LOS ANGELES, CA - FILE: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second half while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. According to reports on December 8, 2011, Pau Gasol will be traded to the Houston Rockets. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
It's long been theorized, in 2012 at least, that there is a growing rift between superstar Kobe Bryant and former All-Star Pau Gasol. The theory, based on on-court interaction and off-court press quotes, is clearly a logical one. Kobe Bryant is very quick to blame others, most notably Pau, when things don't go the way he wants them to. And Pau Gasol, more than any other player in a Lakers uniform, is unable to deal with the wilting pressure of Kobe Bryant's supreme will. It is for these potential reasons, among others, that Pau Gasol is the least likely of the Lakers' big three to be donning the purple and gold next season.
As further confirmation, a report has emerged from Bulls.com's Sam Smith that Pau Gasol does indeed want out of Los Angeles, and that he'd like to play for the Bulls. OK, that's nice. Does anybody really care where Pau Gasol wants to play?
Pau Gasol is a fine basketball player. He's skilled, talented, and as long as he's not getting out muscled and out hustled for loose balls, he's an asset every one would be thrilled to have on the court. Though not an All-Star this season, he's clearly an All-Star caliber player, and chances are he'll bounce back from a lackluster season next year, especially if next year happens without having to worry about fighting for his touches against not one, but two, of the league's biggest alpha dogs. The point is, Pau Gasol is great, and whichever team gets his services will be happy to have him.
What Pau Gasol is not is a player who has any leverage. Dwight Howard has leverage. Chris Paul has leverage. Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, even Chris Bosh ... these are all players who have leverage. That's why Carmelo Anthony dictated that he wanted to play in New York prior to his free agency, and was subsequently traded there. That's why the Orlando Magic and New Jersey Nets have both bended over backwards trying to convince their superstars to stick around for their next contract.
So what gives these players leverage? What gives them the ability to have wish lists and demands, to have teams kow tow to their every need in an attempt to woo them? Value. Every single player on the list has value that far exceeds their earning potential.
The NBA is a strange bird when it comes to the inner workings of free agency. In almost every other sport, building a team is a simple numbers game. Teams value players a certain way, based on factors like ticket sales and merchandise, or based on the success that player will help the team to achieve, with success also driving the bottom line forward. They make the player an offer based on said valuation, and the player is likely to choose close to the best offer (with notable exceptions towards the end of storied careers). Other factors, such as a team salary cap, might limit a player's value, but that limit drives everybody's value down. But the NBA is different. In the NBA, there is a "max" salary, and an NBA player cannot be paid more than the max, no matter how much value they bring to their team and the league.
Every player on the list above is a "max" player. They are all paid as much as they can be (unless they took a little bit less than the max in order to play on the same team). Any team in the league would be happy to pay them that max contract, because they bring in more value than the contract is worth. When money ceases to be a bargaining chip, that's when you start getting into the territory of a player having the power to say where they want to play.
Pau Gasol is not a "max" player. He's not currently paid the max, though he's relatively close. In the process of signing his last contract, he and the Lakers came to an agreement that "properly" valued him. Whether you or I think he is still worth the large amounts of money being paid isn't the point. The point is that his contract fits in a place within the NBA wage scale that comes before the part which includes the leverage to make any kind of demands regarding where one plays.
To be fair, Pau Gasol has not ever indicated publicly a desire to be traded, much less a desire to be traded to a specific location. He is the consummate professional, at least in how he handles such matters in front of a microphone (how he handles himself on the court, on the other hand ...) But, if the story is true, and Pau Gasol does want to be traded to the Chicago Bulls or any other specific team, that should have zero effect on the Lakers' dealings. Pau Gasol is paid exactly as much money to play basketball as he could get on the open market, because the money he receives was agreed upon on the open market. He's not quite good enough to get to the part where the limitations kick in. And if he wasn't good enough to get to those limitations when he was signing a contract as an All-Star 30 year old on a championship roster, he sure as hell isn't going to be in that stratosphere as a 34 year old on the downside of his career the next time he comes up as a free agent.
Sum it all together, and you've got a player with no leverage. Unless Pau Gasol doesn't want the millions upon millions of dollars he's currently owed, he's going to play basketball next year for whichever team has the right to play him. Currently, that team is the Los Angeles Lakers, but that is expected to change this offseason. You can bet that whichever team decides to bring Pau Gasol to their roster won't be all that worried about whether Pau wants to play for them or not, because they will be paying him $19 million dollars to play the game. The story will not change the next time Gasol signs a new contract. There will be no artificial, imposed limitations on his worth. Teams will line up with their valuations of him as a player, and he will decide which one of those offers he likes the best (or negotiate a contract extension based on the same principles).
It's how the free market system works for most of the folks lucky enough to make a profession out of sports. The very top tier of basketball players just so happen to operate in a different system, in which they are literally unable to be paid their actual value to the market, creating a system in which they can have demands which must be met because teams know they have no other way of enticing said players to stick around. Make no mistake, if all the teams in the league had the ability to offer LeBron James (or Dwight Howard or Dwyane Wade etc. etc.) as much money as they wanted to and could afford, there would be no ridiculous "The Decision" situations. There would simply be offers, with the accepted offer standing out amongst the rest.
That is the world Pau Gasol lives in. He is paid what he is paid because that was the number that was agreed upon by all parties. If he was worth more, he would have been paid more. If he was worth less, he would have been paid less. Now, both he and the Los Angeles Lakers appear ready to move on from their currently existing professional relationship. Apparently, he's amenable to the idea of his next team being the Chicago Bulls. Good for him. Just don't expect it to matter. If the Bulls come up with a trade offer the Lakers deem better than anything else they can get, Pau Gasol might get his wish. If another team provides a better offer, Gasol will have to suck it up and play for whoever retains his services. Where he wants to play might make for a cute story, but Gasol does not have the leverage to back up any demands whatsoever. He'll play where he's paid to play. End of story.