He has punished his body over time. Now his body is punishing him. Of course he thinks he can cure it. But energy is in short supply, having been squeezed out of his knees and feet. Pau Gasol’s body is rejecting him after twelve years. It is not one of those situations you can wish upon a star. You cannot positively think your way through decay. Sadly, it is normal.
Athletes enter into their careers as very young men and leave a few years later. At some point there is a loss of ability and usefulness. It happens to every single athlete. You decline far faster than you expect; you thought you were different. Or you were afraid you were the same. But in the end, age takes its toll and there is a price. The player who was cheered becomes the player who is traded.
You can trade a player a year too early or you can trade him a year too late. The entire process is somewhat cold. But on a larger scale, the job of trading players is complicated. The Collective Bargaining Agreement makes player movement from one organization to the next an exercise in rolling dice. In the NBA you trade contracts.
It is difficult to trade a player like Pau Gasol who is thirty three years old and experiencing career lows in points, steals, field goal percentage and field goal attempts. He is making nineteen million dollars in salary. The Lakers have made it clear they don’t want to take on additional revenue. They want the books clear for next summer. And they want to see what Kobe does.
Kobe’s impact on Pau is like a blind man to an elephant. A blind man cannot see the elephant but he feels his presence just by listening. Perhaps Pau’s productivity will improve once Kobe organizes the offense to its maximum level. But there are certain things even Kobe cannot fix. Pau has lost his explosiveness, he rarely jumps off the ground, his aggressiveness is at an all time low. None of this is a secret; other general managers have television sets too. They see what the rest of us see. Why would they give the Lakers maximum market value for Pau when he is not worth it? And why would anyone want to help the Lakers get better?
Because mid-season deals are based on return, potential and risk. That is the question to ask of a franchise like the Lakers who find themselves in contract with a diminished player. What could they get as compensation for their Pau Gasol investment. Forget moving him to the Western Conference. Most teams are indebted to players for two or three more years and they would not trade with the Lakers anyway. The Lakers have made their lives miserable.
The Eastern Conference has three teams that as trading partners provide low risk, a steady upside and moderate return: the Philadelphia 76ers, the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Philadelphia Trade: Package Pau for Evan Turner(SF), Spencer Hawes(C) and a draft pick. Why would Philly want to deal their leading scorer? Because of Andrew Wiggins, that’s why. This was supposed to be Philly’s tanking year. But their dynamic rookie point guard has made them interesting and a little too good for the lottery. So has Evan Turner. He is averaging 22 points a game. He can play two positions. He has openly stated he does not want to return to Philadelphia. He is a restricted free agent and his qualifying offer is 8 million. He is athletic, can create his own shot, is an adequate defender. His only weakness is that he does not shoot the three well, he likes to post up. His teammate, Spencer Hawes, is seven foot one. He is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds. He is shooting 47% from three which fits into a D’Antoni system. He is a free agent at the end of the year
The Toronto Trade: Package Pau for Amir Johnson(C), Kyle Lowry(PG) and a draft pick. Amir Johnson is a 26 year old, six foot nine front court player from Los Angeles who rebounds and can make the occasional post move. He averages ten points and seven rebounds a game. He shoots 55% from the field but operates primarily in the post. He does not have the athleticism of a DeAndre Jordan or the skill of a young Pau, but he takes up space in the paint and defends the rim. He has a non guaranteed contract next year. His teammate, Kyle Lowry, is a point guard which the Lakers are in desperate need of. He is 27 years old and averages 12 points and 6 assists. He averages less than 2 turnovers a game and shoots 35% from three. He is a free agent at the end of the year.
The Cleveland Trade: Package Pau for Anderson Varejao(C), C.J. Miles(SF), a draft pick and a trade exception. Under Mike Brown the Cavs offense has, naturally, regressed. Pau would have an impact on Tristan Thompson, a young forward with promise. On their end the Lakers would receive Varejao, a frenetic, energetic, crazy man who can play around the rim, rebound, and hit the mid range shot. He always hustles and plays hard and his energy is infectious. He is averaging 8 points and 7 rebounds but like Jordan Hill, Varejao is never going to be defined by numbers. There are so many things he does on the floor that will never enter a stat sheet but affect the game. His contract for next year is not guaranteed. His teammate, C.J. Miles, can create his own shot, hit the midrange or the three. He is shooting 37% from long range and 90% from the free throw line and he rarely turns the ball over. He is playing on a non guaranteed contract.
The league is younger and quicker, not older and slower. The years and the mileage and injuries have taken a particular toll on players such as Pau. He has an old body he cannot get to work right. Because of it, we have outgrown him or he has outgrown us or perhaps it is both, we no longer need each other. He has become lost in his career and we have become lost in our expectations for him. It is easy to answer the question: what happened to Pau? Time and body blows have worn him down to something small. He plays a solemn game now, as if his mind has adjusted to this new state of his body and he cannot fight it anymore. He has entered the realm of fatalism. In the beginning Pau was a young player from Spain. In the middle he was a Los Angeles Laker who appeared in three NBA Finals. Who knows how it will unfold, how far it goes to reach the end?
For now, Pau has a couple of months before the trading deadline. In that period of time he may surprise us by reaching back into some magical realm when his body was not an enemy. Kobe is his biggest supporter, his advocate. He will do whatever it takes to get Pau back. But, in an odd way, that is the point of it all. Great players do not need a miracle worker. They do not need to be saved from the edge. Once upon a time Pau was that person, he was really great. But at 13 points a game he is really average. He still has worth, though. He can facilitate the offense, he can rebound, he can post up smaller, less athletic players. His worth is not the question. It is his value. How much value does Paul Gasol really have anymore?