Maybe Kobe Bryant knows what he’s talking about after all.
For those who missed it, Bryant told me before last week’s battle-for-L.A. bragging rights between the Clippers and Lakers that on a scale of 1 to 10 he’d put the chances of forward/center Pau Gasol playing for the Lakers next season at an “8.”
That, of course, is contrary to several reports and the expression on Gasol’s face for most of the season, all of which have indicated that the chances are closer to “0.”
Talking to several GMs over the weekend, however, made it clear that no one around the league would be surprised if Bryant’s prediction proved true. In fact, two executives believed it was not only feasible but would be the smart play in light of how limited this summer’s free-agent market is, and how rich the 2015 one could be.
The plan, in short: sign Gasol to a gargantuan one-year deal, add a quality player with their soon-to-be lottery pick, trust that Bryant and point guard Steve Nash will be healthy and essentially go to battle next season with the squad they had hoped to have this season.
That would then allow them to wave goodbye to both Nash and Gasol at the same time, leaving only Bryant’s final $25 million on the books for the 2015-16 season and providing enough cap space to go after a combination of Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan. This year’s current free-agent headliners are Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Luol Deng—unless LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph and Tim Duncan exercise their escape clauses; if they don’t, the 2015 class becomes that much richer.
Rumors that Gasol was on the verge of being dealt have practically become an annual rite the last few years, including a deal acknowledged by the NBA that had him going to Houston in a three-team trade three years ago that would’ve brought Chris Paul to the Lakers. The latest scuttlebutt had the Lakers willing to move Gasol either to Cleveland or Phoenix for a package of draft picks and young talent. GM Mitch Kupchak said the Phoenix talk was merely residue from much earlier conversations, but he did not deny that the team explored what it could get for Gasol.
Why, in light of all that, would Gasol want to stay? Well, it’s no secret that he loves being in Los Angeles and part of a franchise as storied as the Lakers. While conventional thinking is that at 33 he has several more productive seasons left, he has played more than 36,000 NBA minutes; add his time with the Spanish national team over the years and he’s easily past 40,000 in all, a mark at which players have a tendency to decline, sometimes rapidly. (Kevin Garnett passed the 40K threshold in the 2007-08 season and has been injury-plagued ever since.)
With quite a few interests outside of basketball and parents with medical backgrounds, it’s far less likely that Gasol grinds himself to a fine paste as KG appears intent on doing. In short, does it really make sense for him to move some place else if he only has a couple more years in the NBA?
For whatever it’s worth, Gasol left the door open to staying with the Lakers in his blog at PauGasol.com after the trade deadline: “Honestly, I’m not ruling out renewing my contract, I’m just open to every option.”
There was, however, a second part: “My decision will be based purely on sporting considerations. It couldn’t be any other way. I want to be in a team with a real chance of winning a ring and where I can help compete for it. I would like to win another championship. The financial side comes second at this stage in my career.”
Those “sporting considerations,” a team source says, include who the Lakers head coach is, since much of Gasol’s frustration stems from coach Mike D’Antoni and a system that utilizes Gasol largely away from the basket. At least two other players frustrated with their current roles were told to be patient because the Lakers will have a new head coach next season, sources said, but that could’ve been simply to mollify them for the time being.
While the Lakers have sustained some brutal defeats, including a franchise record 48-point drubbing by the Clippers, D’Antoni has been lauded by some for keeping his relatively young squad resilient. Let’s say, for the time being, that a new coach next season isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
The second question concerns just how secondary the “financial side” is to Gasol. One GM suggested that while Gasol might garner a multi-year deal elsewhere it could very well start in the mid-level range of $7-8 million; the Lakers, if they chose, could pay him his current $19 million or more for one more season and not only preserve their 2015 flexibility but have a worthwhile trading chip should, say, Rondo or Love or any of the others make it clear to their current teams they’re not coming back to induce a trade.
Bryant, asked who else he could envision returning, also listed free agents Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson. Can they all be had on deals that wouldn’t impact the team’s 2015 flexibility? Hard to imagine. But nothing seemed more unlikely than Gasol’s return. Right up until Bryant, one more time, challenged the odds. Time will tell if, one more time, he ends up right.
• Atlanta Hawk Elton Brand is wrapping up his 15th NBA season, and whenever it ends he will have only one regret: that he put the kibosh on a chance to play with Michael Jordan. Brand shared the same player agent, David Falk, with Jordan, and apparently Jordan tried to acquire Brand from the Clippers to play with him on the Wizards. Brand passed, preferring to stay with the up-and-coming L.A. team. “I’d rather go with the young guys,” he told Falk then, but now he says, “That would’ve been cool to see his work ethic up close and just be able to say I played with him. I could’ve learned so much.”
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.