Prior to Wednesday night, Marc Gasol had started in all 38 games he’d played since joining the Los Angeles Lakers on a two-year deal over the summer. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, that changed, as new signing Andre Drummond took his place in the starting lineup.
And forget starting: Gasol didn’t even get to play until the fourth quarter, after Drummond had already been declared out for the night with a toe injury (X-rays were negative and he is day-to-day), but the 35-year-old was productive in the six minutes he did get on the floor, scoring 2 points to go with 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist and 1 steal. His impact was felt, the Lakers just couldn’t make shots as they tried to come back against Milwaukee.
Still, this demotion doesn’t appear to have been easy for Gasol. One of his teammates, Wesley Matthews, made sure to credit him for how he’s handling it (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN):
While Gasol declined to speak to reporters afterward — the third time he has declined since L.A. acquired Drummond — several members of the team praised him for his professionalism.
“Obviously, it’s not easy by any means. Give that man his credit,” Lakers guard Wesley Matthews said. “We love what we do and we compete and we’re ultra competitors, and that’s never easy for anybody in that position.
“For him to step up like he did and make the plays that he made and to be there and supportive of us the whole time, I mean, I got nothing but respect for him.”
Matthews knows a little something about a player trying to be professional for this team even when their role isn’t exactly what they want. Earlier this season, Matthews won praise from his teammates for how well he handled being removed from the rotation by head coach Frank Vogel for four games before scoring 16 points and hitting four threes in his eventual return to the lineup.
But as Gasol declining to speak to the media after the last two games or at practice this week makes clear, this isn’t a subject he wants to talk about right now, which is completely understandable for a 35-year-old who surely has a lot of pride in his abilities as a basketball player. To go from season-long starter to being on track for a DNP-CD before Drummond’s injury can’t be an easy thing for a prideful competitor who was part of one of the most productive lineups in basketball when the Lakers were healthy. And as his productive fourth quarter stint showed, Gasol can still play when called upon. The Lakers can still use him as a change-of-pace weapon off the bench in the right matchups.
The good news is that his demotion doesn’t appear to be indefinite. Prior to the game, Vogel said that he would experiment with a Gasol/Montrezl Harrell frontcourt off the bench at some point in a matchup that was better for that pairing:
Vogel said Marc Gasol would be the 4 offensively and 5 defensively, and Harrell would be the 5 offensively and 4 defensively. https://t.co/cuqGN2MqFd— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) April 1, 2021
But with Drummond on track to start and play 30 minutes a night — something Shams Charania of The Athletic reported would happen earlier this week, and a total he was on track for prior to his injury — and the way every leak about his signing talked about the significant opportunity he’d have in Los Angeles, it’s not hard to put two and two together and imagine that part of the Lakers’ pitch was a promise to give Drummond said opportunity. That’s just part of how you lure a 27-year-old, two-time All-Star who becomes available on the buyout market (basically) for free to come to your team instead of taking more money elsewhere. That goes doubly so if they want him to take a discount to stay this summer.
And on one hand, the Lakers taking that shot on Drummond makes a lot of sense, even if we won’t see the full value of the move until LeBron James and Anthony Davis return from injuries of their own. On the other hand, though, Vogel has his work cut out for him here. He’s been universally praised — and deservedly so — for how he’s pushed all the right buttons in the locker room and for his skill as a communicator. But taking a player out of the starting lineup and not playing them at all is a tough call to make, no matter how much Vogel insists that Gasol is “loved here” and a buyout is not a consideration. He and the other locker room leaders are going to have to make this work and strike the right balance, because Gasol can still absolutely be an asset for this team, both in the regular season and in various potential playoff matchups. Vogel has even said so himself.
“We’re gonna need them all,” Vogel said of Harrell, Gasol and Drummond last Sunday, the day the Lakers officially signed the latter player to supplant Gasol in the rotation. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re gonna need all three of them.”
The Lakers just need to make sure they keep Gasol engaged and feeling valued until they get there, so that he is just as ready as anyone else to step up when called upon.