During a timeout late in Game 3 of the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol stood in front of the Lakers' bench at American Airlines Center, and Jackson popped him in the chest. The gesture, startling given Jackson's Zen reputation, signaled the end of an era.
The Mavericks swept the Lakers, Jackson retired and a renovation commenced. The Lakers tried trading Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom to New Orleans, but the deal for Chris Paul was famously vetoed, so the makeover ceased halfway. The Lakers dumped Odom on the Mavs but kept Gasol, always loyal yet never the same. It was hard to decipher, though, how much of his decline had to do with forces out of his control. The Lakers hired Mike Brown, who ran the offense through Andrew Bynum, and replaced him with Mike D'Antoni, who showcased Dwight Howard. Gasol was marooned in the high post.
With Howard in Houston, and Gasol in a contract year, the Lakers braced for a renaissance. In some ways, coaches preferred Gasol to Howard, because he is a superior passer and more accurate shooter. They envisioned him running pick-and-rolls with Steve Nash, rebuilding his career the same way as so many old Suns, through one perfectly threaded bounce pass at a time.
But Nash has played six games, the Lakers have churned through six point guards and Gasol appears unable to stop their slide. How much responsibility he bears is a question that the Lakers -- and any team in the market for a supremely skilled 7-footer for the stretch run -- will have to answer by the Feb. 20 trading deadline.
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It is a strange testament to Jackson just how far some members of the '11 Lakers have fallen without his guidance. Odom, the former Sixth Man Award winner, isn't in the NBA anymore. Bynum, an All-Star in '12, was waived by Chicago last week. Gasol, a two-time champion and future Hall of Famer who used to deliver 18 points and 10 rebounds on a near nightly basis, is down to 15.6 points even though he's often the only credible option on offense.
The subject of trade talks for the past two years, Gasol reportedly could not fetch Dion Waiters or a late first-round pick from the Cavaliers, when they were trying to discard Bynum. Gasol is 33, with a long history of deep playoff runs and international minutes, and the tread shows. He's missed time this season with a sprained ankle and was diagnosed Monday with a moderate strain of the flexor tendon in his left big toe. He is questionable for Tuesday's game against the Cavs, who opted for Luol Deng over Gasol.
Still, Gasol is arguably the only legitimate asset the Lakers have left, even if the main reason is his $19.3 million expiring contract. Under normal circumstances, with the Cavs trade falling through, the Lakers would be wise to hold Gasol until the deadline. They'd let him build back some of his value, which is very possible, considering his numbers have improved every month of the season and he's topped 18 points per game in January. However, the threat of Gasol's emergence is one thing standing between the Lakers and a truly wretched record, which would theoretically yield a genuinely lofty draft pick. The sooner the Lakers ship Gasol, the worse they'll be, which means the better they'll be, in this backward NBA season.
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The Lakers are 14-23, with only the eighth-worst record in the league, but they are slipping fast. They've lost 10 of 11 games, fell by 36 on Friday to the Clippers and are about to embark on a seven-game road trip, after which Kobe Bryant and Nash may be ready to return. If the Lakers exile Gasol and don't rush Bryant or Nash, they could easily drop behind Sacramento and Utah, into the basement of the Western Conference. They may never be as lean as their Eastern counterparts -- Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando -- but those clubs also have easier schedules. By virtue of being in the West, the Lakers should lose a lot of games in the second half, and therefore earn many Ping-Pong balls.
Things often work out for the Lakers even when it seems they don't. This could go down as the worst season in the history of the franchise, but it comes at the best time: They actually own their first-round pick, a rarity given their lust for veteran headliners, and the draft is as stocked as it's been at any point in the past decade. There may not be another LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but every general manager in the top seven can hope for a transformational player.
The Lakers, unlike some other NBA stragglers, did not try to tank. Bryant came back from the torn Achilles and broke a bone in his knee. Jordan Farmar tore one part of his left hamstring and then another. Nash tried to play through nerve damage. The tank has been forced upon them. They may finally realize, after this seven-game haul, that they can't fight it anymore. The tank is not in their heart but it is in their interest.
Change-of-scenery is among the most overused catchphrases in sports, but Gasol could use one, even if he doesn't want it. Only two years have passed since he single-handedly kept Spain competitive against Team USA in the gold medal game at the Olympics. He could fit with virtually any contender because he is willing to defer, savors playmaking as much as scoring and rarely complains about anything that doesn't involve D'Antoni.
There's little doubt that, someday, Gasol's jersey will hang in the rafters at Staples Center. He outdueled Howard for the championship in '09, Kevin Garnett in '10, and made it possible for Bryant to capture two titles without Shaquille O'Neal. But that era ended nearly three years ago, in Dallas, with a shot to the chest and a sweep to the side. The Lakers went halfway on their renovation. The time has come to complete it.