In the past, the sniping, the griping and the complaining seemed like just another part of an 82-game marathon. Other times, it felt downright justified. Like any relationship, Pau Gasol and the Los Angeles Lakers have fought and disagreed, but even after a near break-up, an end never seemed in sight. Well, until now.
The discord between Pau and Mike D'Antoni and the Lakers' front office has reached a fever pitch, perhaps one that can't be allayed by just waiting it out. The question is no longer whether or not the Lakers should keep Gasol past this season. The answer is pretty clear to even the most staunch Pau apologists: it's coming to an end. Gasol looks like a player in decline, and coupled with the Lakers' complicated salary cap goals and restrictions going forward, his salary and contract demands are most likely out of synch with how the Lakers value him.
That being said, should the Lakers trade him this season? If so, when? And do you see an ideal trade partner? Or is he more valuable to the team as an expiring contract?
The Great Mambino
I've written time and time again just how difficult it'd be for the Lakers to trade Pau--the slight (but completely overblown) griping he's done and his declining (but still potent) skill set isn't helping his trade value. The short version is that he's owed such a gargantuan amount of money ($19M) that any team that would take him on would need to fit a very specific set of criteria: enough expiring contracts equal to about $19M OR long term money that wouldn't impede the team's ability to offer LeBron James a max contract, a win-now title window and space for a slow, back-to-the-basket PF whose defense is only league average as a help guy. It's not a long list, suffice to say. I could see Dallas interested by trading back a Shawn Marion-headlined deal, but considering the Matrix's value as the team's only defensive stopper, it looks unlikely. Chicago is another very interesting destination, but I'm not entirely sure the Lakers want any part of Carlos Boozer's near max-level deal for next season.
I'm of the mind that the Lakers shouldn't trade Gasol this year, unless an absolute no-brainer trade is on the table (like...the one that brought him to LA in the first place). As far as I can tell, there's no realistic, palatable trade options out there that would net the Lakers a first round pick or young, cheap players with upside to make this deal go through. I believe his value as an expiring contract that could pave the way for a piece like Luol Deng this summer is far greater than whatever relatively meager return he'd barter for.
More importantly, Pau's defense, or perhaps lack thereof, is one of the primary reasons the Lakers have been so terrible the past two weeks or so. With him in the fold, the team (and the fan base) can rest easy from night to night knowing that a high lottery pick is well within reach. From a rebuilding standpoint, it's become clear to me that the Lakers are only going to hit that championship level before the end of 2016 that Kobe so boldly talks about if the organization is able to hit a home run in the NBA Draft.
The Lakers traded Pau Gasol once already when he still commanded enormous value as a game-changing force on the block, to such an extent that Daryl Morey considered the acquisition of Pau in the ill-fated "basketball reasons" episode to be one of the key pillars in his rebuilding of the team. It seems that in the last few years, the Lakers have tried to recoup something close to the return they previously received for him and upon failing to realize that it truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity that brought Chris Paul to the Lakers in the first place, they have declined presented offers despite Pau declining severely and reducing the value of his possible return all at the same time. Now they have a compelling reason to induce them into trading Pau in his well-publicized rift with Mike D'Antoni, but his value is at arguably an all-time low, his ineffectiveness in the post outdone by his abysmal defense. It likely is safe to say that Pau holds less value now for his play necessarily than his massive expiring contract. Normally this wouldn't be a consideration for the Lakers given their focus on 2014 space, but the situation has changed on that front.
The reality that is becoming increasingly clear is that the Lakers aren't going to get any max player of consequence with their 2014 space and it would behoove them to look for 2015 as a much better focus of their rebuilding efforts. This doesn't mean that their 2014 cap space becomes useless, however. Quite to the contrary, the Lakers can essentially "rent" their 2014 cap space, using their considerable financial wherewithal to get assets for other teams in exchange for clearing a good portion of their payroll. Where Pau enters into the equation is that he basically becomes a means to match whatever salary the Lakers could possibly want to insert into their 2014 space. So long as those contract(s) expire in 2015, it fits in with the Lakers' rebuilding strategy and the team will also accrue assets at the same time in exchange for giving up a shot at 2014 free agents. It works out even better if it happens to be someone like Tyson Chandler or Carlos Boozer, whose hefty 2015 salaries will upon up max or close to max space that offseason.
There's no ideal date for doing something like this, but one imagines that interest will probably increase near the deadline as it usually does in most years. One team to look to in this process is Chicago, which is on a downward turn and likely relishes the opportunity to dump Boozer's contract and increase their chances of getting under the tax next season. Chicago has multiple assets that might interest the Lakers, such as a protected first rounder from Charlotte, the rights to stud European player Nikola Mirotic, or even their own first rounder if they feel sufficiently comfortable in making the playoffs in an especially weak East. This is more or less the model for a Pau trade: take on an undesirable contract from another team and charge them for it.
Of course, this doesn't mean that they have to perform such a move. If they feel they aren't getting good value in such a return -- say holding out for at least a first if we're talking about taking on 2015 salary -- then holding onto Pau and letting him expire to open up 2014 space isn't a terrible move either. We've covered in the past the limitations the Lakers have if they want to hunt players in both 2014 and 2015, but it's still something they can pursue. It's hard to prognosticate right now how this will turn out but either way, it is very doubtful that Pau has a future in LA beyond this season.
