Pau Gasol is back on the market, according to reports, not that he ever left. The Los Angeles Lakers apparently are willing to take back less talent in the quest to move the 31-year-old forward and his $19 million salary.
If they succeed, it is difficult to see any such deal improving the Lakers’ title hopes. Gasol is still an incredibly productive player, posting averages of 17.4 and 10.4 rebounds per game this season. He also remains the Lakers’ lone unselfish superstar, filling a radical role known as “passing” that Kobe Bryant is allergic to and for which Andrew Bynum is developing a similar aversion. The Lakers will be hard-pressed to find any assemblage of talent at a comparable price that can provide what Gasol can on a game-by-game basis. (One rumor, involving the Memphis Grizzlies and power forward Zach Randoph, is only realistic so long as Michael Heisley retains ownership, which Heisley only holds because a deal to sell the team reportedly fell through.)
Then again, the factual aspect of Gasol’s contributions to the Lakers is beside the point. Bryant gets the glory and Gasol gets the paddle, often whether things are going well or not. A plummeting player efficiency rating, win share and overall offensive and defensive ratings this season were not enough evidence to convince Kobephiles that Bryant was not as good as ever, just because he scored 27.9 points per game.
The Lakers cannot ship out Bryant and his massive contract, which will pay him $30 million in 2013-14 at age 35, without enduring a public relations disaster. Nor can they afford to part with Bynum, 24, the anchor of their franchise for the better part of the next decade and a player whose contract they control through 2013.
Trading Gasol serves two useful purposes, however. He can be L.A.’s scapegoat — which he already is for the Lakers’ failure to win a title the past two seasons — fulfilling some sort of weird need among U.S. sports fans to paint international players as weak. He can also be a very useful salary cap-cleaning tool, should general manager Mitch Kupchak find a team willing to part with valuable expiring deals.
Whichever team ends up with Gasol would come out of this with a very good player who is not nearly as a soft as he has been portrayed, who happens to own a cumbersome contract. There is a downside to acquiring Gasol, but it comes in the wallet, not on the court.