LOS ANGELES — The Lakers played their last game before the All-Star break Thursday night.
Pau Gasol might have already played his last game with them.
Los Angeles is much more motivated than earlier in the season to make a deal that sends out Gasol and brings in an asset in the form of a draft pick or young talent, having been forced to drop the dream scenario of Kobe Bryant and Gasol making old magic to procure a playoff berth.
Gasol is sitting out with a minor groin strain now, and it remains awfully tricky to make a deal because of his $19.3 million salary, larger even than LeBron James’ annual take. Still, the team is increasingly open to moving Gasol before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
The Lakers have been fine with a fallback plan of letting Gasol’s contract expire and filling his salary slot through future free agency. As disjointed and downright negative as this season has become, though—with OKC handing the Lakers a franchise-worst seventh consecutive home loss right after failing to sell out Staples Center for just the second time in 365 games—things have changed.
The 18-35 Lakers are now more likely to take whatever first-round pick they can get in a trade for Gasol when it comes down to it. In fact, general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters Thursday night, via Lakers.com, the team certainly won’t be buyers at the trade deadline this year. (The Phoenix Suns projecting to have four first-round picks in the June draft makes them still the most likely partner.)
Other veterans with expiring contracts such as Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake are also prime candidates to be moved for future considerations. If no trade with Gasol happens, that doesn’t change L.A.'s readiness to divorce at season’s end. He’s basically leaving, one way or another.
Yes, two final months for him as a Laker would seem to offer something worthwhile. It would be a chance for fans to realize and recognize how much he has brought to the franchise, in championships and grace, before he departs.
Yet the idea of anything like a victory lap for Gasol is hard to imagine. These days, fans can’t forget his untimely disappearance in the three-peat-seeking 2011 playoffs that triggered all his ghost-town days that have ensued. And then, of course, there is the overriding feeling that trading Gasol for Chris Paul would’ve changed Los Angeles' current reality completely.
Through it all, Gasol has stayed a loyal soldier. He is a sweet man who looked legitimately chagrined on the bench Thursday night not just by the Lakers’ loss, but when a fan missed in the Big Shot Jackpot game between the third and fourth quarters.
Kupchak said this on SiriusXM NBA Radio last week about Gasol: “It’s clear to me that he loves Los Angeles, and he wants to stay in Los Angeles.” Gasol has indeed gotten very comfortable here, and he actually intends his post-basketball life in the future to be split between Barcelona and Los Angeles.
But as will happen with comfort zones, it’s only after you step out that you realize there’s great opportunity for growth, learning and meaningful experience on new turf.
The last time Gasol was going through this kind of mind-numbing losing, he asked the Memphis Grizzlies to trade him because he wanted to feel something more. The trade to the Lakers gave him even more than he could’ve imagined, and the knock on him since his consecutive NBA championships here is that he has been a little satisfied. Not completely, but a little.
Even his most ardent backers have come to agree that when you’re making more money than all but a handful of players in the NBA, you need to figure out a way to put your imprint on every game, no matter who has been imported to coach you or play next to you.
In a new environment with new goals, Gasol will get new ideas—or old ideas whose grip on him has loosened—and the gist of them is a fundamental urgency to win every night.
It’s not Gasol’s decision to stay or go anyway. What matters is the Lakers realizing there’s just nothing to see here with him anymore. Their fans would be more excited about some future pick, even if it’s a long shot in reality to help, than more Gasol.
L.A.'s interest in trading to drop under the luxury-tax plateau has been widely cited, but that’s just money stuff and not a priority when they plan to avoid the tax the next two years. The crux of it is that even though it has been time before, it really feels like time now for Gasol to move on.
In a basic way, Gasol is more than prepared if that time has finally come. He shared Tuesday through his Twitter account that he’s reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times.
Hard to think of a more appropriate read if Gasol’s Lakers tenure is ending now via trade, especially when one of the messages in the book is how one might invest a lot of time and pride into something, but everything is inevitably a sandcastle; everything will cease to exist.
Gasol gets it. He has been beaten over the head with his impermanence as a Laker, no matter those three consecutive NBA Finals runs upon his arrival or the likely No. 16 jersey on the Staples Center’s wall someday.
The point is that neither Gasol nor the Lakers will be missing anything by splitting up now.