Yes, the Lakers should trade Pau Gasol this season. The front office painted themselves into a corner with Kobe Bryant's extension and have little-to-no wiggle room to sign a guy like Gasol--even at a low-cost contract--as a luxury. If salary space wouldn't be an issue, I'd argue that maybe they shouldn't trade him and try to bring him back cheap on a "home team" discount, but there's no way the Lakers can match the kind of figure he will fetch as an unrestricted free agent.
The team shouldn't trade him for ANYTHING, though. They need the right package and we all know what that entails: draft considerations, rookie scale contracts and upside guys. Alternatively, if they can find a contributor who can fit the team's "identity" that makes somewhere between $6-$8 million per year, even if the contract eats into "Summer of 2014" money, that can also be ideal. The upcoming free agent market isn't all that great and the best way to find a player who can contribute immediately might be through a trade, not so much a new contract.
If the Lakers can only fetch packages that feature more reclamation projects and future salary implications, then sure, he's more valuable as an expiring. I'm hopeful the team can find something better than that, though. I couldn't possibly pin an ideal trade partner, so count me out on that part. Magic Mitch has his work cut out for him, though I think more contending teams may be interested in Pau than we think. It's a matter of finding the right trade from those interested that becomes the hard part, so I expect any Pau trade to feature at least three teams.
With how competitive the West is shaping up to be--albeit expected by most of us--the decision to trade or not trade Pau Gasol will stem from what sort of long-term value the Lakers can get back in return. A move that nets them the likes of a Shawn Marion or Carlos Boozer may alleviate some of our frustrations short-term, but those moves wouldn't improve the direction in which the team is headed. As stated by Ben and Blake, the only trade options the Lakers should wholeheartedly jump on are ones including youth and/or draft picks; given how valuable these picks are in the new CBA, I don't expect other teams to proactively call the Lakers' management with such offers. I can't imagine any team wanting to give up the necessary salaries to rent a deteriorating Gasol for a pro-rated $19.2 million for the remainder of this season.
The Lakers have made it clear that they are looking to regroup and rebuild next year with the flexibility they think they have in their books. What the team gets in return for Pau via trade has a high probability of affecting that flexibility in the coming two years. So unless there is some deal out there that magically turns a below-average team into a contender (which there isn't), Pau's greatest value to this roster is his expiring contract.
Most importantly, however, the management needs to decide the long-term future of Mike D'Antoni as head coach: if the plan truly is to keep him around for many years, then providing his system with the proper type of players is of utmost importance; if his future with the team has no certainty, then build a roster with the best players available.
My point is this: the indecisiveness by management is the larger issue at hand. While I could be completely in the wrong with this opinion, I just don't see a concrete plan for this team's short-term or long-term future. As we have all seen in the few games since Kobe's return, there are two styles of play on this roster. The starters play at a slower pace and facilitate from the post, whether it be Bryant or Gasol. When the bench comes in, there is an obvious increase in energy, even though that may not necessarily result in production every night. Looking ahead to the last two years of Bryant's career, the Lakers need to make decisions that put the right players around him. It's almost a guarantee now that Pau won't be with the team after this year--let's hope the team doesn't repeat past mistakes by bringing in guys that D'Antoni's style cannot mesh with.
I think the decision on whether or not to trade Pau really revolves around what pieces the Lakers could realistically sign in the off-season. If the Lakers feel that there are potential free agents out there that they have a strong desire to acquire and can realistically do so, then Pau is more valuable as an expiring contract that generates enough cap space to pursue those free agent targets. However, if the Lakers don't think there are free agents that fit that description, then the time frame to make a splash in the free agent market shifts from 2014 to 2015 (or beyond). In that case, Pau becomes more valuable as a trade asset than an ill-timed salary cap relief contract.
Looking at the free agent market for 2014 and what the Lakers could realistically acquire, I am leaning more towards Pau as a trade asset. The Lakers have consistently stressed the 2014 free agent market as the date they targeted. Unfortunately, Kobe's contract extension and lack of other role players signed cheaply beyond this season hurts Los Angeles as a free agent destination. An honest view of this team is that they will be more than one piece away from being a contender next year and unfortunately they will only have the cap space to sign one key piece. If the Lakers' front office feels the same then they are in a decent position to make solid moves with an eye on 2015.
As has been chronicled before on this site, Pau is a tough player to trade if under the constraints that the Lakers can't take back any salaries beyond this season. If 2015 is now the focus then the corresponding constraint becomes much less burdensome. The Lakers could leverage Pau's expiring contract for a team willing to part with a quality player so long as the acquiring team also relieves them of some salary the following season. A team like Toronto comes to mind with some desirable pieces (Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson) and some salary they would likely want to remove (John Salmons and Landry Fields). If the Knicks decide to go another direction they too have attractive pieces (Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler) along with some dead weight contracts (Amar'e Stoudamire and Andrea Bargnani). There are other suitors out there as well which could be potential fits in a three-team deal.
Whether Pau is allowed to leave when his contract expires or is traded during this season, I think his time in LA may be coming to an end.