Trading Pau Gasol a Huge Challenge for Rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol (16) of Spain fights for an opening to the basket against Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, right, in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Dallas. The Mavericks won 110-97. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers probably should have traded Pau Gasol a long time ago. 

But the reality of the situation is complex, and so it is that the Lakers are still thinking this through, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:

The Los Angeles Lakers have been weighing the benefits of holding on to the perpetually dangling Pau Gasol for the rest of the season to maintain his Bird rights this summer, against trading him before Thursday's trade deadline, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. 

Holding on to Gasol would allow Los Angeles to potentially re-sign him for far less than the $19.3 million he's making this season, the last on his contract. Even if that meant spending around $10 million a year on the 33-year-old, the organization would still have significant cap flexibility.

That's unusual territory for a franchise that's accustomed to luxury taxes. For the first time in a long time, the Lakers could attract talent without having to part with assets of their own. That's an attractive possibility.

On the other hand, there's no guarantee the free agents will come running. Playing with Kobe Bryant isn't as alluring as it used to be, and a roster in flux is a tough sell to prized players on the open market.

Gasol said "it would be tough" if the Lakers traded him (via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin), but general manager Mitch Kupchak has bigger worries than Gasol's peace of mind. Avoiding a protracted rebuilding process is chief among them.

Getting some combination of young talent and draft picks in return for Gasol would be the ideal scenario, but it's not a particularly likely one. Potential suitors like the Phoenix Suns are thinking twice about importing the Lakers' accomplished Spaniard.

So it's no surprise the Lakers are thinking twice, too. Sensible as a trade might be, there's a lot working against it.


Age and Injury

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

There's little doubt Gasol's best days are behind him. His numbers are up over last season, but that's deceiving. With no Dwight Howard around, Gasol's averaging over 1.6 more rebounds per game despite playing fewer minutes.

And with Kobe Bryant's season almost entirely lost to injury, Gasol's averaging 17 points a game, taking three more shots per contest than he did in 2012-13.

In other words, Gasol's seemingly impressive output is exactly what you'd expect from the best player on a bad team. Unfortunately, you also expect the kind of nagging injuries that have already held him out of nine games this season. Gasol played in just 49 games last season and 65 games the season before that.

If the wheels aren't coming off, they're certainly starting to wobble a bit. 

Shelburne ties the Suns' reticence directly to Gasol's recent groin injury, suggesting that concerns about his health aren't just speculative in nature. Teams need assurances that he can actually help them in the short-term, especially without any assuredness that he'll stick around for the long-term.



Gasol's contract is a trade impediment in at least two ways.

First, any team doing business with the Lakers has to match salaries. Though a team under the cap might have an easier time of that, most of the clubs in the market for an aging big man are contenders with no cap room to spare. That means they'd have to package close to $19 million in salaries to make a run at Gasol—a difficult feat for even the most determined suitor.

Second, with his deal expiring at season's end, Gasol isn't guaranteed to be anything more than a rental. For the organizations with the assets to afford him, that's especially problematic. A team might be willing to part with young talent if it meant two or three seasons worth of service, but there's no sense in losing upside for a player who stands a very good chance of walking in a matter of months.

You can make things work using trade machines and video games, but these kinds of contractual situations are tougher sells in real life. 

The dollars and cents actually have to make sense.


The Intangibles

By all accounts Gasol has aged relatively gracefully. Sure, injuries and durability are concerns, but there still aren't many big men with better all-around games.

The bigger questions may be of the psychological variety. Does Gasol have what it takes to give it his all on a nightly basis? Will he mesh with the coach, or does he have an entitlement complex? Is he too needy? Will he put in the effort?

Regardless of how Gasol shakes out on paper, these are the kinds of questions that could deter at least some organizations from making Los Angeles an earnest pitch. To be sure, Gasol has the credentials of a great teammate, a willing passer with a high basketball IQ.

But his willingness to work with just any old coach is a different matter. Phil Jackson isn't around to sooth egos anymore, so the task is left to mere mortals like Mike D'Antoni.

That hasn't worked out so well.

The most recent flare-up centered around Gasol's continued desire for more touches in the post (via the Los Angeles Times'

The fact that I'm not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness. 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.

D'Antoni responded by challenging his team's effort, with the thinly veiled implication being that Gasol just hasn't been trying that hard, particularly on the defensive end.

Maybe this is a localized phenomenon, but there aren't many coaches who have more capital than D'Antoni. If Gasol can't make this relationship work, there's risk that his next stop will run into similar distractions, distractions that probably aren't worth trading for.