It is almost impossible not to think about this decade of Lakers basketball without the what-if that started it all: the vetoed Chris Paul trade.
In case you have forgotten — or somehow blocked it from your memory — before the start of the 2011 season, the Lakers had agreed to acquire Paul from the New Orleans Hornets, and were sending out Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in exchange. Gasol would go to Houston, and Odom was headed to New Orleans as part of the three-team deal.
At the time, it seemed like a high price to pay, given Gasol and Odom’s massive contributions to a title the Lakers had won a year and a half earlier. But both players were nearing the end of their primes, the team had just been swept out of the postseason, and Paul had led the underdog Hornets to two wins over the Lakers in the first round.
Then about an hour later, then-commissioner David Stern nixed the deal in his capacity as majority owner of the Hornets, given that the league was controlling the team. Paul went to the Clippers and Lob City was born, while hurt feelings lingered on the Lakers side. Odom was too wounded to stay in Los Angeles and was dealt to the Mavericks, but Gasol stayed.
Gasol spoke with Zach Lowe of ESPN on Instagram last week about how it felt to remain with the Lakers after the team had agreed to trade him:
“It was difficult. Emotionally it was difficult for me, but I tried my best. I tried my best to be the best professional I could be and do my job at the end of the day and get back into it. It’s like ‘okay, this happened. It almost happened, but it didn’t happen. It’s part of the business.’ You’ve got to understand that sometimes it plays in your favor, sometimes it doesn’t... But it didn’t, and I was able to play two or three more years with the Lakers and I enjoyed that as well even though they weren’t my best years.”
The Paul deal wasn’t the only time the Lakers tried to move Gasol during his last three years with the team. Several deals were discussed when the Gasol-Dwight Howard fit proved awkward, and the Lakers contemplated shedding his salary outright in 2014 to get under the tax. Mike D’Antoni never really figured out the best way to use Gasol, and the Spaniard was never an All-Star again in Los Angeles after the vetoed trade.
Nevertheless, Gasol was always professional in L.A. through changing circumstances. He was an integral part of the Lakers’ last postseason series win in 2012 against Denver and was outstanding in the final two games of the 2013 regular season with Kobe Bryant injured — especially against San Antonio in game 81 — before serving as a mentor to the young Lakers in 2014. Whatever the Lakers asked of Gasol, he tried to give, despite the team’s expressed lack of commitment to him.
Gasol’s No. 16 jersey should hopefully be in the rafters soon alongside No. 24. Even if the Lakers and Gasol had their bumps in the road, the overall arc of his time with the franchise remains worth celebrating.