Ten Years After Pau Gasol Trade to Lakers Changed NBA, Deal Makes Sense Now

Rafael CantonContributor IFebruary 6, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol, left, of Spain, holds on to the arm of guard Kobe Bryant as time runs out in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 102-84 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their NBA first-round playoff basketball series in Denver on Saturday, April 26, 2008. The Lakers have won all three games of the best-of-seven game series as they head into Game 4 on Monday night. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Marc Gasol was grocery shopping in Girona, Spain, when he got the call.

His friend and then-Grizzlies point guard Juan Carlos Navarro was on the line and told him his brother, Pau, had been traded to the Lakers.

"I was excited, obviously for Pau," Gasol told B/R. "And then [Navarro] told me 'you know the best part of it? ... You're being traded back to Memphis.'"

It's been a decade since the Gasol brothers were traded for each other, a move that reset the course of the NBA. And while many around the league were baffled at the apparent inequality of the deal at the time, the years since have shown it was an all-too-rare trade in which both sides got what they wanted. For the Lakers, it was a pair of titles and the ability to keep Kobe Bryant in L.A. for his entire career. For the Grizzlies, it was a decade filled with playoff appearances and the rise of a deeply passionate NBA culture in the city. It just took some time to see that.

   

The backstory

Pau Gasol had grown into Memphis' best player after being selected third overall in the 2001 NBA draft. The 7-footer from Spain won the 2002 Rookie of the Year award, became an All-Star and helped lead the Grizzlies to their first playoff appearance in franchise history.

From 2004-06, the Grizzlies won at least 45 games every year and qualified for the postseason. However, once they got there, they stumbled, failing to win a single playoff game in 12 tries.

The direction of the franchise took a dark turn in the 2006 offseason when Gasol fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot while playing for Spain in the FIBA World Championships. Without Pau for the first 22 games that fall, the Grizzlies began the year 5-17. Gasol returned from his injury, but Memphis could never get back on track. The team dropped from second in defensive efficiency the previous year to dead last, per NBA.com, as it finished the season an NBA-worst 22-60.

Things didn't improve the following season under head coach Marc Iavaroni, and new Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace sensed a need to shake things up. "We tried to bolster [Pau], do some things with the roster, make it a little bit better for him," Wallace told B/R. "But it was obvious to me by the Christmas holidays of [2007] that we weren't going anywhere. I knew we weren't going to be a playoff team that year, but then we were really mired in a bad spot.

After starting the 2007-08 season at 13-33, the Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers for a handful of veterans and the draft rights to Pau's brother Marc, who would go on to become an All-Star himself in Memphis.
After starting the 2007-08 season at 13-33, the Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers for a handful of veterans and the draft rights to Pau's brother Marc, who would go on to become an All-Star himself in Memphis.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"The team wasn't performing. We were getting crushed in our local market by the Memphis Tigers when John Calipari was coaching and Derrick Rose was the star player. You would come to our games and there would be nobody ... on a Friday night. Go to their games in the same building on Saturday and you couldn't get another person in there. And Pau's spirit had been doused, in my opinion, too. He wasn't that excited about being here."

Wallace went to then-Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and proposed the idea of trading Gasol since he was Memphis' most attractive asset. The Grizzlies were 13-33 when they found a trade partner in the Los Angeles Lakers, who had started off strong but had recently lost starting center Andrew Bynum to a left knee injury.

After some negotiations, Gasol was sent to L.A. with a future second-round pick for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, two future first-round picks and the draft rights to Pau's brother Marc. who was still playing in Spain at the time.

The trade was met with severe criticism from almost everyone—fans, media and, most notably, coaches and executives in the NBA. How could the Grizzlies give away an All-Star talent without getting a surefire star in return?

"What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said to Sports Illustrated at the time. "There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade."

Indeed, the boost to the Lakers' fortunes rankled many. Less than a year before, an unhappy Kobe Bryant had requested a trade. Now he had been gifted a near-perfect complementary star, one whose ability to pass, score, rebound and block shots fit perfectly in Phil Jackson's triangle offense.

"[Pau] immediately had a huge impact in the first game he played in," then-Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told B/R. "It was night and day with the [team's] energy. It wasn't so much what he brought, and I think he had a big game statistically, but it's what he did to the rest of the guys on the team, especially Kobe. It was just a feeling of energy and optimism from day one."

