Pau Gasol celebrates his return to the court with an unidentified baseball player (Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol will play for his team on Friday night when the squad suits up against the Boston Celtics. This is notable not only because Gasol has missed the last seven games due to a groin injury, but because … hey, Thursday was the trade deadline! Gasol is still on the Lakers!
Los Angeles was never really close to dealing Gasol, teams weren’t willing to give up an actual basketball asset (like a first round pick) for a player that could have flown the coop this July when his contract runs out, so there wasn’t the sort of last minute hand-wringing in Lakers camp that we saw with the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday afternoon. Still, NBA general managers can talk themselves into just about anything, and talking yourself into a hyper-intelligent and versatile big man that is averaging over 17 points and 10 rebounds this season, coming with a flexibility-perpetuating expiring contract, isn’t that hard to do.
This is why nothing was clear until noon Pacific Time hit on Thursday, and it was assured that Pau would remain a Laker. And, true to his nature, he’s thankful for that. Despite his team’s 18-36 record, good for second to last in the Western Conference.
"No grudges. No hard feelings," Gasol said of hearing his name mentioned in rumors right up until Thursday's noon PT deadline passed. "It is what it is. I'm just glad there are a lot of teams interested in me. That's a good sign. When a lot of teams knock on the door and ask for you, that means you're valuable."
"Right now, I'm just going to focus on finishing out the year strong and healthy, trying to help our team be the best it can be and compete every single game," said Gasol, who is averaging 17.0 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists this season. "That's my mindset and that's going to put me in a better position in the offseason. So then, when the point hits, I'll see what I got."
What he’s “got” is his first chance to become an unrestricted free agent in his long and possible Hall of Fame-worthy (consider Pau’s work in international play) career. Gasol signed extensions with both the Grizzlies and Lakers, and while his current $19.3 million salary may seem a little outmoded, he really has earned every penny based on the sheer impact of his past contributions. In spite of Gasol’s age (he’ll turn 34 the same week he becomes a free agent) and recent injury history, the scores of NBA teams with cap space this summer will drive up his value.
That’s dismissing the Lakers, who will own Gasol’s Bird Rights. Pau has been with the squad for over six years at this point, Kobe Bryant has repeatedly stated that he wants the team to re-sign his teammate, and the Lakers may just move ahead with a new deal for Gasol in order to get rid of his massive cap hold – something that (when combined with Bryant and Steve Nash’s contracts) could get in the way of yet another attempted rebuild, their fourth in as many offseasons.
Of course, the Lakers could get around this by immediately renouncing Pau’s rights once the free agency period starts in July, and waiving Nash by using the stretch provision. All money-saving moves that they could probably talk Bryant into (the guy, after all, wants to win) before attempting to construct a team around Kobe’s $23.5 million 2014-15 salary.
Gasol deserves that sort of freedom. It’s true that, at his age, he may not want to disrupt too much by leaving the team and city he’s worked with and in for the last six years, but it’s also true that (despite a brilliant run in January, one that saw him average a fantastic 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 51 percent) he’s never really been comfortable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense. And D’Antoni isn’t going anywhere, as personnel el jefe Jim Buss is loath to admit mistakes.
All of which means Gasol – who was dealt on the day he was even drafted into the NBA – will happily be allowed to navigate his own course. And he’ll do it in a players’ market, because despite the growing intelligence in NBA front offices, with general managers more and more risk and long-term commitment averse, teams (and especially owners) will be able to talk themselves into chasing down someone as talented as Gasol.
And, in many ways, someone as adaptable as Gasol. The guy that even D’Antoni credited as handling things as “well as you can” during his latest bout with trade rumors. Pau Gasol is healthy again, playing basketball as well as he has in three years, cheerful as always, and in a few months your favorite team may be able to sign him outright.
Good news, all around. Cue the Pau Gasol-trademarked happy tweets:
Thanks for all of your support in the middle of all these rumors & uncertainty. Now let's focus on playing well for the rest of the season!
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) February 21, 2014
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