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Thrill of the chase (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 19, 2008 1:51PM; Updated: Wednesday February 20, 2008 6:16PM
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In Pau Gasol (above), the Lakers got more of a long-term solution than the Suns did with Shaquille O'Neal or the Mavs did with Jason Kidd.
In Pau Gasol (above), the Lakers got more of a long-term solution than the Suns did with Shaquille O'Neal or the Mavs did with Jason Kidd.
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If the Lakers, the Suns or the Mavericks manage to reach the NBA Finals this spring, simple cause-and-effect assumptions will chalk up their 2008 success to the winners' recent gutsy move. Shaq will have fixed Phoenix's size problem, Gasol will have given the Lakers needed frontcourt scoring or Kidd will have imposed order on and injected energy into Dallas' attack.

Two out of those three teams, though, will have their maneuvers dismissed as unsuccessful, unnecessary, maybe even mistaken, because they won't advance much further than before. And if the Spurs win again, or the Hornets, Rockets or Nuggets break through, the whole concept of an on-the-fly, February makeover might take a hit that lasts for years.

Except, that is, for the Lakers. While the Suns' and Mavericks' moves were made for now, Los Angeles' low-cost addition of Gasol, 27, was done for now and for later.

That's why, on the eve of his team's extended break, Lakers coach Phil Jackson sported that bemused, cat-ate-the-canary look he does so well. First he poked a needle at the Mavericks and those who instantly classified their deal with New Jersey as the "Kidd trade.''

"I was a Devin Harris fan, so you know, I'm happy to see him in the East, personally,'' Jackson said. "He's a good player, took a lot of charges, an improving player, one of those young kids with good energy. Got the ball back for his team a lot. I know they'll miss him. But this is a trade that brings a lot of veteran leadership to Dallas.''

Then Jackson agreed when I suggested his team's deal had more "legs'' than those of Phoenix or Dallas.

"There's some truth to that,'' he said. "Obviously, Dallas gave up some first-round draft picks, though they're going to be 25 [spots] or so down. Phoenix is sitting there with some older players, especially [Steve] Nash in that situation.

"I just asked [my] coaches, 'Does Dallas feel like a team whose window is starting to close on them, with [Dirk] Nowitzki at 30 [actually 29]?' Some people say yes. I still think he's got three or four good years left. But yeah, it looks that way. On paper it does.''

If healthy and motivated, of course, O'Neal still could warp opponents' game plans down the stretch and make life miserable for someone in a seven-game series. If happy and motivated, Kidd in his own way could do likewise, maybe even taking the Mavericks two victories beyond their 2006 success/setback.

"He's the ultimate point guard,'' said Wittman, whose team faced Kidd and the Nets twice in three weeks before All-Star weekend. "He controls everything. He'll fit right in there, no question about it. He's just so good at understanding situations, where the ball has to be and when it has to be there. Hurts you if you leave him open for a jump shot.

"The big thing, everybody is going to weigh this three, four years from now, seeing Devin Harris maybe being an All-Star somewhere and Kidd's retired, sitting in his rocking chair.''

Cue Jackson's grin. His Lakers team is as deep as any he has had, in talented, malleable players. Bryant's damaged right pinky finger is a dilemma and a potentially fatal flaw for this postseason, and Andrew Bynum's expected March return from a left knee injury is a challenge for him and those with whom he'll play. But Gasol is, if not forever, at least a likely fixture. Through Tuesday, Los Angeles was 6-1 since Gasol moved into the starting lineup, all but one of those games on the road.

"He's an agile athlete,'' Jackson said. "He can do a lot of things. His mobility and his basketball savvy has helped us along. We're still adjusting to how to play with him at the defensive end. He has worked out quite well offensively.''

Does Gasol make more sense for the Lakers, as the West superpowers muscle up, than O'Neal in Phoenix or Kidd in Dallas?

"Let's see how it fits together,'' Jackson said. "We still have a large order to come, with Andrew getting back and playing this year. If and when he does, that will be a major adjustment for our team. But right now, it fits really well.''

Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.

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