Elite Again

By trading for Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers may have solidified themselves as one of the elite teams in the powerful Western Conference.

The former All-Star forward could make his Lakers debut as early as Sunday, when Los Angeles continues its longest road trip of the season with a matchup against the struggling Washington Wizards.

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With center Andrew Bynum out until mid-March with a left knee injury, the Lakers (29-16) acquired the 7-foot Gasol from Memphis on Friday in exchange for underachieving forward Kwame Brown, rookie guard Javaris Crittenton and two first-round draft picks.

Gasol, a seven-year veteran who was an All-Star in 2005-06 and averaged 18.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 39 games for the Grizzlies this season, joins Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom in a formidable lineup - one that will look all the more impressive when Bynum returns.

"It shows a great deal of commitment from the organization,'' said Bryant, who had 46 points on 19-for-28 shooting in the Lakers' 121-101 win at Toronto on Friday. "It's a great step.

"It's a matter of us just jelling now and putting it together. Now it's time to walk the walk.''

Los Angeles is 3-5 since winning seven straight to open the new year and is in sixth place in the loaded West, where 10 of the 15 teams have winning records.

Gasol was scheduled to undergo a physical in Los Angeles on Saturday and could be ready for the Lakers' third stop on a nine-game trip Sunday, or Tuesday at New Jersey.

"We'd like him to play on Sunday,'' Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said. "We need a little scoring inside without Andrew Bynum. It gives us a post-up threat right now, and he's a good passer. We like that.''

Gasol's future teammates are also excited about the new addition.

"We don't want Pau to have any pressure on him when he comes in,'' said Odom, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds Friday. "We just want him to play his game any way he can. I'm pretty sure that will be easy for him.

"He's going to help us in every aspect. There's nothing he can't do.''

The Lakers didn't need help Friday, getting the big night from Bryant and 22 points from Sasha Vujacic as they shot 55.6 percent and topped the 120-point mark for the second time in three games.

"We understood that this was a game that we had to get and we came out with a lot of energy,'' said Bryant, averaging 35.2 points on 52.5 percent shooting in his last six contests. "That being said, I think everybody is a little excited about the opportunity that we have in front of us.''

Bryant had 39 points in the Lakers' 118-102 win at Washington on Feb. 3 in the teams' most recent meeting, as each club won on the other's home court in 2006-07. Bryant is averaging 39.0 points in his last four contests versus the Wizards.

Washington (24-21), second in the Southeast Division, lost 96-87 to Utah on Friday for its fourth defeat in six games.

All-Star forward Caron Butler missed his third consecutive game with a hip injury, but could return Sunday.

"Hopefully, he'll be ready to go on Sunday," Washington coach Eddie Jordan said of Butler, who's averaging a career-high 21.9 points along with 7.0 rebounds.

Antawn Jamison had 31 points Friday for Washington, which is averaging 98.7 points but shot 37.8 percent and was held below the 90-point mark for the second game in a row.

Jamison, who recorded his sixth game of 30 or more this season, missed the most recent matchup with the Lakers. He had 25 points and 13 boards in Washington's 147-141 overtime win at Los Angeles on Dec. 17, 2006.

By: Marc Young - theSpread.com - Email Us

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