After two years of injuries and systematic struggles, Pau Gasol stands before the NBA, a highly sought, title-thirsty free agent who would be wise to start doodling the San Antonio Spurs' logo inside tiny yet intricate hearts.
Of the many teams chasing the nearly 34-year-old big man—and there are several of them—not a single one makes more sense than the reigning champs.
Other contenders will try to sell Gasol on the same championship schtick. Some will offer him a lot more money than the Spurs can. There will even be teams that maintain Gasol, even if he removes money from the equation, won't find a better fit.
Those teams will be lying.
Only one best fit is out there. They are coached by Gregg Popovich. Their roster reads like a who's who of age-contemning prodigies. Their championship hardware comes in excessive volume.
They are the San Antonio Spurs.
Fit, Fit, Fit
Long before free agency first began, some folks knew Gasol and the Spurs were a match made in basketball heaven. Those same people understood any potential union was a long shot.
The Spurs were limited in what they could offer. Funds were tied up elsewhere. Key championship cogs Boris Diaw and Patty Mills—who inked a three-year contract with the Spurs, per the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey—needed to be paid.
Hope of Gasol joining the Spurs was, in turn, waning. Any optimism was borne out of fantasy.
Then ESPN.com's Marc Stein dropped this subtle bombshell:
Pau Gasol Addendum No. 2: Hearing Pau, as with OKC, indeed giving legit consideration to San Antonio if he looks at places where $ is scarce— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 3, 2014
Just like that, hope was, and still is, alive. We should have known, too. Mutual interest was inevitable. Cash flow be damned.
Unlike the system former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni employed over the last two years, the Spurs run one that suits Gasol and plays to his unique abilities.
Ball movement and quick decisions are paramount. Floor spacing matters as well, but not to the extent that Gasol must camp out behind the three-point line, well outside his comfort zone.
Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster offers additional details:
San Antonio's style of play is a perfect fit for Gasol, who is one of the best passing big men in league history. The Spurs love to position their bigs (Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw) at the high post and allow them to make plays with their court vision.
Surrounded by shooters and selfless players, Gasol's skills wouldn't go to waste like they would in a few other stagnant offenses that depend mostly on isolation basketball.
Oh, yeah, Tim Duncan. Almost forgot about him, as if neglecting to acknowledge a top-seven player of all time is possible.
Timmy D can coexist with Gasol. The two share similar skill sets and have identical offensive range. Duncan is also living, breathing, frowning, occasionally crazy-eyeing proof that older players work—nay, dominate—in San Antonio's system.
Thank Coach Pop for that one. He's a minutes-managing, player-preserving sage, like ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne astutely observes:
To follow up @ESPNSteinLine addendums on Pau: Pop's expert minutes regulation & Spurs international roster definitely part appeal.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 3, 2014
No player on the Spurs averaged 30 minutes per game last season. Not a single one. And they still won a title.
Gasol, meanwhile, has eclipsed 30 minutes in each of the last two seasons, despite battling injuries (gosh darn, feet). Logging fewer minutes while moving up the NBA's food chain is something all fading big men should be interested in doing.
And where coaching was an issue in Los Angeles, it's a selling point in San Antonio. Coach Pop, scowls and all, knows how to maximize the talents of aging players—better than anyone else the coach-less Lakers could hire, and better than the 28 other coaches Gasol could wind up playing under.
Sliding alongside a legit point guard in Tony Parker—and even Mills—only strengthens the Spurs' pitch. Gasol hasn't had that opportunity in Los Angeles. Steve Nash was supposed to be the Lakers' Tony Parker, but it hasn't worked out.
Playing next to Parker himself could.
Playing for the Spurs will.
Spurning the Rest
There are, as previously noted, other options for Gasol to consider. Plenty of them.
Starting with the Lakers.
At one point it was believed Gasol had played his last game for the Purple and Gold. Turns out that may not be the case. Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles says they're interested in bringing the 7-footer back for one last run.
