One look at the Los Angeles Lakers’ salary situation two months ago, and the course of action was all too obvious: Use future free agents to build around the recently extended Kobe Bryant and cut everyone else adrift—including Pau Gasol.
Now, with the NBA on the brink of two potentially shape-shifting announcements, Gasol has suddenly become the crucial cog around which L.A.’s grandest plans must pivot.
Not even Gasol could believe he had this much clout.
What a difference a few weeks and unnamed sources can make.
Despite registering a career-par campaign as the undisputed go-to option on a 27-win team, Gasol’s return to the Lakers—with whom he’s tallied a pair of NBA titles—was by no means set in stone.
With Bryant signing a two-year, $48.5 million extension back in November (per CBS Sports’ Matt Moore), the strategy seemed all too obvious: Weather these next two years—even if it means reeling in a few lottery prospects—and reload in 2016, when the likes of Kevin Love, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were slated to hit the open market.
If the Lakers could promise Kobe one or two of the aforementioned forces, perhaps then the 16-time All-Star would consider taking a pay cut.
With four of the best players in the world each available at the same time (five if you count Kevin Love), L.A.’s long-term game plan suddenly accelerated.
If they could somehow reel in James and a second superstar, perhaps the Lakers could enjoy the best of both worlds: The single greatest player on the planet, and a slightly younger, fresher Bryant.
Just one small problem: Who’s to say LeBron and Melo would leave everything behind to ball with a 35-year-old Bryant—recovering as he is from a pair of devastating injuries in as many years—a similarly hobbled (and 40-year-old) Steve Nash and Robert Sacre?
L.A. would need something else to sweeten the deal. A low-post presence with a proven pedigree and a game suited to flashier talents.
They needed Pau Gasol.
Meanwhile, the multi-skilled Spaniard was busy charting his own summer strategy, marked by a bevy of interested suitors including the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder (per the Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman) and New York Knicks, the latter of which sought to reunite Gasol with former coach Phil Jackson (via Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski).
And an old, familiar face, of course.
“There are scenarios where Pau would be back and we’d pursue him,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “There are scenarios that he wouldn’t be back or that he chooses to go someplace else.”
It’s not hard to ascertain what Kupchak means by “scenarios” here. Consider it code for the following: If Gasol is willing to take a pay cut—thereby giving us a better chance of landing Kobe’s heir apparent—we’d be more than happy to have him back.
Should he ask for too much? Best of luck.
Indeed, Medina intimated as much in his recent dispatch:
If either possibility plays out, the Lakers appear more inclined to revamp their roster quickly, including retaining Gasol. Although Gasol would not make anywhere near the $19 million he made last season, the Lakers still can pay Gasol more than any other team. The Lakers also would appear more geared toward becoming a championship contender, featuring a so-called Big Three with Kobe Bryant, Gasol and either James or Anthony.
Owing to the contender status of Gasol’s other suitors, the expectation was much the same: We’d love to have him, but only at a steep discount.
At a certain point, we started to lose sight of the curious double standard at play:
Why do we all think Pau Gasol will just automatically take a paycut? Because he's a nice guy? Maybe he will, but seems weird to assume.— Grant Hughes (@g30three) July 9, 2014
Now, with reports leaning toward Anthony and James taking their talents somewhere other than Southern California (per Ian Begley and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com), the writing is on the wall for Gasol: If he wants to bring his ring count to three, it’s probably best not to look to Lakerland.
Unless, that is, Gasol sees something in L.A.’s near-future prospects worth waiting for—a colossal Kobe comeback, instant-stardom lottery pick Julius Randle or a chance at a coup in 2016.
L.A. losing out on LeBron and Melo doesn’t necessarily spell the end for Gasol; the Lakers boast enough legacy and lush extracurriculars to make it a free-agent haven in perpetuity.
Still, with so many top-tier teams waiting in the wings, Gasol needn’t stand idle in hopes that Kupchak and company can pull of a midnight miracle.
Circumstance and convenience may have made Gasol a critical piece of L.A.’s surprise summer puzzle. Whether that’s better than being the final piece—the one guy capable of putting a team over the top—feels, unfortunately, like the one question that will ultimately spell the end of Gasol's Tinseltown tenure.