Even as he's sitting out with a strained groin, Pau Gasol is still perched on the trading block. The latest rumor comes out of Phoenix, where the two-time NBA champion could go as a trade for Emeka Okafor. Seeing as the talks are in the "exploratory phase", there's really no telling what a trade package would return if consummated before the late February deadline.
Phoenix has a bevy of draft picks this June which, if conveyed outside of protective terms, could give the Suns as many as four first round selections. They also have several promising young players, such as Alex Len, Archie Goodwin and the Morris twins.
In short, the Suns have a ton to offer the Lakers, in addition to shaving nearly $4MM off their salary cap number, which would get them dangerously close to being under the line. As the team's near trade of Pau to Cleveland earlier this season shows, it's clear that the Lakers do not want to let go of him for nothing.
The question here is: should the Lakers trade Pau ONLY for assets? Or should they deal him and get nothing in return except for salary cap room? If given the choice between not dealing him at all OR dealing him only for cap relief, which should the Lakers choose?
The Great Mambino
Obviously, the optimal outcome here is that not only is Pau traded for millions in luxury tax relief, but he's also dealt for draft picks, young players...or both. However, as we've seen the past year or so, that trade just hasn't been there on the market for Mitch and Jimmy.
There's no doubt that financial relief has significant boons to the organization. Saving money on a losing season is first and foremost a great benefit towards shedding some of Pau's $19MM salary. Then there is keeping the team's payroll below the luxury tax two of five seasons, which would give the front office the flexibility of going OVER the tax if, though it's unlikely, they were to encounter a situation next year or the year after when they needed to do so.
However, I'm of the belief that if the only benefit to trading the Spaniard is financial relief, I would hope the Lakers front office would feel extremely reluctant in trading a now-franchise legend in Pau Gasol.
As my man Ben Rosales has pointed out several times, the chances of the Lakers being anything BUT under the luxury tax for the next two seasons are extremely low. Partly because of the team's desire to nab a prime free agent in the next two summers and partly because of CBA reasons beyond the comprehension of my tiny brain, LA should not be paying anything extra until 2016. That being said, other than saving a relatively (key word) few shekels this season, there isn't any other reason to trade Gasol except to purposefully get worse.
These Lakers do not need to actively "tank". They do not need to "get worse". This is already one of the five worst teams in the league. Some would point to a returning trio of point guards as a reason the team will begin winning once again. However, I look at their returns as a) temporary (Nash, Farmar) and b) yet another difficult transition period. Trading Gasol and leaving players like Hill, Sacre, Kaman and Kelly in his place might actually make this team better in the most crucial manner: defensively.
For all those that actively root for the Lakers to lose, I say to you this: Pau Gasol is playing at the peak of his powers. He's averaging 21 points per game with 12 boards and 4 assists this month. What's the team's record? How have they been playing?
The team is "tanking" because Pau Gasol is on the floor. He is actively hurting the team's defense, the chief factor behind the team's recent awfulness. Unless the team is getting back significant assets, there is no reason to trade him. Keeping Pau in a Laker uniform gives me a reason to watch and stay emotionally invested in a team that's unbearable at times. He also gives the team the best chance to lose and thus, rebuild. Without enough long-term financial incentives to let him go...why do it?
The Lakers should deal Pau only if they get assets in return. It's a bit of a false dilemma here because of how Emeka Okafor's contract is structured: the Lakers will only receive raw financial relief via the insurance in Okafor's contract, as while they don't have to directly pay Okafor, his deal still counts towards the luxury tax line rather than dropping the Lakers entirely underneath the tax as they would in the Andrew Bynum trade. Sure, they possibly could move closer towards that goal with subsequent deals since the Suns have a bit of cap space to enable them to take back Pau without additional salaries, but that it's not a clean execution as the Bynum trade was decreases the attractiveness of the financial savings. And although it would be nice for the Lakers to not be taxpayers this season, it's not the end of the world if they are either. There's almost no way they're going to be paying the tax for at least the next two seasons, so the clock on the repeater tax will be properly reset and there will be no fear of a Nets-esque massive tax bill down the road.
