As we sit in the midst of what will arguably be the worst season in a decade, it's somewhat befuddling to see just how loudly the Lakers fan base has clamored for the team to cut ties with him for the past several seasons. The team has been a legitimate title contender--at least at one point of the season or another--for the past six seasons, and nearly half of those were spent with the team somehow exploring trades for a four-time All-Star. As Gasol's continued presence on the team will attest to, it's been extremely difficult to deal the big man, despite all of his skill and playoff pedigree. Almost one year ago to the day, I wrote about the inherent difficulties of dealing Gasol. Some of these reasons included the lack of viable trading partners, the team's ceiling as contenders, his massive contract and the Lakers' 2014 cap clearing goals. I spent essentially the entire season up until the trade deadline trumpeting these ideas whenever Gasol's potential exit was brought up, which was a lot. It was exhausting.
Coming into a season with muted expectations and even dimmer results, the thought was that Pau would again be given the opportunity to be the sole frontcourt focal point of the offense. For the past several seasons, Andrew Bynum and then Dwight Howard forced Gasol out of his most effective spot on the floor, pushing him further and further out of the paint. Now, with both men gone, Pau, who turned 33 in July, would have a chance to prove that his declining statistics were simply a result of the system he played in...not the fact that he was washed up. For the moment, the Gasol trade rumors reached a three-year low.
Yet, in the early going of the season, Gasol has yet to re-establish himself as the widely hailed "most skilled big man in the league". Pau is averaging a career-low 13 ppg on just .395 FG%, despite a healthy 13 FGA per game. He is by far the most skilled offensive player on the team, but even with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash sitting out with injuries, hasn't been able to establish a rhythm on the court. On paper, Gasol simply looks like he's getting old.
But as it seems is ever the case, there are extenuating circumstances surrounding the Spaniard. The first and possibly most plausible is his inactivity over the offseason. Gasol had procedures performed on both of his knees this past summer, all aimed at relieving his knees of the chronic tendonosis that has plagued him for years. He only began to run on hardwood in the weeks leading up to training camp, meaning he's essentially had to use training camp and the early season to get into shape. Gasol is playing a career-low 29.3 mpg, which partially corroborates Mike D'Antoni easing his veteran PF into the mix. He's also had far fewer touches down low than most people figured he would, which is partially a consequence of the team's heavy reliance on the three-point shot and Jordan Hill's unbelievably deft ability to finish on the pick and roll.
Still, perception is reality in the NBA. Gasol has been a fraction of his former All-Star self, playing well below the levels that Pau apologists (including this writer) had convinced themselves he could still perform at. This is all to say that Gasol's trade value has taken a big hit in the early going of this season: most teams HAVE to be wondering whether or not this guy can still be the big, title-swinging mid-season acquisition that he's been looked at over the years.
If the Lakers are to deal him this season, they'll be looking towards the future with whatever they acquire: draft picks and/or young, cheap players with upside.
But the obstacles to trading Pau are nearly as titanic this season as they've been in years past--if not even greater in some cases. Let's look at what's standing in the way of a Gasol-less purple and gold future:
Like several teams with cap space next summer, the Lakers are angling for max contract space beginning in July. Though there are several options, the singular goal can be summed up in three letters: LBJ.
LeBron James could become a free agent next summer, as his current deal contains an Early Termination Option that would allow him to forgo the last year of his contract with Miami. James hasn't confirmed whether or not he's going to exercise that option, but regardless, LA is still pushing in their chips towards 2014 free agency.
James is the focus here, though other players like Carmelo Anthony, Greg Monroe, Dwyane Wade and Eric Bledsoe could theoretically be signed (the mythology surrounding next summer's free agency has been largely exaggerated, as the class will not be as robust as many have figured). However, it's still worth noting that max contract level cap room will give the Lakers a chance at signing James, a huge (though unlikely) gamble that is worth taking considering LeBron is in his prime and may very well be on his way to being one of the five greatest players ever to live. Not agreeing with the previous sentence means you should probably stop calling yourself a basketball fan.
Thus, the Lakers have been, and will continue to be, very careful in taking on money that will affect their salary cap number past 2014. If--and this is a big if--Los Angeles takes on any money past the end of this season in any transaction, that player would a) not hinder their ability to sign James and b) be an attractive asset that could entice him to sign with the Lakers.
This, perhaps more than any other factor, is the biggest obstacle in the team finding a one-on-one trade partner.
$19.3 million dollars
Pau is due $19.3 million this season, though his deal expires at season's end. Next to Kobe's incomprehensible $30 million dollar expiring contract, Gasol's pact is the largest set to end come June. The problem with this figure is that not many teams have assets that will get them within $3 million of the $19.3M figure (a CBA requirement), let alone expiring assets that the are Lakers hoping for.
Is Pau still worth the money?
As mentioned, what are teams getting for a prorated part of $19.3 million? Gasol isn't even the first option on the team and is getting outscored routinely by Jodie Meeks. With a paycheck that will creep towards eight figures and a cap hit that will reach the full $19.3 million, is Pau worth the significant investment in dollars and basketball assets?
At age 33 and on an expiring deal, Gasol isn't much more than a rental piece at this point. He's not a foundational brick for any team building for the future, but rather just another component for a team looking to push themselves into the playoffs. This isn't to say that Pau couldn't play another five years in the league--the point here is that he could leave the team with zero compensation after just 30 to 40 games.
The Kobe factor
The Black Mamba has been outspoken in his support for Pau and how together they'll be able to carry the Lakers to the playoffs this year. Bryant has yet to hit the court and the trade deadline will pass with maybe two months of Gasol and Kobe playing together once again. If the team is to deal Pau, they'll do so with Bryant most likely still rounding into game shape and his chemistry with the Spaniard following suit. In other words, it will probably be too early to see the heights these two could carry the Lakers. This will not please Kobe, that much is guaranteed.
It's less of a concern than the previous items, but the organization has be worried about the fallout dealing Gasol would have on a franchise legend. Kobe certainly isn't in the team's on-court plans long-term, but angering Bryant isn't the best PR strategy in the world.
Jordan Hill's emergence
On the surface, this would seem to be incentive for the team to trade Pau--but it could be quite the opposite.
The team doesn't want to take on money for the future in general, but perhaps even more so now that Hill looks like a borderline All Star. It's still very early in the season, so assuming that he'll keep up this pace is incredibly premature. However, it looks like the Lakers will have to spend much more than was originally planned to ink the former Wildcat to a deal past this summer. The Lakers have to keep this in mind in any deals with money on the books past this summer. Hard as it is to believe, re-signing Jordan Hill has become perhaps a greater offseason priority than even Bryant or Gasol.
The caveat for this entire argument is that most of these factors have to do with two-team trades. Dealing Gasol with just one other franchise would be extraordinarily difficult for all the reasons prescribed. However, a three-team deal leaves the Lakers much greater leeway to maneuver with cap hits and money coming and going.
The problem is that in-season three team deals are notoriously complicated. In the past three seasons, only three deals have been completed with eight-figure deals even coming close to Pau's (those include the pacts for Nene, Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay). Finding just the right balance between the needs of multiple teams, let alone two, has its own very obvious hurdles.
Already, without even getting into the specific team-by-team difficulties of agreeing to a deal, trading Pau looks much more difficult than say, floating Steve Blake across the table. In many ways, the circumstances from last year have gotten even more complicated, between the massive size of an expiring deal, Gasol's age and weak on-court numbers this year. It looks on the surface that trading Pau is damn near impossible...or is it?
PART 2, Monday: Who are the teams that could trade for Pau?
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