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Setting the record straight


By Adam Hoff


This is going to be an ironic column.  First, I just moved from Los Angeles to Chicago last week, so the timing is quite coincidental.  The second reason this column falls on the ironic side is that I’m writing it in defense of a pair of LA sports teams ... and I tend to root against LA sports teams.


The impetus for all this irony is the flurry of trading that has been taking place in “The Southland” (as the cheesy newscasters refer to it).  Shaq has been traded by Kobe, err, Kupchek to Miami, GP has been unloaded to Boston, and the Dodgers have completed a facelift (no pun intended) on a first place team.  And of the five trades in all, only the Payton deal seems to be going over okay in the LA area.  Lakers fans are bitter that the face of their franchise now resides in South Beach and Dodgers faithful are taking the loss of catcher Paul Lo Duca pretty hard.

However, I happen to believe that things turned out pretty well for these two storied franchises.  The Lakers probably made a mistake when they hung Shaq out to dry and started letting Kobe dictate everything, but once that happened, they HAD to trade O’Neal.  It was the only way.  Plus – and we’ll get into this more later – dealing Shaq will ultimately pave the way to a much easier rebuilding project.  As for the Dodgers, the trades that Paul DePodesta has been making are downright good deals.  Forget about all the Lo Duca lovers and espousers of middle relievers.  The fact of the matter is that LA is a better baseball team than they were two weeks ago. 


Let’s break down what each team has done.


Lakers.  The drama queens of the NBA got annihilated by the Pistons in the Finals but made sure to keep a hold of the spotlight with a wild offseason.  Not only has Shaq been dealt, but Phil has driven off into the sunset, Rudy T has returned to the bench after battling cancer, Kobe is on trial for rape (not mention his hostage-taker role in free agency), Payton has been dumped, Rick Fox got the boot and will probably retire, Derek Fisher got overpaid by the Warriors, and Karl Malone is still hemming and hawing over whether he wants to play next year.  Basically, nothing has stayed the same.


While all of the attention has focused on whom the Lakers have lost – particularly Shaq – there is still plenty for LA to feel good about.  Granted, O’Neal is about to go absolutely nuts next year (I’m predicting 27 and 12 and an MVP award in Miami) and make Lakers fans sick, but the moves they’ve made this summer will go a long way toward making them good next year and beyond.  In return for Shaq they received do-everything star Lamar Odom, underrated stud Caron Butler, and one of the few true gritty interior players in Brian Grant.  Add in Vlade Divac at center and some future cap flexibility and things look very good.  The new-look Lakers are faster and much deeper than last year’s version and have some pieces they could use to get even better. 


The line-up is going to look like this: TBA at point guard (Chucky Atkins if he isn’t waived, Marcus Banks if he can take a big step forward, or even their Euro draft pick), Kobe at the two, Lamar Odom at the three, Brian Grant at power forward, and Vlade at center.  Plus, they will have Slava Medvedenko, Caron Butler, Luke Walton, and Kareem Rush coming off the bench.  That’s a lot of talent, even if Karl Malone doesn’t decide to return.  In fact, the aforementioned team really only has three flaws: 1) There’s no shot blocker.  2) There’s not a clear-cut answer at PG.  3) A lack of low post scoring. 


I’m not exactly sure what to do about #1, but #2 should resolve itself once somebody steps up in training camp.  #3 is where LA should focus its attention.  As it stands now, they only have player that can go down to the block and draw double teams and that’s Kobe.  Odom is a face-up player that is better the farther he gets from the hoop, Vlade is a high post passer at this point, Grant can’t really score in any fashion, Butler is a slasher, Medvedenko is a jump shooter, and so on.  If the Lakers don’t answer that third problem, they’ll be in the middle of the West, fighting for one of the 6-8 seeds.  However, there is a way to take care of that issue: by dealing Butler to the Blazers for Shareef Abdur-Rahim.


I’ve been beating this idea into the ground lately, but it just makes so much sense that I can’t leave it alone.  The Blazers have alienated both Darius Miles and Rahim and now neither guy wants to play in Portland.  Miles is problematic because they need him to play small forward.  Rahim isn’t as big of a problem because they are (foolishly, in my opinion) building around Zach Randolph at the four.  So what is going to happen?  Both guys are probably going to stay in Portland (Rahim if he can’t get the trade he wants and Miles because nobody wants to make an offer on a restricted free agent) and be miserable.  That’s where the Lakers come in.  They can solve all of the Blazers’ problems with a Caron Butler for Rahim switch.  Abdur-Rahim is the low-post scorer and veteran that they need to leap into the top four in the West and Butler is the underrated talent that could easily be the starting small forward in Portland for the next ten years. 


On the Lakers bench Butler is a wasted talent.  I’ve read columns that talk about him competing for time with Devean George and Luke Walton.  You’ve got to be kidding me.  Butler is at worst a legit starter and at best a Paul Pierce type of player.  He had a tough, injury-plagued season last year that dropped his market value, but the guy is a stud.  If LA is just going to waste him by putting him on the bench behind Odom, they might as well get something for him.  And that “something” could very well be an immensely talented power forward that has been putting up 20 and 10 for his entire career.  Not only that, but Reef has the perfect temperament to play next to Kobe.  While certainly not a leader or a proven winner, Rahim is a laid-back guy that would make a great second banana next to an extremely competitive player.  There’d be no power struggle, no arguments over touches, and no ongoing drama, but the Lakers would still get the post presence they are going to need.  Add in Odom and LA would have one of the best trios in the league. 


