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Marc Gasol says Lakers benching him is ‘a hard pill to swallow’

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Marc Gasol was as candid as always when discussing his up-and-down role since the Lakers signed Andre Drummond. With the buyout deadline soon, his acceptance of his new status will be important to watch.

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Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-86 during an NBA basketball game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Marc Gasol didn’t exactly demand to leave, but he didn’t completely commit to wanting to stay, either. In his first comments to the media since the Lakers signed Andre Drummond to replace him as the team’s starter, Gasol admitted that his week, which saw him go from starter, to on-track for a DNP-CD prior to Drummond’s injury, to starter again in the Lakers’ 115-94 win over the Kings on Friday was a bit of a rollercoaster.

“Things get thrown at you and you have to adapt as quick as possible,” Gasol said in his typically clipped, matter-of-fact candor. “As you can imagine, it is what it is.”

What it is clearly hasn’t been easy for him to process. In the meantime, the team has remained publicly supportive of Gasol, with Wesley Matthews lauding his professionalism and head coach Frank Vogel saying Gasol was “loved” in the building and constantly repeating that he would be a factor in the team’s title chase, a point he tripled and quadrupled down on after Friday’s win.

“I think people need to understand how good of a player Marc Gasol is and how valuable he is to what we’re doing,” Vogel said. “We’re going to play our most important players. He’s going to help us win a championship this year. That’s the plan, that’s the vision. Obviously Andre coming along gives us the depth, but we’re going to need all three of those guys (Drummond, Gasol and Montrezl Harrell).

“We’ve stated that since day one and Marc’s one of our most important players. He dominated the game tonight with 5 points. This is what Marc brings to the table. He’s a dominant defensive big, former Defensive Players of the Year, and he doesn’t need shots offensively, which is good for our group. He facilitates and wins the offensive possessions with his passing and 3-point shooting,” Vogel continued. “That’s not always going to result in 20 points per game or whatever, but it helps us win, and we all just need to recognize how important he is to what we’re trying to do here... We’re excited for what he’s going to do for us down the stretch.”

The team’s actions, however, haven’t always aligned with all of those points. Gasol was on-pace for a DNP-CD before Drummond got hurt in his debut, hardly indicative of him being one of the team’s “most important players.” He fought his way back from a COVID-19 infection that left him barely able to walk up the stairs to return just in time to hear that his teammates were recruiting Drummond to come and start over him. We can all argue about the merits of the team’s choice to prioritize Drummond over Gasol in both their pursuit of the former and giving him the starting role, but what is undebatable is that it appears to have left Gasol feeling unwanted.

“Private conversations are meant to remain private,” Gasol said, declining to reveal Vogel’s message to him when he heard Drummond would be taking his spot. “I can’t go word by word on what we spoke in that meeting, but that’s life. Things change and you have to adapt as fast as possible. When I signed with the team, I was signed to contribute to the team, especially the two main guys, to help their games and accomplish their goals, which is win another championship. That hasn’t changed.”

LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers
Neither Marc Gasol or Frank Vogel wanted to discuss their conversation after the latter decided to bench the former.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

But while earlier this week Vogel said that Gasol had not discussed a buyout, confirming reports that the team was not considering letting him go, Gasol was less committal when explicitly asked if he wanted to remain with the Lakers for the rest of the season.

“Things can change quickly in the NBA, just as they have changed for me. But I’m committed to this team. It’s a hard pill to swallow because I know I’m going to be out of the lineup at some point,” Gasol said. “That’s never easy on the player. As a basketball player you want to play, you want to contribute, especially when you’ve made that commitment for that reason, but we’ll see.”

Gasol has long has a reputation as one of the most considered and candid quotes in the entire NBA, and so it’s likely not an accident or coincidence that he mentioned both being brought in to augment the team’s two main stars in James and Davis, as well as referencing that he joined up because he wanted to contribute. Reading between the lines, it’s not hard to see that he’s hinting that sitting on the bench isn’t what he signed up for. Even when told of Vogel’s continued insistence that the team will need all three of their centers at various points, Gasol stepped in to disagree with the premise of the question.

“I think there is an asterisk to that. I think there’s an if. ‘If’ they need you, and that’s a big ‘if,’” Gasol said. “You’re not Plan A right now. You’re plan C/D. And like I said, you have to accept it, because that’s your job, and that’s what you signed up to do, but it’s never easy to accept that. Especially when you ask if you’ve done something wrong, (when) you try to do everything for the team.”

Gasol doesn’t put up the numbers that Drummond does, that much is clear. But that’s never been his goal, either.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t care that much about my stats, or the shots or rebounds that I get. I try to box my guy out and help everyone out,” Gasol said.

Having a player who does that is something Gasol’s coach says he values, but Vogel — who has previously been lauded for his skill as a communicator — keeping Gasol engaged and ready to use those skills when the Lakers need them may be his biggest test as a locker room leader since joining the Lakers. He’s ready for the challenge.

“I have been through situations like this,” Vogel said. “Additions of good players change other guys’ roles, and it usually all works itself out. It really does, and I would say the same thing about this situation.

“I’m not going to go into the conversations that Marc and I have had, but the approach is full support,” Vogel continued. “You just support your players in every way that you can. The front office does, the coaching staff does, and you look for opportunities like this where he comes in and he’s a huge part of this victory tonight. And like I said, he’s going to be a huge part of our championship run.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings
Gasol was an x-factor for the Lakers in their win over the Kings on Friday night, using his traditional blend of skills that often show up outside the box score.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

And in the interest of fairness, we should note that Vogel has said on multiple occasions now that his intent is not to fully bench Gasol. He says he plans to find minutes for him, and has even committed to testing out the Gasol/Montrezl Harrell pairing that the team has yet to try this year when Drummond returns from his toe injury (he just didn’t like how that duo matched up against the Bucks on Thursday).

But none of that matters if Gasol is unhappy, and this could be an especially important week on that front. The deadline to buy out players and have them be postseason eligible for their new team is April 9. The Lakers have Gasol locked in under a cheap contract for next year, when Drummond and Harrell will likely be gone because the team doesn’t have their Bird rights and can’t go over the cap to re-sign them, and Gasol could theoretically step back into a larger role. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense to buy him out in a vacuum because he’s valuable injury insurance and could be a good depth piece next season, but if he wants out, this team traditionally tries to do right by its vets.

And whether or not Gasol will ask to be let go over the next week does appear to be a legitimate question, because even while Gasol says he’s “committed,” he clearly isn’t thrilled with his situation right now, and it’s hard to blame him. Whether one agrees that the Lakers should have signed Drummond over him or not, on a human level, of course a voracious competitor and veteran who used to be one of the best players in the league wants to play, especially when he’s been starting all season, even if he says he understands the team’s decision.

“That’s what happens on deep teams. You’re going to have veteran talent that doesn’t play. It happens,” Gasol said, even while admitting that the transition is “not easy.”

“But that’s life,” Gasol added. “You have to adapt. Either you take it as a challenge or you move on.”

Which one of those options Gasol chooses over the next week may be one of the most important questions the Lakers will face during the regular season. A three-headed monster at center sounds great in theory, but only if one of them isn’t trying to lop itself off.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.