

While not taking up the most space on the court, the gift of Pau Gasol to the Lakers from Memphis is the great Carson Hill find of 1854. The 195-pound hunk of gold, worth about $2.9 million on today’s market, is mere flake in comparison. The Lakers have not only divested itself from Michael Jordan’s draft-day bungle but have added the most athletic big man to don the purple and gold since Alcindor became Abdul-Jabbar. In one big move the Lakers have not only added the talent to challenge San Antonio for Western dominance, but may now boast the league’s best front line: Gasol (19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, Lamar Odom (13.4, 10) and Andrew Bynum (13.1, 10.2). If backup Chris Mihm can recover from his Achilles surgery in time for the playoffs, the Lakers have even more fouls to throw at the 54-pound Willard Nugget that was recently discovered in the Valley of the Sun.

Seeing Shaq play Arnold Schwarzenegger to Steve Nash’s Danny DeVito has made for more than just interesting television. It has also signaled the end of the Suns’ small-ball philosophy that has produced a chest of regular season wins but no year-end gold strike. Much like the Lakers, the Suns realized that the trail to the title goes through San Antonio, and in order to stake their claim they would have to find a counter for the Big Fundamental. Enter the Big Aristotle. Whether or not you believe the Suns’ training staff’s claim that the 325-pounder has returned with just 11 percent body fat, the fact is that no matter how much extra hardtack the former LSU Tiger is carrying, the man still warrants attention even if he is just a role player. O’Neal is a space eater and is good with the outlet pass, which will benefit the Suns perimeter players. Most importantly, his arrival allows Amare Stoudemire to move over to a more natural No. 4 spot, which should increase his production as he won’t be forced to bang around with taller and heavier post players. Add to this a consistent 15 and 8 and - though it won’t match the individual production of the recently departed Shawn Marion - could be enough to get them to the conference finals.

Of all the organizations that got the wires humming, the Mavericks may be the one team to end up with more pyrite than actual heavy bullion. This is not to say that Kidd is ready for the old prospectors home. Though his shooting percentage is the worst of his career, he can still run an offense (10.4 assists per game) and help open Dallas’ running game. The Mavs are ninth in the Western Conference in scoring and can use the offensive boost that Kidd’s passing will bring, but the move does little to combat the advances made by Los Angeles, Phoenix or even San Antonio, which just added more front court strength with the addition of Kurt Thomas.

As the season winds down and the playoff streams grow more crowded with panners hoping for a big pay day, the action could get fierce. And while having a Diesel to hide behind may seem a safe place to wait out the horde of claim jumpers, no spot on the banks will be more secure than the one at 1111 S. Figueroa Street. The Lakers’ front line is bigger and more athletic than any team in the NBA and with a happy-toget-out-of Memphis Gasol, and Kobe Bryant needing to prove he can win without O’Neal, the stars are aligned for the reinvigoration of the old rivalry with Boston.

Of course, if Rasheed Wallace doesn’t suffer another playoff meltdown and the Pistons seem interested in their jobs, then a rerun of the 2004 finals may be in order.

But not likely.

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