The Lakers went 29-9 after the trade (27-9 after Pau began playing) and went on to reach the NBA Finals that year, losing to the Boston Celtics in six games. They would recover, though, and win consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010.

    

The aftermath in Memphis

Initially, Brown was seen as a key piece to the trade for Memphis as he had a $9.1 million expiring contract. Crittenton was on a rookie-scale deal, and McKie was an assistant coach for the 76ers but was signed to a contract worth $750,000 (by the Lakers, who held onto his cap hold that season to make his contract available) to make the math work in the trade. "I don't know if I'd call it a loophole, but it was allowable in the CBA at the time," Kupchak said. "I don't think we could've done the deal without Aaron McKie agreeing to do that."

Marc Gasol was playing for Akasvayu Girona of the Spanish League when the deal was completed. He had been drafted by the Lakers 48th overall and stashed in Europe.

Marc Gasol enjoyed his time playing in Spain, but when his team went bankrupt, he began negotiations to join the Grizzlies.
Marc Gasol enjoyed his time playing in Spain, but when his team went bankrupt, he began negotiations to join the Grizzlies.MIGUEL RIOPA/Getty Images

At the time, little was known of Pau's younger brother. Marc had lived in Memphis for two years while Pau was with the Grizzlies and had played for Lausanne Collegiate School during his teenage years.

Marc had played well in Spain, winning the 2008 Spanish League MVP, and felt comfortable there. "At that time, the NBA was not on my mind; it was not on my radar," Marc said. "I was really focused on my team in Europe, and I didn't know what was going to happen, if I was going to be in the NBA."

His plans changed that summer, however, when Akasvayu Girona went bankrupt and disbanded. Wallace pursued Gasol hard. First, he had to convince Pau and Marc's parents to trust him after he had just traded their eldest son.

Next, Wallace had to convince Heisley that it was worth it to pay a second-round pick a salary similar to that of a high lottery pick to convince him to leave Spain.

"Pau told Mr. Heisley that 'Marc can be better than me,'" Wallace said. "About a second after he put the phone down with Pau, he called me and told me to make sure I get this thing done. That really put it over the top. To this day I don't know if we would have been able to sign Marc there in 2008 if it wasn't for that phone call from Mr. Heisley to Pau."

The negotiations were stressful for Wallace, who had been ruthlessly criticized by the media, public and his peers for the trade of Pau. It was imperative to bring in Marc to at least have something of promise to show for the trade. "I've been in this league over 30 years and been in a lot of different situations," Wallace said. "I've never been more nervous about anything as I was about signing him. Because if it didn't get done, it would have been at least three years that he would've stayed [overseas]. And he would've eventually came, but ... he may have been playing for another general manager."

In July, Gasol signed a three-year, $9.7 million deal and quickly entrenched himself in the starting lineup with second-year point guard Mike Conley. "It was good for me," Gasol said of coming back to Memphis. "I came to a situation where it worked out and we created that bond with the city [of Memphis]."

Marc Gasol became a starter with the Grizzlies in his first year with the franchise and had them in the playoffs by his third season.
Marc Gasol became a starter with the Grizzlies in his first year with the franchise and had them in the playoffs by his third season.Jim Mone/Associated Press

Gasol gradually developed into a core piece of the Grit and Grind era in Memphis and was joined by the likes of Zach Randolph a year later and Tony Allen the next season. Randolph's arrival also came as a result of the Lakers trade as the Grizzlies made use of the long-term salary-cap room they created in the deal. "At one time we had about nine players on the team that you could've traced that we either drafted, signed or brought in from the [cap] room that we had [created] to acquire them," Wallace said.

In time, the deal has played out as a lot more even than originally thought. The younger Gasol has become a three-time All-Star, a Defensive Player of the Year and has helped lead Memphis to the postseason for seven consecutive seasons.

"We would've still done the deal if we knew what Marc would've turned out to be because Pau is still playing at a high level," Kupchak said. "Looking back on it now, it turned out to be a very fair deal, which is good. As a general manager, you always try to get the best deal."

    

Rafael Canton is a writer based in New York. He's written for VICE Sports, SLAM Magazine and Complex. Follow him on Twitter: @rafelitoc7.

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