After suffering through a dismal 27-55 season that ranked as the worst since the move from Minneapolis made them the Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol is now a man with options. This was the final season of the three-year, $57 million extension he signed in the winter of 2009, and after the nearly-34-year-old pivot showed he can still get it done on the offensive end this season, averaging just under 17.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two combined blocks/steals in 31 1/2 minutes per game, Gasol figures to have some suitors in free agency this summer ... and after 6 1/2 seasons in purple and gold, Pau seems increasingly prepared for the prospect of plying his trade elsewhere next season.
Gasol acknowledged the possibility that he'd played his last game as a Laker during his 2013-14 season exit interview last week, and he expanded on it in a blog post on his official website, as translated by Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
“Re-signing [with] the Lakers is a possibility, but I’m not sure whether to say it’s a remote one,” Gasol wrote Wednesday on his personal Web site. “If there’s anything or anyone who could make me stay it’s Kobe Bryant. I’d stay for him, but there’d have to be significant changes. I’ve said it many times: I want to be in a team that has a solid chance to win another [championship] and where I can be an important factor in the game.”
Gasol also reiterated his philosophical differences with coach Mike D’Antoni. Gasol prefers to play a post-oriented offense at a methodical pace, while D’Antoni has wanted to feature Gasol more in pick-and-roll situations and as a facilitator in a faster-paced offense.
“I’ve never concealed the fact that D’Antoni’s style doesn’t suit my game,” Gasol wrote. “Everybody knows this. I don’t know if my decision will be swayed by whether Mike stays or leaves. Obviously, the coach is a very important factor for any team.” [...]
“Money isn’t important to me,” Gasol wrote. “I have other priorities. A contract lasting several seasons, the make-up of the team that signs me: I’ll need to think long and hard. I won’t just go to the franchise that offers me the biggest salary, I know that.”
To a certain extent, that last point might come as welcome news to Lakers fans who would like to see Gasol stick around, since he began the season suggesting he wasn't especially interested in taking a pay cut from the $19.3 million he earned this past season to come back to L.A. (Given how often they've kept his name in trade rumors over the years, can you blame him?)
Still, though, you'd have to wonder how willing Pau would be to leave money on the table to come back to a team helmed by a head coach with whom he has clashed time and again over the past two seasons. Quite a number of Lakers fans wouldn't mind seeing D'Antoni move on after his work at the helm of two of the more tumultuous seasons in franchise history, but a change at the top does not seem imminent, with D'Antoni still having two years left on his contract.
Whether D'Antoni returns or another coach takes the reins, if Gasol's primary concern is playing for a title contender over the next few years, well, the Lakers have their work cut out for them. Bryant's back to work after missing the final four months of the season with a left knee fracture, which is good news for a Lakers team that will pay him a league-leading $23.5 million next season to ensure that they don't finish in the bottom 10 in points scored per possession once again. Beyond that, though, the Lakers' roster is full of question marks.
Steve Nash will be back, but for how long, with how much consistency, and to what effect? Nick Young's going to opt out of the final year of his contract, and could find suitors elsewhere. The only other Lakers likely to be in the mix next season are backup center Robert Sacre, rising sophomore forward Ryan Kelly, midseason backcourt pickups Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore, and whichever prospect L.A. drafts with their lottery pick in the forthcoming 2014 NBA draft. L.A. will have all sorts of money to spend in free agency, but Mitch Kupchak is reportedly looking to keep his powder dry until the free-agent summer of 2015, reducing the likelihood of much game-changing veteran help coming over this offseason. And in case you haven't been watching the playoffs and have missed this, the Western Conference is brutally strong, with quite a few teams looking to be ahead of L.A. in line when it comes to postseason contention, let alone a title run.
Given all that, and especially if D'Antoni isn't shown the door, it's difficult to see the Lakers being able to make changes "significant" enough to bring Gasol back into the fold this summer. If he departs, it'll represent the end of a somewhat underappreciated era in Laker lore, one in which a soft-spoken and thoughtful giant helped wipe away the bad taste of the end of Shaquille O'Neal's time in Los Angeles, augment Kobe's game while extending his prime, and add two more championship banners to the Staples Center's rafters. Changes don't get too much more significant than saying farewell to a player like that.
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