With that out of the way, it's hard to see the Lakers making this deal unless Phoenix is giving them valuable assets in return. Cleveland had a stronger financial savings card to play in the Bynum deal and threw in a second round pick, at which Mitch Kupchak and the front office scoffed. At the very least, Phoenix will have to include one of their numerous first round picks and per recent reports, the Lakers want one of the juicier picks in their stock, namely either the Minnesota or Washington 2014 ones, and possibly more. In full honesty, either one of those picks should be an asset the Lakers need to take and run away with, but it's understandable that this is an opening bargaining position with the trade deadline still so far away. Phoenix is in little danger of falling out of the playoffs if they don't make a trade immediately and the Lakers are busy clawing their way towards a top draft pick with or without Pau, so there's no urgency on either side at the moment.
All this said, Phoenix is absolutely one of the best trading partners for Pau and as has been noted on this site multiple times, there aren't a whole lot of those in the league. This should be an opportunity that the Lakers capitalize on and while employing proper negotiating strategies in pursuit of the best possible deal is always advisable, they should be very amenable to seeing Pau be a Sun for the rest of the season.
As political theorist John Schaar said, the "future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating." It is not about finding some path to a better future, but more about the activity of making that path, a process that ultimately changes the maker and destination. Given the choice between trading Pau for salary cap relief or not trading him at all, there is very little doubt in my mind that the Lakers are better off holding on to Pau. A trade for mere salary cap relief is an exercise in futility. L.A. could have pulled the trigger earlier in the season and sent Pau to Cleveland for more cap relief than the Lakers would get in a straight swap for Okafor.
The potential trade with the Suns is fairly intriguing. They not only have a player in Okafor that makes a dent in the Lakers' salary cap issues, but also have a plethora of draft picks that the Lakers would more than willingly take off their hands. As Ben pointed out, however, neither side needs to pull the trigger on this deal. The Lakers will continue to tank, regardless of what jersey Pau puts on, and the Suns are in good position to make the playoffs, with or without Pau. Given the youth the Suns already have in Dragic, the Morris twins, and a potential worthwhile long-term project in Alex Len, trading for a veteran who is still productive, at least on the offensive end, is a move that improves their short-term outlook without taking much away from their long-term plans.
We're two weeks away from the trade deadline and given how productive Pau was in January, it's fair to expect the Lakers to hear offers from other teams as well. Either way, Kupchak has to focus on a potential deal with the Suns and keep pushing for one of their first round picks, preferably the 2014 pick from Minnesota. Not often do things align perfectly to make both sides of the deal equally happy--a productive Pau for a first round pick, of which the Suns have plenty--is a rare win-win in today's NBA trade landscape.
I'm all aboard trading Pau Gasol this season. The only thing the Lakers are competing for right now is the longest losing streak in franchise history. Kobe Bryant still has to get back on the court, then get back into game shape, then maybe finally start getting into rhythm after being away from basketball for an unfathomable amount of time. He tore his Achilles last April. It's Feb. 2 and he's played in six games since then. Trading Pau out of Los Angeles before he becomes a free agent is in the best interest of the Lakers franchise. They don't need him to stick around until they miss the playoffs.
The Phoenix Suns rumor feels like it has legs because the Suns have draft picks falling out of their pockets and likely won't draft players with each of those picks. If they do hold onto all of their upcoming selections they'll probably end up getting their hands on overseas talent. That has its uses if there's a good enough prospect and no immediate need for help with your third or fourth selection in the draft.
Phoenix might not be willing to part with a pick but it makes sense they'd like to add Pau in a straight salary dump situation. The Lakers already balked at this once and passed on larger savings from Andrew Bynum's non-guaranteed contract. If the Suns refuse to budge, the Lakers should do the same. That's the only stance the front office can take if they want to maintain any leverage in trade discussions. If the deadline passes and teams around the league aren't willing to move any assets for Pau, the Lakers shouldn't make a deal for straight financial relief.
In the past they've moved players tied to the franchise but have had reasonable motive for it. The Lakers were able to trade Derek Fisher and their 2012 first-round draft pick for feasible assets. The Lakers cleaned their hands of Lamar Odom once to land some point guard, and a second time that got them out before the storm (and slump) came.
The Lakers should hold onto Pau Gasol through the season if the best deal they can get for his talents is financial relief. We'll find out if the front office feels the same by the trade deadline.