Does the Emergence of Earl Clark Signal the End for Pau Gasol?
Los Angeles Lakers forward Earl Clark's $1.2 million salary may be the best bargain in the NBA this season, but that number is expected to rise significantly once Clark's contract expires in July. But will the Lakers be the team to give Clark a pay raise?
Clark's season averages of 8.3 points per game and 6.6 rebounds are nothing to get excited about, but in the games in which Clark has played at least 25 minutes those numbers have jumped to 12.6 points and 9.6 rebounds.
Those numbers are very similar to fellow Lakers forward Pau Gasol's 13 points and eight rebounds per game, and Clark's production stands out even more when you consider he's doing it for more than $18 million less.
To be fair Gasol has had to deal with injuries, a coach who doesn't know how to use his talent and a teammate in Dwight Howard who consumes the paint. However, that doesn't erase the fact that Lakers management must face the prospect of paying nearly $20 million next season for potentially mediocre returns.
Even if Gasol makes a complete recovery from his current foot injury, the issues with adapting to D'Antoni's philosophy still exist. Not only that, but ironically if the Lakers do manage to build on the chemistry they seem to have found, then Gasol's return could hurt it.
Complicating matters even more is Gasol's firm belief that he should be starting even though Clark's athleticism and energy have proven to be invaluable against younger, quicker teams.
A healthy Gasol still has more talent than Clark, but Clark fits D'Antoni's vision of a big forward who is comfortable playing on the perimeter, and it doesn't hurt that Clark is a decent defender and ferocious rebounder as well.
I'm sure Kobe Bryant would probably side with Gasol, despite the evident bond that Bryant has forged with Clark. However, Bryant doesn't make financial decisions for the Lakers, and in the end it will all boil down to money.
It may be a challenge for Lakers general Mitch Kupchak to find a suitable deal for Gasol this summer, but I'm sure there will be more than a few teams interested in acquiring a seven-foot forward with elite talent and a contract that comes off the books after the 2013-14 season.
In the offseason, Clark will demand millions more than his current contract pays him, but the Lakers reserve the right to match any team's offer for Clark, and it's hard to imagine him bolting for different pastures, especially if the Lakers want to keep him.
Some of Clark's success is due to the attention that is diverted to the players around him, and it's doubtful that he could immediately thrive in an environment where he is the primary or secondary focus of an opponent.
But in Los Angeles, Clark has the time to grow and expand his skills, and he can develop in an atmosphere where most of the pressure is reserved for Bryant, Howard and point guard Steve Nash.
A young player like Clark couldn't ask for much more, and Nash is the only Laker signed beyond next season, so Clark has the chance to be an integral piece in the future of the franchise.
Unfortunately for Gasol, the Lakers were likely to seek a trade anyway since their cap figure is already the highest in the NBA. However, Clark's emergence this season certainly makes that decision a little easier.
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