Pau Gasol may have a strained groin, but his recent play (the Spaniard averaged nearly 21 and 12 in January) has him square in the middle of more trade rumors. This time, Pau isn’t headed East — well at least not too far — and will, potentially, land in Phoenix to play with the upstart Suns, per ESPN’s Marc Stein:
Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns, among the options being weighed as part of their well-chronicled desire to acquire an established player as they make an unexpected playoff push this season, have been exploring the feasibility of trading for the Lakers’ four-time All-Star.
One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor’s $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol’s $19.3 million.
More from Stein:
The Lakers, though, have been adamant that they won’t part with Gasol merely for financial relief, even in a season in which they’ve slipped into the West’s bottom three at 16-31. Lakers officials refused to relent in their talks with Cleveland, convinced that they had other means to get below the luxury-tax threshold before the trade deadline and that Gasol still holds trade value.
Gasol responded by averaging 20.8 points and 11.9 rebounds in January. He’s expected to miss the next week because of strained right groin that’s not believed to be serious.
How much the Suns would be willing to add beyond Okafor to a potential trade for Gasol, in terms of young talent or draft compensation, remains to be seen. But Suns officials have made no secret of the fact that the team’s wholly unexpected 29-18 start — despite playing without the injured Eric Bledsoe for the last 17 games — has led to some revisions in their long-term planning.
Whether or not this deal happens, of note is that the Lakers continue to do their due diligence in seeking out value for their assets. Injuries have derailed any chance of a competitive campaign and even though Gasol has been playing fantastic ball (especially offensively), it has not affected the win-loss column at all.
Said another way, if the Lakers had actually been winning some games, they might find it better to hold onto Pau and see if a late push to try and grab a playoff spot was possible once the rest of the roster were healthy. But the team has slipped so far in the standings, even if they did make a push to close the year it is unlikely to net them anything more than a “good job, good effort” and a lesser quality lottery selection.
This leaves the Lakers in a position where they may, finally, be willing to cash out on Gasol’s value when it’s at its relative peak and try to get something back in return while they can. Any combination of salary cap relief and a draft pick would likely be considered a good haul by this front office when looking at their outlook for the remainder of the year and ahead towards the future.
Of course, like all things, the devil is in the details. And while this deal isn’t done and we would only be able to judge the final version once we have confirmed terms, there are two key parts of this rumored deal that deserve mentioning:
- The Suns only theoretically own four 1st round draft picks in this upcoming draft. They certainly own their own and they own the Pacers. However, the pick they are owed from Minnesota is top 14 protected and, currently, the Wolves sit outside the playoffs and would not need to give up that pick. The pick they are owed from the Wizards is also top 14 protected, but as it stands now Washington is slated to make the playoffs and will give that pick this year.
- This trade would save the Lakers money in two ways. First is that because Okafor makes less money than Pau, the team would pay out less salary this year and save the difference between the two players’ salaries in luxury tax payments. Second, because Okafor is injured, insurance has already started to pick up 80% of what he is owed this season so the Lakers wouldn’t actually be paying his full paycheck.
- What this deal would not do is get the Lakers under the luxury tax threshold for this season. Another trade where the Lakers would have to “dump” about $3 million more in salary would need to be consummated to get under the tax line. This is doable, but, is not a given. The expectation would be, however, that the team would work to try and accomplish this.
I’d have more thoughts on Pau if this deal (or a version of it with the Suns or another team) were to come to fruition, but needless to say I’d have mixed emotions about seeing the Spaniard leave. He has long been one of my favorite players, not just on the Lakers, but in the league. Add to the fact that he genuinely seems like an even better person than he is a basketball player (which, considering his talent and production is saying something), and I’d miss him even more.
In any event, it looks like we are in full on “Pau trade watch” again. This isn’t new — it has been this way for years approaching the trade deadline — but I’d be lying if I said this time it didn’t feel a bit different. The Lakers have, essentially, zero hope of a post-season run and that changes the calculus on whether or not they should hold onto a player of Pau’s ability. Whether that finally tilts things in the favor of a deal getting done remains to be seen, but it sure does seem like this time something will happen.