Step away from the edge, people. Let’s forget the hype and the headlines for just a moment. Let’s look at the situation clearly and logically.
Ultimately, the simplest way to improve the Lakers roster may be to do nothing at all.
How is that possible? Inertia never solved anything! And after all, Gasol represents a massive expiring contract and the single most obvious way to make a move.
First, let’s acknowledge that management has explored moving the two-time NBA champion for years. It almost got there with a three-team agreement in December 2011 that would have resulted in Gasol going to the Houston Rockets, Chris Paul coming to the Lakers and Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and a 2012 first-round draft pick all going to the New Orleans Hornets.
That deal, of course, was famously eradicated by then NBA commissioner David Stern.
Gasol has been inquired after ever since, and the Lakers have continued to listen. They have held firm, however, that any exchange would need to result in demonstrable value coming back—either a meaningful player, solid draft picks, real cost savings or some combination thereof.
The most recent rumors have involved swapping Gasol’s expiring contract for that of Emeka Okafor, who has been sidelined all season with a neck injury.
Earlier this month, Marc Stein for ESPN broke down the financial benefits for the Lakers:
The $4.8 million difference between Gasol's cap number and Okafor's would immediately drop the Lakers less than $3 million away from the league's luxury-tax threshold, meaning one more smaller deal before the Feb. 20 trade deadline could conceivably be enough to take them out of tax territory completely.
There would be an additional benefit, given that insurance began absorbing 80 percent of Okafor’s salary after the season’s halfway mark.
The sticking point has reportedly been the same issue Lakers management has routinely held firm to—it wants more than just cost savings. The Suns control four first-round picks in this year’s NBA draft, and Los Angeles wants at least one of the higher ones.
It has been well over a week since news of a potential Phoenix trade went viral. The logjam appears to be holding.
Per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times, Gasol himself referred to the recent trade talk without mentioning the Suns by name:
“Things are kind of quiet right now. But I think there's something potential. But right now the offer would have to change a little to make it considerable."
In other words, the Suns need to part with something more valuable than Okafor’s insurance policy.
Are savings not important? Of course they are. But remember, this would be a move to reduce the current luxury tax—it has nothing to do with future salary space. And, if a few million in tax savings is really that important, there are other ways to approach it.
It’s also interesting to note that on Thursday, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed the question of whether the luxury tax has any implications on the upcoming trade deadline. He repeated himself for emphasis when answering:
“It’s not a big concern at all. It’s not a big concern at all.”
As for the larger picture of next season’s anticipated rebuild, the Lakers entered the season with a forward-thinking plan.
The idea was to not to pick up any meaningful contracts apart from Kobe Bryant’s two-year extension. The bulk of the roster would be comprised of one-year minimum-salary deals—undervalued players who would essentially be auditioning for the future.
Gasol’s $19,285,850 comes off the books at the end of the season, along with the expiring contracts of Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry. Additionally, Nick Young has a player’s option. The training facilities in El Segundo will be looking like a ghost town.
Before free agency commences, however, there’s the NBA draft. The Purple and Gold, with the fifth-worst record in the league at 18-35, are heading straight into prime lottery territory.
But what if Gasol comes back from his groin injury after the All-Star break and starts putting up big numbers again? What if Bryant returns? What if the team starts winning again and the draft-lotto dreams go up in a puff of smoke?
Relax, the Lakers were losing just fine before Gasol got injured, and his return won’t change a thing. As for Bryant, the aging superstar is still healing from a fractured knee, and a late-season comeback won’t be enough to make any real headway in a highly competitive Western Conference.
Let’s be clear—the Lakers haven’t tried to tank this season. Their undermanned, beat-up amalgamation of misfits is playing hard. It’s not only commendable, it allows management to do exactly what it set out to do—audition players for next season’s rebuild and save money in the process.
The Lakers will continue talking to other teams right up to the Feb. 20 trade deadline. If they can improve for the future, they will.
What they shouldn’t do, however, is trade simply out of desperation. Instead, they need to stay on track. This year’s draft is one of the deepest in years, with the opportunity to select a player who can start right away. The summer free-agency period opens on July 1, and again, there will be the opportunity to nab an impact player.
There’s some risk to this strategy, of course. The Lakers could lose several players who have outperformed their salaries this season.
Still, it’s better to be patient and wait for the right pitch than to swing blindly for the fences.
Pau Gasol changed the Lakers’ fortunes for the better when he arrived in 2008. He’s played with pride and passion and deserves the gratitude of fans when he leaves—whenever that may be.
And once this tortured season finally comes to an end and the Spaniard has said his last goodbyes, get ready to spend some money and embark on a new, winning chapter.
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