DALLAS — Ghosts lurk around every corner here at American Airlines Center, the setting for the implosion of the Los Angeles Lakers’ last dynastic overture for who knows how long.
There’s the visiting coach’s office, where Phil Jackson had consoled Bryant by saying it’s better to lose this badly and this far from the championship than when they approached the cusp and stopped. There’s the sideline where Andrew Bynum, ejected and infantile in the frustrating moment, ripped off his purple Lakers jersey in that final game of the failed three-peat.
And there’s the spot in front of the Lakers bench where Jackson jabbed Pau Gasol in the chest the previous game, trying in vain to get Gasol to fight back.
Gasol, amazingly at this point, isn’t just a ghost. Here he was again Tuesday night. Bryant is hurt, Bynum is unemployed, Jackson is chillin’, and Gasol is somehow still out there representing the Lakers.
He won’t be much longer, even though the Lakers declined the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade offer to take Gasol off their hands in exchange for Bynum’s semi-guaranteed contract for a major money-saving opportunity.
On still being a Laker, Gasol said Tuesday with a small smile: "Feels good to survive, I guess, and live to fight another day."
It’s only a matter of time before the relationship ends, whether later this season or at the end of it when his contract expires.
What happened for now was nothing new: It was the Lakers staying true to their vision, which includes belief they might still trade Gasol somewhere in the next month-and-a-half before the trade deadline and net a useful building block in young talent or a good draft pick.
All along, though, their original course has been to give this season an honest effort with Bryant and remind their fans that a feel-good season can exist, even without a title.
The Lakers are being criticized in some circles for not making the deal for Bynum’s contract, which is ludicrous. Making such a massive salary-dump-only trade would’ve been going against all that they’ve ever been in recent times, considering they have every confidence they will be below the luxury-tax payroll plateau in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, thus dodging the new punitive “repeater” tax.
They have so few holdover players that it’d be almost impossible for them to get the payroll that high in two years, so there is no competitive disadvantage of limiting salaries in those seasons anyway.
That was the supposed benefit in doing that Cleveland proposal: Not being in the tax this season and thus avoiding future charges the team is on track to avoid anyway.
Shawne Williams was waived on Tuesday, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, because he hadn’t proved to be a dependable player and because his contract was mostly non-guaranteed, not because he was non-guaranteed and it might help the Lakers somehow avoid the tax this season.
In any case, the Lakers refusing to make a strictly cost-cutting trade, even at a time when so many in the organization aren’t thrilled with Gasol, is staying true to Jerry Buss’ competitive spirit and leaving open the possibility of another late-season burst of admittedly minor success once Bryant gets healthy.
Yet, take a step back from the current mess and consider how different the offseason feels if Bryant gets a fair shot to re-establish himself with reasonable talent around him. Instead of going to battle and scuffling with the lightweights surrounding Gasol on Tuesday night, when the Lakers absorbed their eighth loss in nine games without Bryant.
When he has played through his recent illness, Gasol has repeatedly been frustrated by the mistakes of inexperience around him. In this game, Gasol didn’t make a field goal from 3:27 left in the first quarter until 3:55 left in the fourth quarter, at which point the Lakers were already hopelessly down by 12 points.
After Gasol’s turnover passing out of the post at the critical moment midway through the fourth, he was so exasperated at fill-in point guard Kendall Marshall’s inability to spread the floor properly for a passing lane that Gasol went around trying to explain it to anyone who would understand.
This included player development assistant Mark Madsen, one of his few sort-of-veteran teammates Jodie Meeks and even the guy who had stolen the ball, Mavericks guard Jose Calderon, who is Gasol’s Spanish national teammate.
Gasol told Marshall, too, and Marshall nodded quietly and turned away quickly. The Lakers’ injury-induced inexperience is such that it was Marshall who at another moment was taking rookie Ryan Kelly, also playing crunch-time minutes next to Gasol, to task for not shooting at the proper times.
Nick Young sat out the fourth with a sore back, and even with the usual lightness to his voice, he admitted it seemed like a “funeral” in the postgame locker room.
There are times when an overburdened Gasol looks like he is ready to go somewhere else, somewhere easier. He needs Bryant, even if he’s not what he once was, as much as ever.
Gasol said he had taken his parents and little brother Adria to Pantages Theater in Hollywood on Saturday night to see The Lion King musical, checked his Twitter at intermission and found a faulty report posted to 710 ESPN Radio’s account—plus a ton of messages to him bidding “Farewell!” and “Thanks for your services!”
Gasol has been nearly traded time and time again and was able to laugh Tuesday night about the latest twist. He said: “I’m a happy man and a lucky guy to be where I am and do what I do.”
Still he carries himself like a nobleman, like the champion he was for the Lakers—no matter how little he has accomplished since Jackson jabbed him in the chest here nearly three years ago.
And for the time being, Gasol and the Lakers remain together in what is real but feels like it must be a parallel universe. It feels like the wrong alternate, but from the Lakers’ end, they’re still trying—trying to do their best with Gasol and in this awkward season, rather than give up and cash out.
Tell me, how can Lakers fans be upset about the Buss family members choosing to try and win rather than save themselves millions of dollars?
The whole tanking mentality has gone too far in today’s NBA world, as we’ve said before, with too many fans believing the present moment is meaningless. The Lakers structured their finances so that they could compete this season with or without Dwight Howard and then compete with fewer payroll commitments in future seasons.
The Lakers’ intent was never to make this a money-saving season, even after Howard left—erasing $20.5 million from the 2013-14 payroll just like that, with nothing and no one in its place.
The Lakers still didn’t and don’t want to mail it in.
Whether you agree with the Lakers extending Bryant’s contract for the next two seasons for $48.5 million and believing they can win a title from that foundation, at least give them this much this season:
Despite the ghosts of the past and all the pessimism over the future, they are still trying in the present.