No team can offer Gasol more money than the Lakers, so they have that going for them. Their situation is such that they could hand him a lucrative, above-market one- or two-year deal and not live to regret it. But they're also at a stage in their development and Kobe Bryant's career where Gasol could regret his decision.
"My decision will be based purely on sporting considerations," Gasol wrote on his personal website in February, per McMenamin. "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 to compete for it. I would like to win another championship."
Winning another ring in Los Angeles isn't happening unless the Lakers unexpectedly land some big fish. Signing Carmelo Anthony and/or LeBron James is the only way they instantly return to title contention.
Acquiring even one additional superstar remains a long shot, which leaves Gasol to explore other avenues, two of which are seriously intriguing, per Stein:
Bulls and Thunder have emerged as two new top-flight teams in the hunt for Gasol, who has predictably been drawing considerable interest— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 2, 2014
The Chicago Bulls can be colored a serious threat. If they amnesty Carlos Boozer—a minor formality—they can offer Gasol more money than most. That's assuming they strike out on Anthony, which it looks like they will:
Pau Gasol Addendum No. 1: Sources say Bulls' rising interest in Pau IS indeed reflection of concern they can't convince Melo to leave NYK— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 3, 2014
But while the Bulls are an interesting fit, interesting isn't always better.
Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are already on the roster. Though Gibson can still come off the bench or be forced to play small forward, Gasol doesn't fill a glaring need. He would be Boozer's replacement, who moves the needle slightly on offense and that's it.
The Oklahoma City Thunder make some sense. Fielding Gasol at the 5 instead of Kendrick Perkins has its offensive advantages, which is lost on no one in Oklahoma City, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook:
ESPN has learned that Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook made a come-to-OKC pitch directly to Pau Gasol today in Los Angeles— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 3, 2014
Is coach Scott Brooks' offense creative enough to incorporate the talents of Gasol, Durant, Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka? That's a question Gasol has to ask himself.
He must ask himself if he's into, like, 75 percent pay cuts as well. According to Stein and Shelburne, Oklahoma City can only offer him roughly $5 million to start, down $14.3 million from what he earned this past year.
If that's the Thunder's best offer, it doesn't trounce the Spurs'. They're identical pitches. San Antonio's can be worth even more with some finagling, as Pounding The Rock's Jesus Gomez suggests:
If Diaw comes back, the Spurs will only be able to offer Gasol the mid-level exception. They could engineer a sign-and-trade but the Lakers would have to be on board with taking in salary, at least for one year. Former PtR bossman Wayne Vore came up with a clever way to offer Gasol more, by signing and trading Matt Bonner like the Nets traded Keith Bogans to the Celtics. The Lakers would absorb Bonner at, say, $5 million along with another asset or two, and punt their cap space to the next season. But to do that, LA would have to know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that they have no shot at a premier free agent.
Negotiating a sign-and-trade is unlikely. If the Lakers whiff on Gasol and the rest of their primary targets, they won't be in the business of taking on additional salary. They'll want to keep their books clean for summer 2015.
Offering Gasol more doesn't have to be the Spurs' goal, though. Not if he's seriously contemplating a drastic pay cut. Their track record, their most recent title run, speaks for itself.
Too Much Sense
Landing Gasol falls noticeably short of likely for the Spurs.
Which NBA team makes most sense for Pau Gasol?
Early returns have him searching for an annual salary in the $10-12 million range, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. That's about half of what the Spurs can offer. His demands are why contenders like the Miami Heat—who Wojnarowski says have also reached out—and Thunder were originally considered pipe dreams.
But Stein classified Oklahoma City as a "leading contender" for the Spaniard's services. That, if true, changes everything. It means that Gasol's decision will come down to winning and winning alone.
And if that's the case, if the title-thirsty Gasol is actually parched enough to forfeit financial gain for iced fingers, there is no better option than the crowning keeper of rings.
There is no better fit than the Spurs.
Salary information via ShamSports.