The Los Angeles Lakers looked like an actual professional basketball team on Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. Though the Lakers eventually fell, 125-109, L.A. put up an impressive fight against the defending conference champions Spurs, who hold the league's best record.
Sure, the Spurs inevitably pulled away with a 33-22 fourth quarter to stretch their winning streak to 11 games, but this Lakers team is no longer about the results. Seeing as how they've already been eliminated, the players accomplished enough by not embarrassing themselves in yet another nationally televised Staples Center massacre.
As their season draws to a close, each player on the club is playing for an uncertain future. That is especially true for the their best (healthy) player, franchise stalwart Pau Gasol.
The veteran Spanish big man's performance on Wednesday was representative of what Lakers fans have come to expect from him. He wasn't terribly efficient from the field for a center, shooting just 8-of-18 for 22 points. But he made up for that with his crafty all-around game, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking four shots and dishing a team-high six assists.
This season has been a 180-degree about-face for Gasol, a player who built his NBA resume as an elite wing man. From the moment he was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to L.A. in the 2007-08 season, he was the second-best player to Kobe Bryant.
That secondary role worked out beautifully for both Gasol and the Lakers, as the team made three straight NBA Finals, winning the trophy in 2009 and 2010.
This season, however, he has been thrust into a starring role, leading the team in both points and rebounds per game. Perhaps he could have led the team to a few more wins in his prime, but the 33-year-old Gasol is no longer the kind of player who can carry such a mediocre roster on his shoulders night in and night out.
But even in this lost season, Gasol has taken the time to play elder statesman. Not only did Gasol put up numbers on Wednesday, but he also displayed a good bit of veteran leadership in dealing with younger teammates like second-year man Kent Bazemore, per Andy and Brian Kamenetzky:
I like how Pau didn’t just thank Bazemore for the dime, but went out of his way compliment the pass. Beneficial to a young player. AK— Kamenetzky Brothers (@KamBrothers) March 20, 2014
Gasol, who will be an unrestricted free agent, has had a fascinating season in what might be his L.A. swan song. Despite playing most of the year without Bryant and Steve Nash, he has put up numbers superior to last season, when he struggled after being put on the bench by coach Mike D'Antoni.
While he has mentored the Lakers' younger players in what has been undoubtedly a trying season for a two-time NBA champion, Gasol has also not hesitated to rip the team. He did just that in late February when he told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin: "I don't think there's a lot of discipline right now."
Gasol also went public by saying "you have to respect" Bryant for trashing the Lakers' losing ways this season, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
The only thing left for Gasol to decide is where he wants to play next season. And nights like Wednesday can only boost his value.
What's Next for Gasol?
According to the website ShamSports, the Lakers are only on the books for three guaranteed contracts next season, and two of those players (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash) won't play again in 2013-14. Reserve big Robert Sacre was the only player on the court for L.A. that is guaranteed a deal next year.
Does that mean the Lakers should re-sign Gasol for one last run with Bryant? Kobe certainly seems to think so, telling Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher there is an "8 out of 10" chance of Gasol returning (via Laker Nation's Serena Winters).
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, however, had a far different idea of what the Lakers will (or should) do:
This summer, Gasol will move on to some other NBA franchise where, along with his two championship rings, the fresh fans will respect all that is clearly good in him. ...
Both the Lakers and Gasol, who’ve had a working relationship marked by a refreshing sort of maturity, understand it’s time to part.
Of course, Bryant's word carries a lot of water with the organization. But each time Gasol plays well, it costs the Lakers a bit of leverage in next summer's negotiation.
Even though L.A. couldn't find a trading partner for Gasol at the deadline, a strong finish to the season could make him a hot commodity for a contending team in need of Gasol's diverse skill set in the frontcourt.
If the Lakers are pushed by a real contender in the free-agent market, we will get a good sense of where both Gasol and the Buss family's priorities lie. Even with Bryant back, the Lakers will not compete for a title in the tough Western Conference. They will have the promise of familiarity and that Lakers aura, but will that be enough?
The Lakers need to preserve cap space to go after big-name free agents to pair with Bryant in 2015, when he will count for a staggering $25 million against that season's salary cap. That means the team must show restraint.
Gasol is a great Laker enjoying a bounce-back season for a franchise in turmoil. If he's looking to win another title, then perhaps he would be better off seeking employment elsewhere. And if the Lakers are more serious about maintaining cap flexibility than in bringing the band back together, then they should be prepared to let him walk.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.