The Los Angeles Lakers have lost 11 of their last 12 games and are now looking like a mortal lock for a lottery appearance in the 2014 NBA draft. While the eventual return of superstar guard Kobe Bryant will give this team a slight boost, it will be the classic case of too little, too late.
L.A.’s brass must realize this within the next month or so, in order to maximize the value it can receive in return for some of the assets already on the roster. The most important trading chip the Lakers have right now is Pau Gasol, the veteran power forward who has been shouldering the load for this downtrodden team.
While some would like to see Los Angeles attempt to dump Gasol in exchange for another productive veteran that could give the team a boost right now, it would be wiser for the long-term health of the franchise to exchange the big man for future value—some examples being draft picks, developmental prospects and cap relief.
According to CBS Sports’ Ken Berger, the Lakers are still fishing for an athletic 4 that fits more with what head coach Mike D’Antoni is trying to accomplish, which is winning games with a fast-paced, quick-moving, inside-out roster, but that may not be the wisest option for the future of the Lakers.
There is a silver lining for those who believe the Lakers should wipe the slate clean and begin a rebuilding effort in earnest. Berger’s source noted that the 33-year-old Spaniard has lost much of his value and a swapping him for a “premium player” is out of the question right now.
That discovery may disappoint the Lakers front office, but if it forces the club to go in another direction and start building towards the future, it should be considered a blessing in disguise.
L.A. is currently 14-24 and is barely ahead of the worst team in the Western Conference, the 13-26 Utah Jazz. It is about to embark on a seven-game road trip, a long and brutal stretch that features trips to Phoenix, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and New York before returning home to face the first-place Indiana Pacers.
It’s doubtful that this team survives that stretch with more than a win or two, which means that L.A. could wind up towards the very bottom of the league standings and fighting with the NBA's worst teams over pole position for the top lottery odds this spring.
If the Lakers somehow exceed expectations during their road trek, it’s likely going to be due to Gasol’s efforts. He’s still massively productive at his advanced age, averaging 18.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.8 blocks over his last five games—even while dealing with a troublesome foot injury.
Either way, the Lakers will return home with loads of time to find a partner in any potential Gasol trade. The deadline will pass at 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 20 this year, meaning general manager Mitch Kupchak has more than enough working hours to make calls and exhaust every option.
If L.A. finally decides to ditch the 13-year veteran, it will give the club plenty of flexibility heading into a crucial offseason.
The Lakers hold their own first-round pick in a loaded draft and hopefully can add some more selections in return for Gasol. If not, just clearing cap space or getting a cheap developmental project will have this team in better position to make a run down the line.
Gasol understands that trade rumors are the nature of the business and recently spoke to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer about what it would have been like to be dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for former teammate Andrew Bynum:
"It would have been different. It would have been weird. It would have been a process -- just like it would if it happened with any other team. Then so quickly come back to the home that has been your home so long, and then it's not your home any more, it would have been weird. It's something that didn't happen, something that might happen [being traded somewhere, not necessarily Cleveland], but it still hasn't.''
It seems Gasol is still preparing for the distinct possibility of relocating after calling Los Angeles his home for almost six years. However, a change of scenery could be good for both parties.
The road back to the top is going to be a long one for this franchise, but a few smart moves—starting with trading Gasol for future value—is going to make the journey much less painful.