The stated preference of the Lakers, so I’ve been told, is to keep him. Kobe Bryant has set unequivocally he wants to keep him. I want to keep him, on a personal level. He’s the the most genuine, considerate person I’ve had the pleasure of covering. Even the torch and pitchfork crowd clamoring to send Pau Gasol out on the first available wheeled object clamored a little less after he finished the 2012-13 season strong.
But at this point, if the opportunity presents itself he’s someone the Lakers can’t afford to keep. And I don’t mean financially, or because the trio of Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Mike D’Antoni doesn’t exactly have a Three Muskateers cohesion (though both are obviously important considerations).
Under the best of circumstances next season — Dwight Howard returns, Kobe recovers his way to full Kobe-ness from the start of the season, Steve Nash stays whole, coach and roster find a happy coexistence, and so on, the Lakers might kinda, sorta talked about as a title contender. Maybe they’d be able to work enough stuff around the margins this summer to fill holes and sand down the roster’s jagged edges. But that’s the best case scenario. In reality, you have team built around a (by then) 35-year old shooting guard coming off Achilles surgery, a 39-heading-quickly-to-40 year old point guard who spent the previous battling nerve pain, and a (soon-to-be) 33-year old power forward coming off procedures on both knees.
That sound you hear is the actuaries sounding the alarm.
If things go reasonably well the Lakers are likely better than they were this year, but not not good enough. Not close. And the without question the chances of a poor season outweigh the odds of a miracle run. The endgame at this point isn’t 2013-14, but the rebuilding process the Lakers have (at increasing cost in both money and assets) postponed in an honorable effort to hang a few more banners while Dr. Buss was alive and before Kobe retires. Unfortunately, the bill is due. Overdue, really, and while preserving 2014′s cap space this offseason and rolling the dice with what they have is one option, a better one is to use the one big chip they control — Gasol — to gain whatever assets can be had capable of aiding the rebuild.
It would require an Obi-Wanesque bit of negotiating (or something involving a horse’s head*) for Mitch Kupchak to simultaneously improve the Lakers now and down the road in flipping Gasol. If they’re able to pry away some combination of young, cheap talent and draft picks from a team/teams in a summertime trade**, whatever fully grown players the Lakers receive as part of the deal aren’t likely to set jersey sales records at the team store. Their primary value would be preserving next summer’s flexibility and whatever they might in turn bring at the deadline. Trading Gasol very likely makes the Lakers worse. So be it.
The reality of the NBA? Building a truly high-end team almost always requires picks and young parts, whether to groom as stars or used to acquire another team’s.
I’m all for free agency, but it’s an avenue better suited for supplementing a core than forming it. Miami obviously signed its way to elite status, but to a large degree the problems they had with fit were eventually mitigated by LeBron’s transcendent skill set. More often, building through free agency means overpaying for parts not aligning all that well. Even when things go relatively well, you get New York or Brooklyn. Not awful, but with a clearly defined ceiling not close to high enough.
Even granting Miami a rule-proving exception, look around the rest of the league. Oklahoma City: Home grown talent in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Indiana: Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and a draft pick used to get George Hill. San Antonio: Drafted all three stars, filling around with other smart picks and someone (Kawhi Leonard) for whom they sacrificed talent (Hill) to acquire. The Clippers drafted Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe, and used accumulated goodies to get Chris Paul. Memphis sacrificed Pau Gasol to acquire Mark Gasol, and drafted Mike Conley. An ascending Golden State team drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Houston used treasure to acquire James Harden (and patience to potentially snag Howard). And so on.
In the next three drafts, the Lakers have one first round pick. As Brody might say, they’re going to need a bigger boat.
An argument can be made the process is made even better by letting Dwight go — C.A. Clark of Silver Screen and Roll makes it here — and there’s certainly some truth to it, if (as discussed in a recent podcast) the Lakers play things right and use the opportunity to start the rebuild a year early.*** Like a Borders store closing sale I once visited where you could buy literally anything left in the place. Books, movies, cards, gifts, shelves, light fixtures, countertops, cash registers. No reasonable offer refused!
But while bidding him Godspeed would almost surely net the Lakers a better pick in the (they say) outstanding 2014 Draft, in the balance it’s not worth it. There’s a significant chance they’d spend their time in free agency looking for a player to sign who is as good as Dwight Howard. Might as well keep the one you have. Plus, it’s one less variable in the team assembling equation, increasing the likelihood of assembling a cohesive, well-thought roster. Everyone is squeamish about Howard on one level or another, but short LeBron (who they can go after with or without Dwight), no player to whom the Lakers will have access comes without significant questions. You don’t trust Howard to be a title player, but would feel comfortable paying, say, an aging Carmelo Anthony?
Either way, if the Lakers want to have the material available to perform a proper rebuild, they need more assets. The idea Gasol should be held as insurance in case Howard decides to leave makes no sense. If Howard goes, the Lakers won’t be very good, whether Gasol is on the team or not. Gasol may not bring what his skill set says it should — yes, I still think he’s very good, even acknowledging some slippage — but then again he might. Either way, Gasol has potential bring something, and something is better than nothing.
*Can anyone explain how they got that horse’s head into Woltz’s bed without him waking up? I’ve never understood that. Because it’s such an amazing scene, I doubt it matters all that much, but still, we’re talking about putting a freshly decapitated horse’s head into a man’s bed while he sleeps. I don’t care how heavily said man might doze, that’s some ninja-stealthy shit.
**Assuming, of course, a decent trade is an option. I’m not talking about giving him away for an expiring deal and two second rounders. I’m just not insisting on equal value, as defined by a trade making them as good or better for next season.
***The only problem with the plan (other than disappointing those who believe the Lakers should stop at nothing to win titles every year) is how it impacts what could, at least in theory, be Kobe’s last season. He’s rehabbing to show himself and the world he can come back (and then eventually leave on his terms), but also to try and win some games. This scenario makes that mighty tough.