Boston Celtics

The Gasol for Rondo Trade: Is It Still Necessary to have a Top Big vs. a Top PG?

A recent and rampant NBA rumor surrounding the 17-17 Boston Celtics has been a potential trade of All-Star PG Rajon Rondo to the L.A. Lakers for F/C Pau Gasol. While it has become fairly evident that the Celtics will not be competing for a championship this year, signifying a need to re-make their roster, I do not agree with trading Rondo, at least for this specific player. I would personally dislike a trade that would help the Lakers, and believe the Celtics are better off building around Rondo than they are an older big like Gasol. However, multiple prominent Boston-area sports personalities have indicated approval of the Rondo for Gasol swap, which I found to be surprising. Rondo is, after all, a top-notch distributor just entering his prime, while Gasol may very well be starting his decline. Many Boston fans, as well as, perhaps, the Celtics organization, are beginning to sour on Rondo for a number of reasons: his recent 2-game suspension for throwing a ball at an official being a perfect case in point.

The primary argument I’ve heard in favor of this trade is that the Celts would be better off with a top big man than a top PG. I thought this seemed like an antiquated notion in today’s NBA. I am also highly partial to PGs who can orchestrate an offense and make their teammates better, which is something Rondo excels at. Gasol, while certainly a very good big, is not the kind of player who can protect the rim, which is also something the Celtics desperately need.

So that brought me to the question: Is a top big always preferable to a top PG when building a championship team?

Intuitively, I’ve felt this was something that was true of the NBA during the days of Mikan, Russell, and Chamberlain, but I simply did not believe it was still the case today. To explore the point further, I looked at every NBA champion since the 1960-61 season and the presence of “top” bigs, wings, and PGs on their roster to see which position had the greatest impact on the final outcome. I measured what a “top” player is based on their Win Shares and some subjective reasoning. I also took a look at past MVP’s, Win Shares leaders, and All-NBA 1st and 2nd teams to see how frequently championship teams feature the league’s best player, or at least an elite player in the league. Here are the results of my research:

 Percentage of NBA Championships won by teams meeting the following attributes


Historical (1961-Present)

Modern Era (1981-Present)


1 Top Big




1 Top Wing




1 Top PG




1 Top 5 Player




1 Top 10 Player




2 Top 5 Players




2 Top 10 Players




3 Top 10 Players




Best Player




5 Top Players




4+ Top Players




3+ Top Players




2+ Top Players




Here are a few conclusions that may be drawn from this:

1.  Having at least 1 above average 4 or 5 has ALWAYS been an imperative for a championship basketball team, right up to present day. Antiquated it is not.

2. Having a top PG appears to be a luxury rather than a necessity. Historically, teams with elite bigs and versatile wings could win without a PG. In recent years, it has been teams with either an elite big (Spurs w/ Duncan) and/or wings the offense could be run through (Celts w/ Bird, Bulls w/ Jordan, Lakers w/ Kobe, etc.). Also understand that “bigs” constitute 4s and 5s, “wings” constitute 2s and 3s, while PG is just 1 position, so that could certainly skew the numbers AGAINST the argument in favor of Rondo.

3. Historically, championship teams have had a player who was generally considered the best in the NBA that year almost half the time. In some cases, it’s a great player surrounded by a great team (Ex. Russell’s Celtics, Moses Malone’s 76ers, Magic’s Lakers), but in other cases it really was the superstar carrying the team to a significant extent (Ex. Kareem’s Bucks, Olajuwon’s Rockets, Duncan’s Spurs). I found it fascinating that in the last 10 years, only 1 team with the league’s “best player” won it all, the 2003 Spurs. I suppose this proves that the best player cannot win alone in the modern NBA, not by a long shot.

4. However, the consistency with which championship teams have featured a Top 5 or Top 10 player would seem to indicate what many NBA fans have felt they’ve known right along, which is that the NBA is a superstar league, and without one, it is VERY difficult to win a title. The most prominent counterexamples being the 2004 Pistons and 1979 Sonics.

5. The 1989 and 1990 Pistons also lacked a “Top 10” player, but Isiah Thomas made All-NBA 1st or 2nd Team 5 times during his career and was still more or less on top of his game when his Pistons won their titles.

6. Having 2-3 players who are at least borderline All-Stars is, and has always been, a must.

This may seem incredibly obvious, but these statistics would appear to support the idea that NBA GMs should go after potential Top 10 talents whenever they get the opportunity, as they are almost a necessity to being a champion in the NBA. This has now been the case for 50+ seasons. Having a team that does not feature an elite talent should signal a red flag to a team’s GM that they need to do whatever they can (trade, draft lottery, etc.) to obtain an elite talent, even if it means gutting a decent team for a few years. Considering how rich the NBA is right now in elite talent, the 2004 Detroit Pistons are CLEARLY not walking through that door anytime soon.

