With the NBA trade deadline looming and the Los Angeles Lakers' season still not living up to expectations, it's time for the team to make some determinations about its future. One of those involves power forward Pau Gasol, and whether the team should move him sometime between now and the trade deadline.
The first inclination would be for the Lakers not to trade Gasol. After all, he's a four-time All-Star, he was voted to the All-NBA second team as recently as 2010-11 and he was a key cog in two championship victories for Los Angeles.
Also, with Pau on the team, the Lakers are certainly a more talented team. Not many teams, if any, can boast four potential future Hall of Famers like L.A. can with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Gasol.
The problem is that despite all that talent, the Lakers are struggling. Although they've won two games in a row, their record still sits at a subpar 17-21. If the season ended today, Los Angeles would be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, as the team's currently trailing the eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers by three games.
Furthermore, based on what we've seen out of Gasol through the first half of the season, he's seemingly part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
His style of play doesn't mesh well with head coach Mike D'Antoni's system. So far, it's been a major contributing factor in making this the worst season in Gasol's career.
Pau's numbers are down across the board. His 12.2 points-per-game average represents the worst of his 11-year career. The same can be said for his field-goal percentage (.416), his PER (14.6), free-throw attempts per game (3.4) and his win shares per 48 minutes (.086)—they're all career lows.
It's fair to point out that the majority of Gasol's lackluster season has been played without the presence of Steve Nash. As one of the top point guards, and one that's well-versed in D'Antoni's system, the presence of Nash in the lineup could jump-start Gasol and the Lakers.
Unfortunately, Nash's return has done neither to this point. The team is 5-9 in his starts, including 5-7 since his return from injury.
Likewise, Gasol hasn't seen much of an increase in his production since Nash returned. Before Nash returned, Gasol averaged 12.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 41.2 percent shooting from the field.
Since the point guard's been back in the fold, Pau has averaged 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 43.3 percent shooting from the field.
For the most part, his numbers are static, regardless of whether or not Nash is running the show. On the one hand, consistency is a good thing because you know what to expect. On the other hand, even if the team knows what to expect, it doesn't do much good if what it's expecting is consistently bad production.
Also factoring into the equation is Gasol's contract, which expires after the 2013-14 season. He's making $19 million this season, and that number is expected to increase to $19.3 million in the final year of his contract.
If the Lakers were to trade Gasol, it would seem the most likely scenario would be to trade him this season. That's because under the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams must match salaries when making trades.
Because Gasol's making such a considerable amount of money, even by NBA standards, finding a comparable player in salary and skill is no easy task.
Therefore, the Lakers' best bet is doing some sort of salary swap, where they'd take on an expiring contract—which would provide them salary relief at the end of the season—in exchange for Gasol.
Of course, that's contingent upon a) a team being willing to commit to Gasol's hefty salary beyond this year and b) a team with an expiring contract that's amenable to jettisoning the relief that comes with an expiring contract for Gasol's services.
The Lakers could always trade Gasol following this season, only in that scenario the roles would likely be reversed. Gasol would be an expiring contract, so L.A. would be trading future cap space for players in return. You're likely not going to swap expiring contracts for each other, which means the team would be taking on future assets as well as the contracts that come with them.
That doesn't seem like an enviable position for the Lakers to be in. At that point, as a premier free-agent destination, the Lakers would be better off keeping the cap space and signing some players off the open market.
If the Lakers are insistent on trading Gasol, they should do it before next month's trade deadline. At that point, he wouldn't be an expiring contract that would give them salary relief following the season. But because of his salary situation and status in the game, Los Angeles would have its best chance at getting a good return on the trade.
It's clear that he's not working out with D'Antoni and the Lakers. Even the return of Steve Nash hasn't been able to get him going. The longer L.A. waits and the more Gasol struggles, the less leverage the club will have.
The Lakers need to strike while the iron's hot, and if they wait past the trade deadline, the proverbial iron—and the return they could get for Gasol—is likely to cool considerably.
(Note: All stats used in this article are accurate through games played on Jan. 15, 2013)
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