Should Los Angeles Lakers Let Pau Gasol Walk Away in Free Agency?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 13, 2014

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Pau Gasol's season is done, and barring a surprising change in circumstances, so is his Los Angeles Lakers career.

All things considered, that's probably for the best.

Per Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell, the vertigo that sidelined Gasol for the past nine games will officially end the big man's year:

A free agent this summer for the first time in his professional life, Gasol will have the freedom to write the next chapter of his career. The Lakers, like most NBA teams, could use the services of a skilled 7-footer. But Gasol probably doesn't fit into the plans of a rebuilding club searching for younger assets.

And after the unpleasant reality of life in the post-Phil Jackson era in L.A., Gasol isn't likely to be too broken up if an offer to stay isn't forthcoming.

This is a sad ending to a successful partnership, but for the sake of everyone involved, it's probably the right one.


The Lakers Move On

Allowing the genuinely selfless and positive Gasol to leave a young franchise wouldn't normally seem like a great idea. The Lakers roster is likely to feature a handful of impressionable players next season, and Gasol's influence is a valuable locker-room commodity.

Dec 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Nick Young (0) celebrates a 3-point basket by center Pau Gasol (16) in the second half of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center. The Lakers won 104-91. Mandatory

But the Lakers have to move forward, even if it means leaving a good dude behind.

Kobe Bryant will stick around as the link between Los Angeles' past and future, partly because he's Lakers royalty and partly because his hefty contract leaves the team no choice. Bryant will bridge two eras in L.A., and there's some value in having him educate whatever new players arrive this summer on Lakers lore.

From a philosophical perspective, then, Gasol would really just be redundant.

And practically speaking, the Lakers absolutely have to let Gasol go. B/R's D.J. Foster explains the most crucial reason a breakup is necessary for L.A. to move forward:

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's basically it. You can wax sentimental about Gasol and the Lakers all you want (don't worry, that's coming), but when it comes down to it, Gasol's bloated cap hold prevents his current team from making the moves it needs to make.

As usual, dollars stomp out sentiment.

There's an alternative scenario in which the Lakers decide to make one more run with Gasol and Bryant as the team's cornerstones, but they'd probably have to deal their lottery pick in the upcoming draft for another star-level talent to place alongside that aging duo.

Such a strategy would amount to sacrificing future flexibility in the interest of one more sprint with a core that appears utterly gassed. Neither fans nor the front office would be keen on giving the current roster another shot—not after what it suffered through this season.

Flexibility, cap space and a fresh start are three things the Lakers need most right now. Gasol's presence on the roster prevents his team from pursuing all of them.


Free to Go

It sounds odd to say this about a guy who won a pair of rings and played in three All-Star Games during his time in L.A., but Gasol, like Lakers fans these past two years, has suffered enough.

Beaten down and propped up at the whim of the usually demeaning but occasionally supportive Bryant, Gasol weathered the storm of one of the NBA's most difficult personalities. In that sense, he succeeded where Shaquille O'Neal couldn't, where Dwight Howard refused even to try.

For keeping his cool through "big-boy pants" and countless other jabs from his superstar teammate, Gasol deserves his freedom. Frankly, he deserves a medal. There aren't many elite players who'd put up with such constant patronizing from peers.

Dec 10, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol (16) and guard Kobe Bryant (24) react during the game against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 114-108. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

More than that, Mike D'Antoni disparaged Gasol on numerous occasions over the past two seasons. It's one thing to take heat from the notoriously outspoken Bryant; everybody expects that.

But it's another to hear criticism from a coach who's basically frustrated because he can't figure out how to utilize one of the most skilled big men in NBA history. Remember, D'Antoni had this to say back in December when Gasol correctly pointed out that his coach's scheme wasn't playing to the strengths of the roster, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

It's also a nice excuse not to play hard. That's a classic, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do." Well, you don't have trouble getting up to the paystub line. You know what you need to do to get your check. You know what to do.

Maybe predictions are unwise, but I'm guessing history will be a little kinder to Gasol than it will to D'Antoni for how the latest Lakers era turned out.

Dec 23, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni and center Pau Gasol (16) on the sidelines against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns won 117-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

As if shots from players and coaches weren't enough, Gasol also soldiered through years where hardly a week went by without a trade rumor.

Per's J.A. Adande, Gasol commented on the toll that perpetual uncertainty (and lack of appreciation) took: "As much as I'm used to it after three years of several [years of potential trades], it's not easy."

It's time to leave the strife and emotional exhaustion behind. Gasol has earned as much. He deserves a chance to chase a title in the twilight of his career. Per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, that's just what he plans to do:

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. 

Run, Pau! Run while you still can! There are places out there in the world where you'll be appreciated. See if the San Antonio Spurs want to bring you on for one last ride. Check into life as a Chicago Bull. Sample everything free agency has to offer.

It won't erase the scars you incurred as a chronically underappreciated star in Los Angeles, but it'll do your soul some good.


Mutually Beneficial Uncoupling

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 9: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands in observance of the national anthem before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at STAPLES Center on March 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
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Gasol gave the Lakers plenty: great statistics, a legitimate second star and a whole load of class. He owes them nothing.

The Lakers gave Gasol a few things, too: rings, a chance to showcase his skills on the biggest stage and a bunch of money. They probably owe him an apology, but that's a marginal debt, all things considered.

The point is, both parties benefited from getting together—even if things got a little rocky toward the end. As much as anything, seeing a relationship that had so many highs end on such a low is what makes this situation sad.

But that's the thing about endings. They're always a bummer.

Gasol needs to leave, and the Lakers need to let him go. It'll be better for everybody in the end.