Pau Gasol isn't going anywhere, or rather, he shouldn't.
With the Los Angeles Lakers still sitting outside of the Western Conference playoff bubble, one would expect them to be open to any and all changes, especially if it includes Gasol.
Not only has the big man spent the better part of the season immersed in trade rumors once again, but he's also publicly unhappy about coming off the bench.
Per T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, Gasol's displeasure has reached a point where he won't hesitate to criticize head coach Mike D'Antoni:
The coach and player met at a Manhattan Beach restaurant a few weeks back, and most folks were left with the impression they had a meeting of minds.
"It was an effort on our part to try and come to an understanding," Gasol said. "But I don't think it's translated to an understanding. Nothing significant has happened; it's probably even gone a little backwards."
That doesn't even begin to describe it. And what makes it worse is Gasol doesn't seem any closer to accepting and embracing D'Antoni or his role off the bench.
If anything, Pau appears on the brink of requesting for a trade himself:
"If this coach stays and Dwight Howard remains with the Lakers," I asked, "what about you?"
"It would be hard for me to deal with another season knowing the facts you just mentioned," said Gasol, 32 and with one year remaining on his contract.
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?"
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes."
Knowing that Gasol is growing increasingly restless and that he may eventually demand to be moved, why not beat him to it? Why not deal someone who seemingly doesn't fit into Los Angeles' new puzzle? Why not trade him now?
Because it doesn't make sense.
As dejected as Gasol is now, he went on to make it clear he's not going to force his way out this season. Although I'm not one to put a pin in conflicts and save them for later, it's different for the Lakers. They have to table the Gasol controversy out of necessity.
Logical though it may seem, trading Gasol isn't conducive to the Lakers securing a playoff berth or even planning for their future.
Dwight Howard is the anchor in the middle, the one who Kobe Bryant believes Los Angeles must ride into the playoffs and the one we all know is supposed to be the face of tomorrow. So why is Gasol, let alone a despondent Gasol, of any importance?
Well, because of Howard.
The Lakers center has only missed five games thus far, but he's been battling a surgically repaired back and a repeated shoulder injury all season. Given that he is far from healthy, the team can't deal Gasol, who immediately becomes their low-post and pick-and-roll lifeline in his absence.
Should Los Angeles deal the Spaniard, its going to target a legitimate stretch forward, someone who can spread the floor with their ability to hit outside shots consistently. If Howard goes down or is forced to miss extensive time for one of his many injuries, though, where do the Lakers go from there?
Jordan Hill is already done for the season, and Robert Sacre, though impressive, is hardly ready to even try to fill any void potentially left by Howard.
Bear in mind that while D'Antoni's offense calls for a one-in and four-out approach, that "one-in" is of the utmost importance. Big men are commonly viewed as expendable in his system, yet they're the ones who often fuel the screen-and-rolls and help compress defenses to create better looks for the team's shooters.
Retaining Gasol for at least the rest of the season all but ensures the Lakers are never without that "one-in." It also allows them to sustain a fluid game plan throughout the entire contest; their method of attack doesn't have to change from the bench to the starting lineup.
Most importantly, though, it allows Los Angeles to limit Howard's minutes if need be, or simply boast a viable replacement when he's on the pine. And as we've come to see, the risk there is very real.
What better way to provide some insurance then with the 32-year-old Gasol, who's posting a PER of 25.9 per 48 at minutes at the center slot?
Better yet, what better way for the Lakers to protect themselves against Howard's potential departure?
Los Angeles' decision cannot be predicated on the fate of this season alone. Even if it could, the Lakers still wouldn't be able to ship out Gasol with any sense of certainty.
A healthy Howard arguably makes Gasol expendable, but 1) Howard isn't healthy, and 2) there's no iron-clad guarantee he's donning purple and gold next season.
It borders on inconceivable to believe that Big Dwight would want to play anywhere other than Hollywood. The bright lights and global stage coupled with the tens of millions of dollars more the Lakers can offer him suggests he won't be going anywhere.
But suggestions and implications mean nothing.
Like Gasol, Howard isn't the biggest fan of D'Antoni's offensive blueprint, leading many to believe he's feeling just as oppressed as Pau.
Howard will more than likely re-sign with Los Angeles and ultimately render any and all anxiety surrounding the matter futile. Until he signs on the dotted line, though, the peril of him spurning the Lakers must be considered real and treated as such.
I mean, you know it's a matter to be taken seriously when Kobe (via Simers) conceded Dwight's return remains shrouded in ambivalence:
"Are you worried Howard might leave, jeopardizing a chance to win another ring, if he's not a fan of Mike D'Antoni's coaching?"
"Yeah, a little bit," Kobe says.
"Have you asked Dwight if he's going to stay?"
"I want him thinking about being our defensive stopper so we can ride him into the playoffs," Kobe says.
Los Angeles can't ride him into the playoffs if he isn't there, though. The Lakers can't build around the most dominant center in the game if he takes his talents elsewhere.
If they trade Gasol, they can't fill the void that Howard may or may not leave, either. And they also can't guarantee their imminent financial well-being.
Mitch Kupchak and company have dynasty-sized plans for the surplus of cap space they're projected to create leading into the summer of 2014, when Pau's contract, among others, run their course. He is owed more than $19 million next season, so there's no guarantee Los Angeles wouldn't have to take back a cumbersome deal that devastates their impending flexibility.
Should the Lakers (or Pau himself) wish to trade him next year, they're more likely to avoid taking on any long-term pacts in exchange for his expiring deal.
Yet they may not want to trade him at all next season. Not if Howard is donning a new jersey
Obviously, pretending Gasol's blatant dissatisfaction isn't an issue is senseless. Pretending he isn't still of importance to this Lakers team, though, is equally inane.
The Lakers need Pau. They need him to provide a dominant post presence off a shallow bench. They need him to help weather the storm that has become Howard's health.
They need him for the rest of this season.
And should Howard do the unthinkable this summer, they're going need him even longer than that.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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