So that’s my advice to both of those teams.  Take these talented players that you’ve got stashed on your benches as the 8th man and swap them for each other.  If they simply switched places they’d both become the third best players on their new teams.  It’s so simple!


Nevertheless though, things aren’t as bleak as a lot of Lakers fans think they are.  (This excludes my boy Higa, who is more excited for this Lakers team than any other versions since I’ve known him.)  Rudy T can coach, they’ve unloaded the positively brutal Payton (although it’s sort of funny, but his low post game would come in handy), Kobe has his new deal and total control, Odom is poised to lead the league in triple doubles, and the bench is deep and versatile.  A few more deals like the one described above could make them even better, but overall they did a pretty nice job.  They will remain competitive next year, run teams up and down the court, and start to achieve the financial flexibility they will need to avoid a rebuilding effort.  An effort that would have been completely unavoidable had Shaq played out the duration of his career in Los Angeles.


Dodgers.  The situation with the Dodgers is a little different.  While the idea of blowing up the Lakers had been out there for a long time and ultimately came across as an inevitability, the trades that LA’s baseball team swung in the last few weeks were a total surprise.  Not only is DePodesta in his first year as GM and therefore should be a bit timid about making risky deals, but the Dodgers were also in first place and coming off a 21-6 stretch in July.  They were considered to have some of the best team chemistry in the game and were absolutely rolling when DePodesta started making his moves.  And it appears that most fans are coming from the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it school” and are up in arms about the moves.  While Lakers fans have egos and Kobe (one in the same?) to blame for the breakup of their team, Dodgers’ fans have pretty much focused on the GM.


Here’s the thing about DePodesta’s trades: they were good moves.  Forget what Jayson Stark is writing, ignore Jim Tracy’s mild form of protest (switching to Lo Duca’s old #16 jersey), and worry not about Brad Penny’s little trip to the DL with a bicep strain, the Dodgers got quite a bit better before the trade deadline.  (Although the season-ending injury to Darren Dreifert is definitely cause for concern.)


Look at it from DePodesta’s standpoint.  He’s a numbers guy (think Moneyball here) that is always going to make moves that stem from value (not merely OBP, as so many seem to believe).  He’s going to find guys that are undervalued and trade players that are overvalued.  It’s that simple.  And that is entirely what these trades were about.  For instance: he traded Guillermo Mota and got ripped by “the experts.”  They bemoaned the fact that he was breaking up the best bullpen in the game.  And it’s true that Mota is a stud. Among pitchers with at least 12 decisions, he leads the majors in ERA at 2.05.  He’s going to make Florida’s pen absolutely nasty.  But the fact remains that Mota was one of many talented bullpen arms in the Dodgers’ system.  Gagne is the man in the 9th, Darren Dreifert had the stuff of an elite setup man, and rookie Yhency Brazoban is a beast.  DePodesta knew that Mota was good but that he happened to be part of a deep group.  And he also knew that he was going to get a lot more for a proven arm than for the guy ripping up the minor leagues.  He figures that they could wind up being equally effective down the road.  So who does trade?  Easy, the guy that has more perceived value.  Obviously, the injury to Dreifert clouds all of this, but DePodesta has already done out and traded for Scott Stewart from the Indians and Elmer Dessens from the Diamondbacks.  We’ll see if those guys can fill the hole left by Dreifert’s injury, but either way, the rookie GM was simply making moves according to total value. 


Same with Lo Duca.  Here you’ve got a guy that is a leader and a hustler and a real wizard where intangibles are concerned.  Plus, he hits the ball for a high average.  However, he doesn’t draw many walks, doesn’t hit for a ton of power, and isn’t a terrific defensive catcher.  In DePodesta’s eyes, he’s overvalued around the league, so it was an easy choice to trade him.  Right fielder Juan Encarnacion is the same way.  A “five tool” talent that doesn’t really put up great numbers.  Easy choice to deal him.


On the other side of things, DePodesta brought in three guys that he probably values more than most baseball people.  Hee Sop Choi is a young player that has great plate discipline and an outstanding OPS.  Plus, he can play first base and allow Shawn Green to move to the outfield where he will no doubt be more comfortable and productive.  It’s almost like getting two players in one.  Jackpot.  Brent Maybe is a reliable veteran catcher that hits from the left side of the plate and draws a lot of walks.  He’ll be a nice pinch-hitting option in the late innings and a perfect player to platoon with the young power hitter, Dave Ross.  Finally, DePodesta scored Brad Penny.  If you look at the numbers, Penny was the best pitcher on the Marlins staff.  He’s far more durable than A.J. Burnett or Josh Beckett and he’s better than Carl Pavano or Dontrelle Willis.  Yet the Marlins foolishly viewed him as one of their backend starters (4th or 5th depending on who you talk to).  DePodesta realized this and swiped him.  He just got himself the real ace of the defending World Series champs. 


To top it all off, he went and got Steve Finley to team with Adrian Beltre, Milton Bradley, Green, rookie Jayson Werth, and Choi in what has suddenly become a formidable lineup.


So forget what you are reading, Dodgers fans.  And forget about the guys that LA didn’t get (see: Randy and Charles Johnson).  Instead, realize that you’ve got a genius for a GM and that he just made your team better.  You’ll see.


So there’s my take on these LA Stories.  I hope I’m wrong – because, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t care much for LA teams – but I have a feeling that the summer of discontent in Southern California is going to wind up reaping some nice rewards.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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