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Pau Gasol's trade to Lakers changed the NBA

Two years ago, the Lakers were struggling, but the deal that brought the versatile forward to Los Angeles made them a force again, and champions last season.

January 31, 2010|By Mike Bresnahan

Pau Gasol was shifting uncomfortably in the waiting room outside his boss' office, forced to wait half an hour for reasons unknown.

He was told to go directly from the practice court to the front office, where he had never been summoned. He wasn't even allowed to shower.

So he sat. And squirmed. And wondered what was happening.

Then Chris Wallace opened the door, invited Gasol into his office and said five words that changed the NBA landscape: "We just made a trade."

Gasol would be leaving the Memphis Grizzlies and joining the Lakers, adding a face to the franchise alongside a beleaguered Kobe Bryant.

He left behind a team that had six coaches in his 6 1/2 seasons and went to a team with one of the game's best players and coaches . . . but also a 28-16 record that wasn't throwing a scare into anybody.

In fact, the only people who had been spooked were the Lakers themselves, eight months earlier, when Bryant publicly demanded to be traded, tired of failing to get past the first round of the playoffs.

Then came Gasol, exactly two years ago Monday, and the Lakers stopped turning into a one-and-done postseason punch line.

They are 130-37 in the regular season since his acquisition and 30-14 in the playoffs with two NBA Finals appearances -- one successful, one not.

Gasol, 29, is happy. Bryant is happy. Twenty-nine other teams presumably aren't thrilled, but that's not the type of thing that keeps the Lakers up at night.

Bryant remembers how he reacted when he first heard about the deal.

"Yesssss," he said, pumping his fist. "His versatility, his passing, everything that he has fits perfectly with what we have going on here. Once I knew about it, I was just hoping it was going to go through. It did, and I was pretty excited, to say the least."

It almost didn't go through.

The Lakers had just lost Andrew Bynum to a knee injury and sensed the need to maintain the modicum of momentum they established at the midpoint of the season.

They had a valuable piece -- Kwame Brown's expiring contract of $9.1 million -- and found a team in the cash-strapped Grizzlies that wanted to part with the three years and $49.4 million left on Gasol's deal.

But the Lakers didn't want to deal any more players beyond erratic rookie Javaris Crittenton and second-round pick Marc Gasol, who was not under contract with them. The NBA has fairly rigid guidelines when teams make trades, and the Lakers weren't offering enough player salaries to adhere to rules aimed at limiting salary dumping.

So General Manager Mitch Kupchak thought of making a pitch to former Lakers guard Aaron McKie, a part-time assistant coach with Philadelphia at the time. The Lakers offered to pay him $750,000, sign him for one day and then trade him to Memphis.

McKie, however, was happy with the 76ers, and didn't want to leave. It got a little dicey.

"There was one stumbling block -- the numbers didn't work and you had to get Aaron McKie on board," Kupchak said. "It didn't look like we were going to be able to do that. We ended up working late into the night. My feeling was if we didn't get it done that night, it would probably hit the papers because the rumors would get out. When things hit the wire and it's now a public issue, it's kind of like all bets are off. I felt like if it's not going to happen that night, then it's going to fall apart."

McKie eventually relented and the Lakers were elated, also sending two first-round picks to the Grizzlies in exchange for Gasol and a second-rounder in 2010.

It was met with predictable angst across the league, most publicly in San Antonio, where Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich opined that a trade committee needed to be established to prevent such deals.

The Lakers, however, didn't automatically think they had acquired a game-changer.

Fans had soured on Gasol in Memphis, booing him at home games after it became public a year earlier that he wanted to be traded. He came with the reputation of a gifted, but not tough, athlete. There was a degree of anxiety.

"It's kind of like buying a house," Kupchak said. "When you buy a house that you've had your eye on for months and they accept your offer and the bank presents you with documents and paperwork and you're laying in bed at night and you're paying a little more for the house, you've got buyer's remorse. It's kind of the same for general managers.

"You get a deal done and you think you've done something helpful, but you have to see how it works out. We thought he was going to help us with his skill set for the triangle, but you never know. Within a couple of weeks, we felt pretty confident pretty quickly."

Gasol was pretty pumped pretty quickly.

He was initially confused when Wallace, the Grizzlies' general manager, called him into the office after practice that day. He figured it was related to the back pain he had been feeling or an outside opinion in the works with a back specialist.

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