EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Of all the ways the Los Angeles Lakers' decision to hire Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson as head coach has been analyzed and criticized, here is the most karmic.
Given the choice between catering to newcomer Steve Nash, the two-time NBA MVP in Phoenix under D'Antoni, and seeking to revive Gasol, a two-time NBA champion under Jackson, the Lakers punched their onetime gift horse in the mouth and went for what they didn't know.
They hoped they were making a bold decision for the future with Nash and D'Antoni as opposed to clinging to the past. A long-running issue for Jerry and Jim Buss was their club having to turn to Jackson to save it, then again and then maybe yet again. And the idea of Jackson wasting their new toy—Nash's ball-handling flair—was unacceptable compared to D'Antoni's relegation of Gasol to a shaky fourth wheel on the perimeter.
D'Antoni's arrival was the death blow to Gasol's excellence, which had already been reduced the previous season to accommodate hard-charging Andrew Bynum. The concept of prioritizing Gasol, even if he was the one whose arrival had brought the Buss family back to splendor and defeated the hated Boston Celtics in 2010, was totally off the grid.
You can make a fair argument that despite Nash's age, his freak leg fracture triggering this world of nerve damage was less predictable than Gasol's known degeneration in his patellar tendons. Jim Buss' private analytics ranked Nash as a top-10, perhaps top-five, guard in the NBA, who needed to be maximized, and it wasn't an off-the-wall theory. At 38, Nash was the one who had been a 2012 All-Star, not Gasol.
Now we know, two years of crushing Lakers frustration later, how wrong it was for the franchise to brush Gasol aside amid visions of Nash's creativity, Kobe Bryant's dominance and Dwight Howard's future, no matter how right it seemed.
Trading Gasol would've been the humane and correct thing to do, given how little the Lakers really tried to make him great again—and how little chance there ever was for D'Antoni to make great use of him. Of course Gasol has to take responsibility for being unassertive and terribly feeble, and for not living up to his contract in the 2011 and '12 playoffs—and not running with the early opportunity to play center in D'Antoni's Kobe-less offense this 2013-14 season.
But to be fair, there was no way Gasol was going to be dominant early this season after undergoing procedures on both knees that left him off his feet for three months, and as Gasol is quick to point out, D'Antoni's system is fundamentally an outside-in offense as opposed to Gasol's usual inside-out.
And so they went into their season-ending meetings with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and D'Antoni on Thursday, one after the other. First Nash, then Gasol.
Bad karma still surrounds them both in Lakerland.
It feels like forever ago that Nash and Gasol, two of the kindest, humblest stars the NBA has ever seen, were really doing their thing. Their hair flowed free and long, and their smiles were frequent and not so forced as now.
"We've hit the bottom," Nash said. "We had championship aspirations, and nothing's gone right. It has been obviously a disaster, individually and collectively, but not for lack of want and trying. Sometimes you've got to take your shots—and try to keep fighting. You can't always be on top, and you can't quit when you're down."
Nash is set to try again this summer to calm his nerve problems, but the Lakers are essentially treating him as if he doesn't exist. He's somewhere between dead man walking and slotted to be No. 3 on the depth chart at point guard despite it being totally uncertain who Nos. 1 and 2 will be. The Lakers have no reason to believe Nash can consistently play next season.
"They can't rely on me, frankly," Nash agreed.
Nash was honest enough to acknowledge that with his $9.7 million salary next season, he is a now a millstone hanging from the franchise's neck.
"If I looked at it from the outside, the dust is going to clear and settle a lot more when my contract expires. There are a lot more options for the club (then)," Nash said. "In the meantime, there aren't that many options, frankly, I don't see."
Forget about payoff from Nash's arrival. Relief that it's over with him is the understood goal for all parties, which is pretty sad stuff. And even though there were kind words Thursday from Gasol about how he knows Bryant would like him to return and theoretically the rebuilding, time-killing Lakers could offer him a big one-year salary while protecting their 2015 cap space, there is already relief that it's over with him.
Gasol wants to win again, wants to have a club believe his skills and savvy can help it win. He already has reason to believe that contending teams such the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs want to sign him, understanding his ground-bound game won't slow that much more with age and he can go harder if he doesn't have to play so many minutes.
Gasol isn't looking for a one-year deal and trying to sell himself again next summer when he's about to turn 35. That sort of thing is at least possible for Nick Young, now 28, or Jodie Meeks, 26, but it makes no sense for where Gasol is at in his career.
He said himself Thursday that this summer is an "exciting moment" because "for the first and maybe only time, I'll be a free agent where I can choose."
Gasol deserves to find a good, new home now.
As nice of a guy as Nash is, there is no more of a poster boy for good karma than Gasol. The 2012 winner of the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, Gasol is a physical manifestation of the idea that kindness and caring bring about righteous reward.
A point of emphasis in his comments Thursday was wanting Lakers fans who have kept supporting him since the glory days devolved into these struggles to know that they have earned his respect as people.
"That's when you most appreciate the support," he said.
As many times as the Lakers almost traded him, even though they screwed him by hiring D'Antoni instead of Jackson, Gasol remains of a positive mindset.
He called his tenure as a Laker "amazing, for the most part. All things considered, it's been extremely great for me."
"I'll always be a part of this franchise and this city, no matter what," Gasol said. "If I don't come back, then that's how I'll feel about it—always going to be thankful for everything that I experienced in this city."
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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