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How Kobe Bryant's Injury Impacts Pau Gasol's Los Angeles Lakers Future

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How Kobe Bryant's Injury Impacts Pau Gasol's Los Angeles Lakers Future
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

David Stern won't stop the Los Angeles Lakers from trading Pau Gasol this time, so Kobe Bryant will.

Tragedy struck again in Los Angeles, with an already injury-stricken Lakers organization announcing Kobe would join their growing throng of invalids:

There's little time to harp, though. Six weeks is a long time, but the Lakers already have Kobe locked down through 2015-16. Attention must be turned to the rest of their roster, Gasol first and foremost. 

General manager Mitch Kupchak and Co. have decided to retain the 7-footer for now, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein:

The Los Angeles Lakers have decided -- at least for now – that they're better off keeping four-time All-Star center Pau Gasol, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com Wednesday that the Lakers, after weighing the idea of making Gasol available before the trade deadline in February, are encouraged by the way he's played in the past three games, as well as his efforts to make amends for his recent public spat with coach Mike D'Antoni.

ESPN's same duo reported earlier that the Lakers were open to trading their big man after he made some petulant-sounding comments to the media.

"The fact that I'm not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness," Gasol said, via Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "When I'm not getting the ball where I want to, where I'm most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity."

Tides have since turned. Gasol's frown is now closer to a simper, and Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni refuses to read too much into his center's previous thoughts:

All-Star-level play has ensured Gasol will remain in Los Angeles. For now. Again. Largely because of a certain tireless running mate, who wears No. 24 and is known for bringing out the best in his easily dispirited comrade.

Question is: Is Gasol still under Kobe's protection?

 

That Special "Thing"

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe and Gasol have history. Not the kind you share with an ex who dumped you upon finding out you'd rather brave the Arabian Peninsula without any water than listen to her (or him) blather on about Dance Moms for another second. Good history. Secret-handshake-worthy history.

"(He) and Kobe have a little special thing together," D'Antoni said, via Lakers.com's Trevor Wong. "I think we can continue on that."

This "thing" D'Antoni talks about is actually special. Two championships of special. And it reared its always-welcomed head once again.

Through the season's first 20 games, Gasol looked bad. Rolled-out-of-bed-then-skipped-showering terrible. He was averaging 14.2 points on a career-low 41.2 percent shooting during that time, prompting most to wonder if this was his ceiling, as long-spanning fits of anguish became standard.

Gasol's shot chart for first 20 games (via NBA.com).

There was something to Gasol's post comments, for sure. Fewer than 45 percent of his looks were coming around the rim, which often happens when your playmaking well is poisoned by age, injuries and Nick Young.

What few opportunities Gasol received, he wasn't making the most of, connecting on fewer than 50 percent of his looks near the basket. Yes, that's bad. Those first 20 games of his were mostly bad.

But 19 of those first 20 games were played without Kobe. And the one they played together was Kobe's first. The Black Mamba wasn't going to help Gasol look good, when he himself didn't look good (nine points; eight turnovers).

After that, it was all clicking all the time. Gasol has found his groove, posting stat lines that live up to D'Antoni's optimistic assessment.

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 56.7 percent shooting over the last five games—in under 30 minutes a night. That's 20.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per 36 minutes.

The last time Gasol notched at least 20, nine and three per 36 minutes was 2006-07, when he was still with the Memphis Grizzlies. Turning back time, then, doesn't even justify what he's doing.

"It makes a big difference when he operates well from the post and facilitates for us," Gasol said of Kobe's impact on Los Angeles and himself, per the Associate Press (via USA Today).

Indeed he has. Look at how Gasol's production with Kobe on the floor these last five games compares to his overall season totals, courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required):

That Special Thing
When Off. Rtg. eFG% TS% PPG PIE
With Kobe (last 5 games) 102.4 56.7% 60.6% 17.0 13.2
Previous 20 games 98.2 41.7% 45.5% 14.2 12.0

Via NBA.com.

Next, look at how his shot distribution has changed with Kobe on the floor:

Via NBA.com.

Exactly 65 percent of his shot attempts are coming near the rim, and he's converting more than 64 percent of them, a stark improvement from the 45 and 48 percent he was at previously.

Kobe's presence on the court changes things. And his willingness to involve Gasol in the offense changes more. 

This is a song we've heard before. Kobe wants Gasol involved. Even when he was sidelined during last year's playoffs, he wanted Gasol in the post. 

That's what we've seen—more of Gasol in the post. More Gasol in general.

More Gasol and Kobe, just the way Gasol's production totals like it.

 

But Yeah...

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kobe's absence makes you wonder: Will Gasol find his way back onto to the trade block?

Gasol is at his best next to Kobe, and with Vino out for six weeks, roughly 21 games, he's free to revert back to his ineffective self. Even if his production stays true, this is an issue.

A fully functioning Gasol only pads the Lakers' win column. Tanking is taboo in Los Angeles, but you have to wonder if it's avoidable at this point.

Kobe's down. Again. Los Angeles' postseason hopes were already resting upon the shoulders of "ifs" and "maybes." Should the Lakers' record dip south of a few games under .500, they could gut the roster in an attempt to increase the value of their current draft pick.

The 2014 draft class is stacked, so the temptation is going to be there. Kupchak will look at players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. Then, he'll look at Kobe. Resilient, fearless Kobe. 

Aging, fragile Kobe. 

And then, he'll (probably) ask the same question we're asking right now.

 

But Also...#LakersCorazon

When all else fails and you're wondering why Kobe's presence will keep Gasol in Hollywood, you can always look back to this:

 

The Kobe Bryant Conundrum

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gasol is safe. For now.

Even in injury, Kobe won't allow the Lakers to tank. Unless he's shut down for the season, it won't even be a conversation. 

"Honestly, it sets a bad precedent for your team culture," Kobe said of tanking in an interview with Jim Rome on Jim Rome on Showtime in November (via Lakers Nation). "It becomes part of your DNA."

Slightly dramatic? Absolutely. But also relevant. 

The only way for the Lakers to truly tank is by trading Gasol. That's how they commit to it. Trading Gasol isn't easy, though. Not when he earns $19.3 million and Los Angeles won't want to increase its payroll in return. His relationship with Kobe works in his favor as well.

Were the Lakers receiving a star in return, then sure, they would trade him in a heartbeat. But Gasol isn't that type of player anymore. He's valued more by a Lakers organization devastated by injuries than an interested suitor looking into a 33-year-old 7-footer.

Immediately, then, he's safe. Next season, don't expect him to stand tall, shrouded in purple and gold.

Now more than ever, it's clear the Lakers need another star. Kobe's latest injury is a reminder that if they wish to compete beginning next season, they need a superstar. Not a washed-up luminary on his last legs, but a superstar in his prime.

What will become of Pau Gasol with the Lakers?

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Where it once seemed possible the Lakers would divvy up their impending cap space among impact players and continue to build around Kobe, it now seems more likely they'll chase the high-profile acquisition we thought they could do without, leaving them unable to afford Gasol.

Kobe told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that "only an idiot would" doubt his return. 

This is true. Only an idiot would doubt Kobe's return. Ruthless and determined still, Kobe will return. But after this, we're free to doubt his durability. So are the Lakers.

So will Lakers.

Desperate to make the most of Kobe's remaining days, and resigned to knowing they need someone other than Vino himself to do it, the Lakers are less likely than ever to taint their finances beyond next season for a player like Gasol.


 

*All stats used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.

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