As far as the research’s applicability to the Rondo trade, it would seem to indicate that the Celtics should, indeed, trade Rondo for Pau Gasol, as bigs are a necessity and PGs are a luxury. However, I still believe that this would be a mistake by the Celtics. First of all, they currently lack the Top 10 level player who is almost a necessity to possess in today’s NBA. While Rondo may never get to this level, Gasol will absolutely not attain this going forward, and at least Rondo has a chance. Furthermore, Rondo has elite talent as a distributor, which may be the only way to lure another superstar to Boston via free agency or a sign and trade. While even this scenario is unlikely, Gasol would do nothing to attract top talent, while bigs and wings who want easy buckets should be jumping at the opportunity to play with a player like Rondo. By the time the Celtics would have re-tooled for another championship run (assuming this is even possible) Gasol would be past his prime, rather than a centerpiece of this contender. Rondo, on the other hand, could be the driving force behind a championship contender 3-4 years from now if GM Danny Ainge plays his cards right.

* 1970 NY Knicks with Willis Reed and Walt Frazier

**1983 Sixers with Moses Malone and Dr. J, 1996 Bulls with Jordan and Pippen

***2002 Lakers with Shaq and Kobe

****2002 Lakers with Shaq and Kobe, 2006 Heat with Shaq and D. Wade

*****All instances of this were with the Celtics between 1961-66; can probably be attributed to WAY fewer players in the league during those years.  May be a LONG time before we see this again, even with “Big 3’s” being all the rage.

****** These were the 1973 Knicks with Frazier, J. Lucas, DeBusschere, Bradley and Monroe.

*******Only ones were the 2010 Lakers with Kobe, Gasol, Odom, and Bynum

********Only exception the past 51 years were the 1975 Warriors, who were Rick Barry and a bunch of ordinary talent around him.


17 Responses to “The Gasol for Rondo Trade: Is It Still Necessary to have a Top Big vs. a Top PG?”

  1. Wait, what’s your definition of a ‘top player’? Oh, it’s your definition, I see. I wasn’t sure what you meant by that. But, what does it really mean? Just above average, or considerably above average, or…?

    Even in the cases where the superstar had great players around him(jordan, magic, bird, kareem, russell), those superstars were the ones who pushed their teams over the top.

    Not sure about dallas having 2 top players last year.

    Shaq was at least the top player in the league for 2 of his titles, probably 3. Kobe was the best player in the league for 2 of his titles. Dirk was arguably the best player last year. And considering how his 1 star mavs beat the 3-star heat, this recipe for success doesn’t always happen, but it can. But, yea, you probably need to have stars on your team to win.

    The 70s were a mess with no dynasties. Barry’s warriors only needed to win 3 series, and 2 were against 43 and 47 win teams. The 79 season was similar, in that there were no great teams that year. And the pistons did have a top 10 player in wallace, and you could make a strong case that billups was their best player. They had several AS or near AS-caliber players plus a great coach and a great defensive system. But, this is rare. I don’t know any other teams in recent memory with 4 AS-caliber players. Actually the 89-90 pistons team makeup seems almost identical to the mid-2000s pistons’s teams. No one true elite player, but a couple near elite players, lots of depth, lots of near AS-caliber players, and stifling, nasty defenses.

    Posted by boyer | March 1, 2012, 11:52 am
    • when has kobe ever been the best player in the league?

      Posted by samtotheg | March 1, 2012, 9:25 pm
      • You’re joking, right? Oh yea, I remember, he’s always #2, but the #1 guy always changes. At the very least from 06-10.

        Posted by boyer | March 2, 2012, 6:50 am
        • Nah, I’d say Kobe from 05-08. Lebron’s has been the best player in the leagure since 09.

          Posted by ks | March 2, 2012, 10:25 am
          • You could say lebron for 09-10 if you only look at the reg. season. But, if you use playoff performance as well, as you should, kobe gets the nod for 09-10.

            Posted by boyer | March 2, 2012, 11:15 am
          • kobes playoffs numbers werent better than his regular season numbers and he played like shit in the finals in 2010 and he had a teammate outplay him in 09 finals, id say kobe fell outta top 5 in 09 10 11 etc this year he is either barely in the top 10 or out of the top ten , and from o5 to 08 hmm idk duncan was in prime form and steve nash was as well, kobe might have been number 3 thats the closest id say to him being the best in the league ,but him ever being the best for a season I dont think so.

