This could be Pau Gasol's final season with the Lakers. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
It may be hard to remember now, but at one point the Lakers viewed Pau Gasol as a savior.
Once the Lakers acquired him in a trade in February 2008 from the Memphis Grizzlies, all sorts of reactions unfolded. The move immediately softened Kobe Bryant's frustration about the team lacking a championship roster. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson admitted skepticism that the Lakers could acquire Gasol for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the rights to Pau's brother Marc, whom the Lakers drafted with a second-round pick in 2007. And Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich incredulously suggested the NBA should have a trade committee to veto "trades that don't make sense."
Gasol then guided the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and two NBA titles. But then his standing among the Lakers quickly fell. Gasol's tepid 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting in the 2011 NBA playoffs largely led to the Lakers' four game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers tried to trade him and Lamar Odom in a three-team trade to land them Chris Paul. Once NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal for "basketball reasons," Gasol remained professional but continuously battled frustrations including endless trade rumors and a reduced role.
Now the Lakers are back to Square One on how they will handle Gasol's future. The Times' T.J. Simers recently talked to executive Jim Buss, who described the chances of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Gasol remaining in Laker uniforms as "very good." Buss then suggested the Lakers would become better with Gasol playing closer to the basket. Still, Gasol hardly sounded reassured and told Spanish reporters, "I'm happy about what Jim Buss said, but I don't think that's a guarantee."
So that still leaves Laker fans debating how they should handle Gasol heading into Thursday's NBA draft and next week's free agency. As with anything regarding personnel moves, the Lakers' front office has plenty of variables to consider regarding Gasol's future.
Why the Lakers should trade Gasol: For the very same reason the Lakers originally traded him in the Paul deal. If the Lakers want to make any significant upgrades to their roster, they're going to have to give up an asset. Gasol's remaining two-year, $38-million contract is simply too burdensome for a team suddenly worried about remaining over the luxury tax threshold because of harsher penalties stemming from the new labor deal. And even if the Lakers have yet to sign Bynum to a long-term extension, he's considered a more rewarding long-term investment because of his age.
Those variables leave Gasol as the centerpiece in any deal the Lakers may try to make. His age and decline in skills may make it harder for the Lakers to trade Gasol, and it's unlikely that could result in Nets guard Deron Williams coming to the Lakers. But the Lakers would be wise to cut their losses with Gasol. Even if the Lakers have a distinguishable size advantage, neither the Lakers nor Gasol flourished with him working as a facilitator. If Gasol stays, he'll still hear endless trade rumors. And the chemistry between Gasol and Bryant has visibly waned in the last two seasons.
Therefore, the Lakers may as well deal Gasol for future first-round picks or decent pickups, such as Houstons's Kyle Lowry, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodola or Atlanta's Josh Smith. The Lakers may suffer a short-term loss, but they will benefit long-term both from a development and financial standpoint.
Why the Lakers should keep Gasol: He may have averaged a career-low 17.4 points per game this season and posted only 12.4 points per game in the playoffs. Gasol also lacked consistent aggression, such as when he passed up a wide-open shot that resulted in a turnover and set up Kevin Durant's game-winning trey in the Lakers' Game 4 loss to Oklahoma City. But most of Gasol's drop in play reflected the Lakers misusing him rather than him underperforming. Debate whether it's disingenuous for Jim Buss to suggest Mike Brown misused Gasol after giving the Lakers coach a ringing endorsement. But the Lakers' executive is right. Much of Gasol's ineffectiveness will evaporate if he operates under the basket. Doing so hinges on whether the Lakers can find a versatile forward to compensate for Lamar Odom's absence. The role shift will also require Bynum to sacrifice some of his offensive production so the two can become a more solid one-two punch. But both parts are doable and necessary. Gasol is simply too good and too expensive to suddenly become a facilitator.