Looks like Pau Gasol has more in common with Kobe Bryant than "just" being a champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
When recently asked about accepting a substantial pay cut to stay in LA beyond this season, Gasol replied (via Mark G. Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News):
Probably not. You have to explore your options, but I would like to continue to play for the Lakers and maybe finish my career here. But you have to see the cards on the table.
This, just three months after Bryant made a similar proclamation during an interview with Lakers Nation's Serena Winters:
Gasol, whose current contract expires next summer, also suggested that he could be locked into an extension before the upcoming campaign is through—assuming his on-court performance warrants such a commitment from the Lakers:
If I perform well, am reliable and put up a great season, then I’m sure the Lakers will have interest in extending me maybe before the season is over. We’ll see if there’s interest or not. Then we’ll go from there.
The interest in retaining Gasol over the long haul could be there for the Lakers. The four-time All-Star will be featured down low in Mike D'Antoni's offense, especially during the early portion of the season, when Kobe is expected to be sidelined while he works his way back from a torn Achilles tendon. A summer spent resting his body, refreshing his mind and clearing up the discomfort in his knees through a battery of new-age treatments should afford Gasol the physical freedom to maximize the opportunity that lay before him.
Whether the Lakers are keen to keep Pau at a yearly number similar to (or better than) the nearly $19.3 million he'll take home in 2013-14 is another story. Come July, LA could be flush with the sort of cap space that might attract another superstar who, in turn, would serve as the franchise's torch-bearer of the future. That flexibility will come in handy if the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph opt out of their existing deals to flood the market with cornerstone-type talents.
Re-upping Gasol before then could cut into the Lakers' soon-to-be-new-found fiscal freedom, even more so if Pau demands a salary comparable to the one he'll be earning this season. The Lakers, for their part, figure to be reluctant to talk shop with Gasol and his agent until he's proven definitively that last year's substandard performance was the fluky byproduct of poor injury luck rather than a startling continuation of a three-year decline in productivity.
Some around the team, including head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Mitch Kupchak, have already proclaimed that Pau either can or will be an All-Star this season. Moreover, D'Antoni's described the 33-year-old Spaniard as having another half-decade or so of quality basketball left in his legs.
D'Antoni's comments are particularly noteworthy. After all, the guy who's now insisting that Gasol's best days are far from behind him is the same one who didn't seem to understand how to use him last season. The situation between D'Antoni and Gasol in 2012-13 deteriorated to the point where Pau found himself benched at times in favor of Earl Clark.
To be sure, D'Antoni's decisions are somewhat defensible. Gasol was hardly himself last season, with the wear-and-tear of four long playoff runs and a taxing summer spent at the 2012 London Olympics being brought to bear on his knees and feet. Gasol's injuries sapped him of his usual effectiveness, thereby leaving D'Antoni with little choice but to relegate him to a smaller role until Pau regained his fitness.
The specter of Dwight Howard's potential (and eventual) departure that loomed so large over the franchise only made matters worse for D'Antoni and Gasol. To convince Howard to stay, the team made a concerted effort to feed the ball down low to the man who's since skipped town to join the Houston Rockets.
As it happens, Dwight was only moderately successful in such situations. According to Synergy Sports, Howard ranked just 121st in post-up efficiency at 0.74 points per possession.
Dwight's struggles in this regard were compounded by Gasol's shift further and further from the basket. Pau was miscast by D'Antoni as a "stretch four" to make room for Howard in the middle, after Mike Brown had used Gasol largely as a mid-range jump shooter next to Andrew Bynum the year prior.
Luckily for Gasol, Bynum and Howard are no longer in LA. They've since been replaced by another former All-Star in Chris Kaman, whose partnership with Pau has already shown considerable promise. Those two have started together during each of the Lakers' last two preseason games, with Gasol shooting better than 50 percent from the field and both registering double-digit scoring efforts in those outings.
The notion of having two centers consistently on the court at the same time would seem anathema to D'Antoni. He's never been shy to share his distaste for post-ups, which he's characterized in the past as inefficient and stodgy.
Sharing the floor with a back-to-the-basket big wouldn't appear to please Gasol, either. Slotting Kaman into the starting front court would, in theory, force Gasol to once again spend substantial time on the perimeter. This could be especially worrisome for Gasol given Kaman's reputation as a poor-passing "black hole" on offense.
On the flip side, Kaman is more skilled in the low post than was Howard and is arguably ahead of Bynum in this regard as well. Kaman, too, is capable of commanding double teams, thereby giving Gasol more room to operate rather than less. If anything, Gasol could see himself featured as the primary pivot in LA this season, with Kaman operating in a secondary role similar to the one Pau played not so long ago.
Whatever Gasol's niche looks like, it will be incumbent upon the sinewy Spaniard to re-establish his own value as a stable investment for the future. He'll be the Lakers' go-to guy on offense until Kobe comes back and might still shoulder a heavier load than usual after Bryant comes back. Moreover, Gasol will be counted on to patrol the paint and protect the rim in LA, with Jordan Hill standing in as the only other big of any defensive repute on the roster.
If Gasol seizes the opportunity before him and thrives once again as the Lakers' starting center, he'll have little trouble commanding beaucoup bucks on the open market, whether he stays in LA or seeks employment elsewhere. But if Gasol stumbles, he may find himself in a tough spot as far as sustaining his exorbitant salary is concerned.
Either way, don't expect Gasol to undercut his own position before he so much as sits down with Lakers brass. If Gasol were to concede a reduction in pay ahead of such talks, he'd only weaken his own bargaining position in talks with LA. As was the case with Kobe's comments, Pau's insistence that he won't "accept" a pay cut should be seen not as a matter of stubborn, selfish and unrealistic posturing, but rather as one of shrewd and savvy business.
It's nothing personal against the Lakers. Rather, it's just that Gasol has to do what's best for himself and his family, just as Kobe does. Pau's basketball career will only go on for so long. As such, it would behoove him to get as much money from the Lakers as they're willing to offer or, if he finds a better offer elsewhere, take the money and run.
Ultimately, the Lakers should want Gasol to play like a guy who deserves a fat, new contract. Such would be the outgrowth of a strong bounce-back season on Pau's part. If Gasol's not good enough to warrant major money, the Lakers would have to ask themselves whether it'd be worth keeping him around anyway.
The Lakers, though, can still get the best of both worlds if they play their hand properly. It's possible that the team will convince Gasol to leave some money on the table to stay in LA even if he regains his All-Star-caliber form.
That is, if the Lakers can concoct a coherent and realistic plan for a quick rebuild into a legitimate title contender and sell Gasol on a smaller salary as part of said plan.
Both parties, then, have their work cut out for them. How each takes care of its business will be a storyline well worth watching during the season ahead, one that could dictate the Lakers' success (or failure) for years to come.
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