            Posted by samtotheg | March 2, 2012, 12:38 pm
          • That’s funny stuff, Sam. Kobe was by far the best player during his finals in 09 and 10. You obviously didn’t watch those games very closely. Keep hating on.

            Barely top 10 this year? Never best player in the league? Wow. I guess that’s that. Hard to argue with that.

            KS, where’ve you been kid? Interesting how you imply I’m biased and you aren’t. Hate kobe, fine, but you’re going to argue one way or another, at least make some sense and give him the credit he deserves. Silly is riding lebron’s coattails and thinking he’s the best when he often quits on his team and you can’t trust him in the playoffs.

            Kobe proved he was the best in the league during his 08-10 playoff runs. Before last year, the last image of lebron we see is him hiding and moping around in boston in game 6 of the ‘2nd’ round. He had the best team in the league for 2 straight years in 09 and 10 and failed miserably each year. You can say lebron was the best reg. season performer in 09 and 10 possibly, I’ll give him 10, but not 09, but to say he was the best in the playoffs as well is obviously false. I know you don’t like to hear it, but it’s simple the truth, time to admit it to yourself and take your medicine.

            Posted by boyer | March 2, 2012, 1:06 pm
          • Blah, Blah, Blah, Boyer. I’m not implying you are biased. I’m saying it outright. You are horribly biased, and often repetitively so, when it comes to this issue. I mean it’s not like I dissed Kobe by saying I though he was the best from 05-08.

            There’s really no way you could rationally look at the 2009-current data and not conclude that Lebron was better except if you’re indulging, like you are, in Kobe Nation or Skip Bayless type of arguments which are beyond tiresome.

            Posted by ks | March 2, 2012, 1:41 pm
        • always number 2 I dont think so ,he has never been the best player in the league(im including bigs) at any point in his career, and he hasnt always been number 2 either.

          Posted by samtotheg | March 2, 2012, 12:14 pm
        • “As I should”, huh? Kobe Nation again…lol. Even including the playoffs, Lebron has been the best player in the league since 09′. I gave Kobe his props and said I thought he was the best from 05-08 but, the idea that he’s been the best player in the leagus from “at least” 06-10 is silly.

          Posted by ks | March 2, 2012, 12:23 pm
          • According to my research, Kobe only met the “Best Player” criteria in his MVP season (2007-08). He’s never led the league in Win Shares, and if you think that’s a stat that hurts wing players like him, Jordan led the league in Win Shares NINE TIMES. If anything, researching this column widened the gap even further between Kobe and Jordan for me.

            Posted by Matt Bertrand | March 3, 2012, 10:18 am
  2. 1 star Mavs? That talking point is still around? Dirk with Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler….? During the playoffs, Kidd led all players in 3pt fgs, assists and steals, Chandler led in total rbs and offensive rbs, Marion was all around solid and Terry hit big shot after big shot after big shot. I think I get how you are defining “star” but that’s taking literalism a bit far. Dirk had plenty of significant help.

    Anyway, while I agree with the article I really agree with the conclusion. Not sure I would like the trade if I were a Celtic fan. Quality big men are more valuable

    Posted by ks | March 1, 2012, 12:23 pm
    • Nobody is saying the other mavs weren’t good around dirk, but it’s one of the weakest champ. teams in recent memory. Several solid players, but Dirk was the only AS caliber or near-AS caliber player on that team.

      For one of these outlier teams to come through and win the title, it often has to be the right year. The 79 sonics did it as there were no other great teams that year. The rockets did it once, and the dream was great, but not necessarily greater than any of the superstars that led their teams to titles or came up just short. Having a solid defense, good team chemistry, and timely shooting goes a long way often. The mavs had much of this, but they also needed a little luck, such as the spurs losing in the first round, kobe getting injured/pau lacking much confidence, and lebron completely hiding in the big moments in the finals. They do get credit though for winning. The thunder were a tough task, but they were and still are a young team that hasn’t been on the big stage yet.

      Posted by boyer | March 1, 2012, 4:40 pm
  3. Dang my typing has sucked lately. I should have removed “Quality big men are more valuable” part.

    Posted by ks | March 1, 2012, 12:25 pm
  4. Matt, I totally agree with your assessment of a Rondo-for-Gasol trade. I find it really hard to believe that the Celtics are seriously considering this deal, esp. since the hated Lakers would be at the other end. But as a Lakers fan, if the Celtics are serious about this trade, then Jim Buss and co. need to do it NOW.

    Rondo is in his 6th season, just turned 26 and should get better. Gasol is in his 11th season, has a lot of Spanish nat’l team mileage on him too (World Championships, Euro Championships and Olympics), turns 32 in June and figures to start declining long before Rondo does.

