While surely neither side wanted it to end quite like this, it appears that we've seen the last of Pau Gasol as a Los Angeles Laker. This could be the end of an era for one of the most skilled and successful Lakers big men, given all the circumstances working against a reunion.
Gasol, 33, has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, and he's sidelined now with a bout of vertigo. With only a few games left in the season and nothing at stake for the Lakers except for lottery balls, it would be a surprise to see Gasol return this year. Here's what he recently told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
"It's unlikely," Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com following the Lakers' 145-130 loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday when asked if he would play in any of the four remaining games this season. "But, I want to."
Perhaps the same could be said not only for Gasol's return this year, but also for the future.
Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, just like 10 of his other teammates will. While it's unclear what the plans of newly extended general manager Mitch Kupchak are, the Lakers will almost certainly have to renounce all rights to Gasol in order to sign any substantial free agent this offseason, as Gasol's cap hold would absorb nearly all the available cap space.
That doesn't mean the Lakers can't re-sign Gasol, of course, but going over the cap to do so (with Gasol's Bird Rights) likely won't be an option unless there are other players on this team Kupchak is ready to re-sign. Given that this has been the worst season in franchise history, it seems highly doubtful anyone is itching to keep even a few parts of this crew together.
Even though Gasol has coexisted with Kobe Bryant better than just about anyone else ever has, and even though he was instrumental in the championship seasons, it probably benefits both sides to part ways at this point. Gasol is likely looking for a team capable of winning a title, and it's hard to say that the Lakers will be able to be such a team without signing a major-impact free agent outside of Gasol.
If Gasol is prepared to take a massive pay cut and play elsewhere for something like the mid-level exception, you have to think that there are other teams (San Antonio, for example) that would both provide a better fit and a better chance at winning.
Gasol should probably be gunning for something longer than a one- or two-year deal as well. This may be his last chance to secure long-term financial security given his age and some of his prior health issues, which probably doesn't jive with the eventual rebuild in Los Angeles once Bryant retires.
Here's McMenamin with his take:
If Gasol is unable to play before the season ends, he could have very well played his last game in a Lakers uniform. The 33-year-old is set to become a free agent this summer and made it clear that his top priority is signing with a team capable of competing for a championship. The Lakers (25-53) are in the midst of the worst season in franchise history and the process of rebuilding, with 11 of their 15 players (including Gasol) on expiring contracts.
While it's possible that the Lakers load up for one year and preserve max cap space for the 2015 offseason, it's hard to see Gasol accepting that direction when he's free to sign wherever he chooses. While the partnership with Bryant has obviously been a successful one, there are younger, less risky stars to team up with and likely more money and more years on the table for him to take.
Gasol may be ready to play for a different coach as well. While the Lakers haven't decided on the future of Mike D'Antoni, who has one guaranteed year left on his deal, Gasol might welcome a bit of a slower pace and the opportunity to play for a team that will utilize his skills on the block with more regularity.
Although Gasol was an underrated defender for most of his career, he also needs some serious help on the front line now. He's not nearly as mobile as he once was, and his abilities to protect the rim and defend post players have slipped as well. With Robert Sacre being the only big man on contract going forward for the Lakers, Gasol will probably find the protection he needs more readily available elsewhere.
It's hard to imagine a scenario where the Lakers and Gasol would both have the desire to reconnect for another run.
For it to become more realistic, the Lakers would likely have to trade their lottery pick for an established star already on contract, which seems unlikely and probably not the best course of action for the future, depending on the pick location and the star coming back, of course.
It's important to remember the circumstances that made Gasol a Laker in the first place, however. The Lakers should have never been able to land Gasol for that haul of talent, although Gasol's brother Marc panned out just fine for the Memphis Grizzlies. Point being, Kupchak has pulled off a few miracles in the past, so it's not entirely out of the question that one big trade could make the Lakers a contender again, and make the re-signing of Gasol much more plausible than it is now.
This might also be a completely different story if Bryant were healthy, as the Lakers would never have finished with a record like this or have had this roster. The plan to build for the future could have been more easily delayed, and perhaps Gasol would have been willing to lower his demands and take a contending Los Angeles discount like so many players in the past have.
Times are different now, though, and there are just too many factors working against Gasol coming back next season. Gasol is a great player and by all accounts an even better person, but it's probably time for both sides to say goodbye.