Lakers Miss Chance to Keep Momentum Toward Future in Trading Pau Gasol

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Lakers Miss Chance to Keep Momentum Toward Future in Trading Pau Gasol
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Now it feels like the end of an era.

After so many exit doors being propped open without Pau Gasol actually stepping through to depart the Los Angeles Lakers, the sweet-hearted soul tough enough to win two NBA titles is finally gone.   

Gasol officially left the Lakers on his own Saturday, committing to a free-agent deal with the Chicago Bulls in his quest to win again.

It concludes a saga of nearly being traded over and over that would've fried lesser men's brains. (Exhibit A: Lamar Odom.)

And although for many Lakers fans Gasol's departure hurts even more than when Dwight Howard left for nothing a year ago, kudos to Gasol for turning down the Lakers' hefty short-term money and moving on.

It has been beyond time for the two sides to part, and Gasol's lack of respect for the soft backbones of Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni should be obvious in how his free-agent finalists are guided by the NBA's two best coaches, both with hard-driving styles that on the surface might seem threatening to Gasol's calm: Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich.

Thibodeau will figure out ways to push Gasol to be better in a way no one on the Lakers could but Kobe Bryant. And with Derrick Rose driven to be the best all over again, the Bulls deserve to be overwhelming favorites in the Eastern Conference.

That Gasol left the Lakers is no surprise whatsoever.

That he left them without the Lakers getting anything in exchange is definitely a failure for the franchise, though.

Spoiled fans are already frustrated because they blindly expect the Lakers to win every season, and every little move or non-move can wind up counting when you're this far from a championship. Don't underestimate how much the Lakers are evaluating all these things in the long run, even beyond the simple issue of preserving salary-cap space for 2015 or '16.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant proved to be one of the few Lakers who could encourage Pau Gasol to play at peak efficiency.

Nick Young was professional and productive for the Lakers, and he was rewarded with four years, $21.5 million to bring his entertaining style back to Staples Center. But bear in mind that the Lakers gave him all those years knowing that his average yearly salary will be easy to trade—it's near the mid-level exception—for an expiring contract if they find they need to clear more space.

Jordan Hill got $9 million for the coming season (and another $9 million on a team option for next season). There is pretty much no one on the planet who is applauding the Lakers for giving Jordan Hill $9 million, but this is an issue that merits closer examination.

First of all, this is a marketplace in which nondescript Marvin Williams gets two years, $14 million (fully guaranteed), and declining Chris Kaman gets two years, $10 million (second year only $1 million guaranteed).

Not only were the Lakers always willing to overpay someone for a one-year deal, but there is actual faith in Hill at work here. D'Antoni never liked or never connected with Hill, so there was little chance of him breaking his bad habits of not maintaining focus, not rotating on defense and not taking care of his body.

Nevertheless, there is some reason for numbers-guy Jim Buss to expect better from Hill. Worth noting if defense-focused Byron Scott is the next coach, Scott clearly stated his affection for Hill while working as the Lakers' studio TV analyst.

Hill was already pretty good for the Lakers last season—more productive than Gasol, frankly. If Hill becomes more conscientious under Scott's tutelage and can stay healthy, maybe Hill can earn that $9 million for next season, too.

The per-48-minute win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com, confirm that effectiveness: Hill .141, Jodie Meeks .084, Ryan Kelly .081, Gasol .076, Young .067. Even averaging just 20.8 minutes, Hill made a near-team-leading impact in overall win shares, which count defense equally the way Buss' personal system does: Meeks 4.5, Hill 4.4, Gasol 3.0, Young 2.5.

Another notable aspect of the deal is that by inflating Hill's salary while keeping it tradable, the Lakers created more flexibility if opportunity knocks next season and a star free agent becomes available via trade just before his team loses him for nothing. Hill and Jeremy Lin (and Steve Nash, assuming he isn't waived) all can be used in a package to match up with a star's huge salary.

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images
Jordan Hill posted career highs in points, rebounds and shooting last season for the Lakers.

But obviously that star's team, whether it's Minnesota (Kevin Love) or Memphis (Marc Gasol) or Boston (Rajon Rondo), is only going to make that trade if the Lakers can sweeten the deal—which is where it hurts not getting at least a pick from the Bulls in a sign-and-trade exchange for Gasol when the Bulls wanted to pay Gasol more.

The case to trade Gasol has been a compelling one going as far back as May 2012. As good of a guy as he is, and as much as Bryant has wanted to keep Gasol around, it was time for a change. Besides the aborted Chris Paul deal for Gasol and Odom in December 2011, the Lakers had plenty of opportunities but passed on them all, and Gasol's value has continued to sink.

Lakers management could certainly argue that it gave fans as much Gasol as it could—keeping him as long as he was willing to stay. But the last few years have been disappointing; Gasol didn't come close to stepping up to earn his monster salary, and the team obviously underachieved.

It is still nice that his exit now is being treated with fondness, even if it is largely motivated by Lakers fans upset that nothing very good is in store for next season. The Lakers Twitter account posted a graphic of Gasol, the Larry O'Brien Trophy and "Thanks, Pau"—and got more than 700 retweets in a minute, 7,000 in three hours.

Gasol's departure means no player or coach is left from the Lakers' '09 and '10 NBA championship teams except Bryant. That's the end of an era.

In fact, there's only one player besides Bryant remaining from the team of just two years ago: Hill, who came in a March 2012 trade because the Lakers wanted to get rid of Derek Fisher.

There's no brotherhood between Bryant and Hill. There probably never will be.

And that's what hurts Lakers fans right now: Not only do they want to root for a winner, but they got used to a team of people in whom they believed. And that is no more.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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