With the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaching, the Lakers are reportedly shopping Gasol for a center who would likely never slip on a purple and gold uniform.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns, among the options being weighed as part of their well-chronicled desire to acquire an established player as they make an unexpected playoff push this season, have been exploring the feasibility of trading for the Lakers' four-time All-Star.
One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor's $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol's $19.3 million.
What's the incentive in handing Gasol to a division rival like the Phoenix Suns? Let's take a look.
One of the primary reasons the Lakers have been so active in trade talks regarding Gasol is because he's truly an expiring asset.
That's not always true of players on expiring contracts, as they can often be used in sign-and-trade deals or have value as Bird rights free agents who can be re-signed to contracts when the team is over the cap.
None of that should apply to the Lakers and Gasol, though, so long as the Lakers want to create enough cap space to be able to offer a max contract to a free agent this offseason. Given the fact that Kobe Bryant signed an extension that saved the Lakers just barely enough cap space in order to offer a max deal to someone else, it seems like that would be a priority.
That means that Pau Gasol's massive cap hold and Bird rights have to be renounced at the outset of free agency in order for the Lakers to offer a max deal elsewhere this offseason.
While it's possible that the Lakers could re-sign Gasol and forgo a run at a max player, it certainly isn't the most likely scenario. That seems particularly true when you factor in Gasol's decline in production, his clashes with Mike D'Antoni and his shaky health status. It would be a bit shocking if the Lakers didn't renounce Gasol's rights at the outset of free agency and aim higher.
With that in mind, if the plan is to let Gasol go, getting something for him now makes all the sense in the world. While there's certainly a high degree of difficulty in bringing back no future salary commitments in a Gasol trade, it's not impossible.
One of the reasons why Okafor is an attractive trade piece is because insurance could cover up to 80 percent of his remaining salary, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
Perhaps more importantly, Okafor's cap number is $4.8 million less than Gasol's, which would put the Lakers within about $3 million of getting out of the luxury tax entirely.
Although it seems impossible that the Lakers will dip into the luxury tax next season with nearly everyone coming off the books, avoiding the repeater tax (which is issued when a team pays the luxury tax in four of five years) whenever possible makes sense. Trading Gasol would be just about the only way the Lakers could get out from the luxury tax this season.
Acquiring Okafor would save the Lakers money now and potentially create better financial flexibility in regards to the tax in future seasons. There's much more money to be gained than lost by trading Gasol in advance of the deadline.
Adding Draft Picks
Why would the Lakers trade for a player who has a long-term neck injury and hasn't played in a single game this year? It's mostly about the money, but recent history tells us it's likely about more than just that.
The Lakers may have had the chance to dump Gasol for a non-guaranteed deal in Andrew Bynum earlier this year, but according to Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst at ESPN.com, that might not have been enough:
"The Lakers are reluctant to part with the four-time All-Star in any trade without receiving assets of some value in return, sources said."
The saved money can certainly be viewed as an asset, but it seems likely that the Lakers would require a draft pick in any Gasol deal. Since taking on future salary is likely out of the question to maintain that max cap space, that's probably the target in these talks with Phoenix.
Luckily for the Lakers, the Suns are completely loaded with draft picks and may be willing to dish one out for the right player. Here's what Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Scott Howard-Cooper at NBA.com earlier this year about that:
We’re obviously all looking for stars, and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available.
According to a report by the Los Angeles Times' , Gasol might be ready to give the surging Suns a shot as well:
"Gasol would be comfortable with a trade to the Suns, eager to prove himself in a new system on a better team, according to a person familiar with his thinking."
This trade could be mutually beneficial for both teams. Depending on where the Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves finish, the Suns could have up to four first-round picks in this year's draft, so at least one of them could be expendable in a trade.
For the 2015 draft, the Suns will have their own pick and the Lakers' first-round choice, via the Steve Nash trade.
Even if the acquired pick is at the very end of the first round like Indiana's likely will be, the more chances in the draft, the better. Rookie-scale salaries are some of the best value contracts in basketball, and that's something the Lakers desperately need given the size of Bryant's extension.
Of course, the Lakers don’t necessarily need to use the pick for it to have value, either.
As it stands right now, due to the Stepien Rule, the Lakers currently can’t trade a first-round pick until 2019. That’s extremely limiting when it comes to trading for established talent. As you’ll remember, draft picks is what helped Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak land Gasol in the first place.
If the Lakers acquired a future first-round pick for Gasol before the deadline, the option to trade other draft picks would open up, depending on what year the pick was to be conveyed.
That could be a big negotiating piece for Kupchak, particularly if he were able to trade the Lakers' own pick in this year’s draft, which should be near a top-five choice. Just having the freedom to negotiate trades for stars is something the Lakers desperately need, and acquiring a first-round draft pick could help provide that.
Despite popular belief, trading Gasol isn't all about tanking. While it certainly won't hurt in those efforts, it's more about gaining flexibility, both in terms of finances and assets going forward. After countless trade speculation over the years with no deals taking place, the time for a Gasol trade may finally be upon us.