At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is worth and value. A player has worth as long as he is providing value: points, rebounds, assists, wins. When his value descends his worth crashes and it is not a secret, everyone in the NBA is a witness. This is the part of the game that is invisible but is its quiet heartbeat, the economics the NBA operates under, the decisions on who to keep and who to let go and when, what the risk is and what the reward is. Flexibility and assets are just are important as a point guard and a shot maker. The ability to trade an expiring contract to diminish financial pressure is the first step in keeping your head above water. And if you cannot keep a player you want to re-sign because he is asking for too much money, as was the case with Luol Deng who rejected the Bulls latest extension, it is imperative that you cut your losses and receive something in return. But be aware of the timing.
The Lakers attempt to move Pau Gasol made perfect fiscal sense- this is a world absent of loyalty. By moving him the Lakers were relieving themselves of his stifling contract, they were ridding themselves of a punitive repeaters tax and they were admitting this season is pretty much a wash. Can’t win with him so what’s the point. But this is where the Lakers went all in. They were not just going to throw away Gasol as if he was damaged goods, they were not going to give up the season just because it is an attractive talking point, the Lakers are too proud of an organization to ever publicly admit to death by cutting themselves in the chest. They were determined to get something in return for Pau which on the face of it had its own irony. If he was that valuable why did they want to get rid of him? But the Lakers do business in a different atmosphere than the other owners. Regardless of having lost seven of the past nine games, and of Gasol’s diminished abilities, they were not going to give Gasol away for free even though they got him for free. Business, after all, is business. They believed they had the upper hand.
It happens every year. NBA players see their value diminished in trades that bear little fruit once the year is over. Front offices do a song and dance and pretend acquiring second round picks matter. Second round picks are the leftovers. They are not guaranteed a contract and most do not make the team during training camp. There have been a few exceptions: Marc Gasol, Monta Ellis, Carl Landry, Omer Asik. The most notable second round pick that was part of a Lakers championship team was Tervor Ariza and he was the second round pick of another team they received in a trade. A history of the Lakers second round picks in recent years have been Devin Ebanks (not in the NBA), Darius Morris (waived by 76ers, signed to a 10 day contract by Clippers), Chinemelu Elonu (playing in Turkey.) For Pau Gasol, who has shown recently he is still capable of a 20-10 night, a second round pick is not even close to the return investment the Lakers, who are not desperate, were willing to absorb as they did the math on letting go a player who was responsible for championship number fifteen and sixteen.
Mitch Kupchak is a cunning negotiator but more importantly he is not inclined to change the pace in which he asks for what he wants and if he does not get it he backs away. He admits that most deals don’t get down. Teams back out, minds are changed, the trade withers on the vine. In the case of Pau Gasol, Mitch was adamant that he wanted either a first round draft pick or a young talent. The Lakers had interest in Dion Waiters, the Cavs shooting guard who has had difficulties this year adjusting to Kyrie Irving. He used to be a starter, now he comes off the bench and averages 15 points a game. But Cleveland was afraid of being stung if they let go one of their young and productive players who has shown promise. The Cavs felt, and rightly so, they were ones taking the risk, not the Lakers. Pau Gasol was a rental player. Why give up Dion Waiters for someone who would be in town four months.
The deal the Cavs constructed with the Bulls probably angered Derrick Rose but it gave the Bulls two second round picks and a first round pick Cleveland received from Sacramento. In return the Cavs received Luol Deng, a tough, gritty small forward. He is a free agent at the end of the year. The likelihood of him staying in Cleveland is slim unless they overpay him.
Is there anyone luckier than Pau Gasol? This always happens to him, saved at the last hour, a survivor of another storm of trade winds and it has happened so frequently it no longer is a surprise. The Deng deal has softened the blow. How will Gasol respond from here on out? His last three games he has averaged 24 and 11. He has been aggressive in his intentions to lead the team and yet the Lakers have lost two of the three games he has played his best basketball of the season.
Because this is Pau Gasol it is not over. It never is. The trading deadline is February 20th. Between now and then Mitch will progressively work on deals and of course it all depends on what the Lakers record is by then, if it is dismal and hopeless or if there is a dim light blinking in the darkness and who else becomes injured. For Pau, judgment day will come again in six weeks. Perhaps Kobe is right and Pau is numb to it all or perhaps Pau has accepted his value is not what it used to be. Regardless, this is home. Los Angeles. For the time being.