Should management try to keep him? Not if it is intent on continuing along its current path—striving toward a complete rebuild and featuring a style of basketball that doesn’t play to his strengths.
The simple truth is that Gasol, a two-time NBA champion and four-time All-Star, belongs to a different Lakers era—the Phil Jackson era.
That’s really the story in a nutshell. It’s not the beginning, middle and end, but it is the essential truth.
Gasol arrived in Los Angeles during another abysmal period—one not as bad as this current season, but bad nonetheless. Jackson had returned to coach the team for a second go-around and inherited a roster that had been torn asunder during his one-year absence. Management was attempting a rebuild then, as it is now. And Kobe Bryant, a superstar at his absolute zenith, was beyond angry. He wanted another shot at a championship. He wanted to be traded.
Enter another of the league’s elite players, also in the prime of his career.
Gasol was acquired on Feb. 1, 2008, through a trade engineered by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. In the swap, the Memphis Grizzlies received Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, first-round picks in 2008 and 2010, and the draft rights to Marc Gasol (the 48th pick in the 2007 draft and still playing overseas at the time of the trade).
The Lakers got a player who completed the picture, Bryant got a patient ally, and Jackson found the perfect conduit for his triangle offense and sometimes abstract concepts.
That was the beginning of the story. The middle section consisted of two championships, a close bond between Gasol and Bryant, and finally, the second departure of Jackson.
And then came the final, unsatisfying chapters of this particular tale—characterized by a continual shuffling of players, too many losses and injuries, the hiring and firing of Mike Brown, and the improbable opportunity for another shot with the Zen Master, which quickly sailed out the window as management decided to instead hire Mike D’Antoni, fresh off his debacle with the New York Knicks.
It only got worse from there.
A horrendous 2012-13 season that ended with Bryant shredding his Achilles tendon was followed by the current wretched season in which he fractured his knee and was joined on the sidelines by way too many other injured bodies—all staring mutely at what can only be described as an utter train wreck.
And yet, Gasol himself has performed admirably, averaging 17.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 blocks in just 31.7 minutes through 52 games. Not only are his overall numbers up from last year, his stats per 36 minutes are his best since his first season with the Lakers.
So again, should management make a free-agent pitch to the team’s leading scorer this season? There are two major schools of thought that say "no."
First, the Lakers are all-in on a rebuild and are filling the roster with young, athletic, minimum-salary players on one-year deals. L.A. hopes to create enough salary-cap space to go after one or more elite free agent during the summer of 2014 or 2015.
Gasol’s current salary of $19,285,850, comes off the books at the end of this season, and management needs that money to compete.
Second is the D’Antoni question—Gasol and his head coach just aren’t simpatico. They have bickered endlessly over the most fundamental issues. D’Antoni has long been one of the leading lights of the uptempo small-ball movement, while Gasol not only lives in the post but likes some company and consistency there as well.
Recently, Gasol’s frustrations spilled over after drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Pacers. According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers center criticized the club's lack of discipline and a lineup in which three-balls often seem jacked up indiscriminately:
“I don't think there's a lot of discipline right now. Teammates needed to be unselfish by making sure the ball was passed to an open player. Otherwise it's really deflating and takes a lot of energy away from individuals.”
A day later, D’Antoni responded to the criticism, also via Bresnahan, and remained unwaveringly committed to his offensive principals:
I have no idea what he's talking about… We want a certain type of basketball and we're trying to establish that. Clearly, the numbers say that when you spread the floor and move the ball, get up and down the floor, then we have a lot better chance to win. And that's what we want to do.
The problem is that the numbers say something different this season—as in the worst record in the Western Conference (21-41).
Yet, this seems to be the path that management is committed to. And, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which that might change—in which Gasol would be welcomed back with open arms—at least not as long as D’Antoni remains at the helm.
Sam Amick of USA Today recently interviewed Jackson, who wasn’t so sure Gasol would even want to come back, if asked:
Well really, there's a limited free agent market this year. Luol Deng, and Pau Gasol is going to be a free agent — they can resign their own guy, which I don't know if Pau would want to re-sign with them or not. Maybe he feels that's not the best place, but he likes LA, he likes the fans.
The Lakers are simply on a different track now. And there will be plenty of other teams lining up for Gasol’s services when free agency officially opens on June 30. It’s probably the best thing for both parties—a fresh start.
There doesn’t seem to be anybody around the league who seriously believes otherwise.
Scratch that. There is somebody who still believes.
In the middle of this nationally televised atrocity, Turner correspondent Ric Bucher reported he had spoken to Bryant, who voiced optimism that Gasol would return next season. When Bucher asked for a confidence level on a scale of one to 10, the Mamba replied “eight.”
Is this simply a matter of Bryant giving support to someone he values, someone with whom he has built a solid working relationship? Or does he know something more?
Without anything more concrete to go on, one would have to assume the Lakers will continue their losing ways this season, which will garner the team its best draft pick in a generation. Then the club will keep saving its money until it can sign a max-contract star who can carry it beyond the present and into a new era.
In other words, the Lakers will make a free-agent pitch to Gasol when pigs fly.
Or, when Jimmy Buss decides to offer an olive branch to the guy with 11 rings.
Would Jackson know what to do with a nucleus of Bryant and Gasol? History and common sense say "of course"—he's been there, done that.
Still, the return of P-Jax seems an unlikely pipe dream, and in fact, the longest shot on the board. The odds for Gasol coming back are only slightly better with the Zen Master in house.
And yet, there’s that little voice: "on a scale of one to 10, Bryant said eight?"