    Rondo would be such an upgrade at PG that I think it would outweigh the effect of losing Gasol. On that latter point, (i) Bynum appears to be ready to shoulder the load of lead dog in the middle and (ii) I can’t believe I’m saying this, but IF Rasheed Wallace cares enough to have gotten into good shape for the first time in years, and if the Lakers’ interest in him is genuine, then he can still be a decent contributor (not at Gasol’s level, but still giving the Lakers something).

    Look, I love Gasol and recognize that he, and the trade for him, are major, major reasons why the Lakers reached 3 straight Finals and won it all twice, and why Kobe is still a Laker. But circumstances change, and Gasol looks like he could use a change of scenery. Teams can either adapt to changing circumstances or get caught clinging to the past. If this trade offer is for real, it’s a no-brainer for LA.

    Posted by E-Dog | March 1, 2012, 4:00 pm
  5. Where’s NBA Reliast #2? This article just validated what I have been saying all along.

    1. In order to win at least 1 championship, get at least 1 superstar.
    2. In order to win mutltiple championships, get 2 or more.

    Thanks for the stats, although the idea that NBA is talent first, team second is rooted in the very nature of the basketball game. Only in basketball could a player singularly impact the result bec it is the only team game that allows players to switch roles on the fly and disproportionately dominate the offense. This very nature of basketball provides a player of exceptional skill, physical attributes, and determination the chance to ‘will’ their teams to win. That’s why it is so stupid for people to even compare basketball with baseball or football just to argue that ‘teams’ are more important than the superstars.

    Anyway, I don’t agree with the trade despite the stats, not bec I deny the stats but rather that I don’t see Gasol as the top big who is in the same league as the ones who led their teams to championships. Gasol is a no.2 guy, not an alpha dog for an NBA team. He had been the no.1 guy before and failed. And as with other bigs, his decline is imminent and will be faster as he grows older. I dare say it has started last yr and will sharply continue in time. On the other hand, Rondo is a young PG with a lot of upside. True, he is a nutcase. But I dare say he’d be a better complement to an ageing Kobe. The way they approach to the game, in my opinion, converge and nothing beats 2 good players who are on the same page. The Lakers right now with Gasol as no.2 guy will not win the championship. That’s almost a certainty. To win a title, the Lakers need to change personnel. And no one on that team except Gasol and Bynum has worth that could fetch a potential game-changing talent. Between the 2, Gasol is more dispensable as Bynum continue to show improvements. So they need to move Gasol. Now, Rondo for Gasol would add speed and dynamism to LA, and allow Bynum to have more space in the offense. So if Mitch could pull this off, this’d be another steal. Ironic that both involve the same guy, Gasol.

    Now for Boston, this doesn’t make any sense. They can’t win now with that team, not against Miami in the East. They’re too old and fragile. Now trading the one player on that team who could still play good basketball 5 yrs from now for a no. 2 guy is just Ainge crazy. Celtics are just panicking, and their problem is that no one on that team is worth anything valuable to any other team except Rondo. I honestly feel sorry for Celtics, but I guess the best move that they could do is to give this team a last shot, and then break it up via the amnesty clause (releasing who ever oldies that they could) and rebuild, with Rondo as the focal point, or until such time that they could ger a better deal for Rondo, since I also don’t see Rondo as a top dog. His play lacks too much range for a PG to lead his team consistently as the no.1 guy

    Posted by Jourdan | March 2, 2012, 3:26 am
  6. in 08 when the lakers played against the celtics I remember paul pierce outplayin kobrick bryant and his team comin up short, the next year I remember laker lenght giving the magic trouble and gasol being the better player in that series and again the next year against the celtics …remember 6 for 24 and against COMMON OPPONENTs in those two seasons lebron destroyed kobe in playoff production, shit if anything kobes tards like you boyer like to take a blind eye to the facts, but kobe was never the best player in the league at any moment in his career first shaq was the prime force til 03-04 duncan then had that crown til about for 2 seasons then steve nash and the for those 2 mvps then lebron ever since…. this year guys i have over kobe ..and who are havin better seasons are 1.lebron 2 durant 3 wade 4 cp3 5 d howard 6 d rose 7 r westbrook 8 t parker and then kobe ….so he makes it top 10 baaarely last year he wuda been out and melo and gasol wuda been in as well… kobetards love to bolster lebrons regular season and then say he doesnt step up in the playoffs well when has KOBE EVER have any multiple 40 point games ina row, and how many of those 40 or 50 point games has he had in the playoffs against a top 10 defensive team. kObe is the pick on bad defenses can only do it in the regular season player here, not lebron james.

    Posted by samtotheg | March 2, 2012, 3:40 pm

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