LOS ANGELES -- The cheers still rain down on Pau Gasol, though not as loud as they once did, from a crowd that isn't as connected to the Lakers as they used to be. A 25-50 record will do that to you. When the Lakers patchwork starting lineup was introduced before a 124-112 loss to Portland on Tuesday (Kent Bazemore! Kendall Marshall!) Gasol elicited the strongest reaction, perhaps out of sympathy for his plight. With Kobe Bryant having pulled the ripcord on the rest of the season, Steve Nash in and out (but mostly out) of the lineup with injuries and virtually every connection to the team that won back-to-back titles four years ago gone, Gasol has managed to be a steady presence for most of the season, enduring loss after loss, beating after beating in a forgettable Lakers season.
This is the kind of year a player with Gasol's pedigree might want out of. And with two weeks to go, maybe he has: A nasty case of vertigo has forced Gasol to miss five of the last six games and put him on the shelf indefinitely. Deep down, it's doubtful the Lakers care. With Bryant in street clothes, with Nash doing the medical equivalent of duct taping his body back together and with the NBA's worst roster this side of Philadelphia, the Lakers are built to lose. They have the NBA's sixth-worst record and fourth-worst point differential. They have an offense that struggles to score (21st in offensive efficiency) and a defense that can't stop anyone (28th in defensive efficiency). Fans, frankly, seem fine with it: They know the Lakers' future is brighter with a high percentage shot at Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum than a few meaningless wins.
Gasol has been in the thick of this mess. Only Wesley Johnson (72), Jodie Meeks (70) and Jordan Hill (65) have played more games than Gasol (60). It's not the first time Gasol has seen a team unravel, either. In 2006-2007, Gasol was part of 22-win team in Memphis, another defenseless bunch that Gasol didn't join until 23 games into the season because of a broken foot he suffered the summer before.
Gasol remembers the frustration of that season, but it doesn't compare to this.
"It's a little different being with the Lakers, a franchise that is known for being successful, that has high expectations every year," Gasol said. "The good thing here is that we get sellouts, we get an extremely nice crowd of people that are supportive through this struggle. In Memphis, the stands were half empty. That was rough. We would play at home and we needed that extra energy that your fans give you. That's what we get here. It was frustrating in Memphis but it's tougher here because of the support we get."
Gasol understands this car wreck of a season is probably a necessary evil for the Lakers. Bryant was never going to be Bryant, not this year anyway. And Nash's once-promising tenure with L.A. effectively ended when the effects of small fracture Nash suffered at the beginning of last season rippled through his body like a tsunami. The two-year, $48.5 million contract Bryant signed last November established the window the Lakers have to win a championship with their aging star and the only realistic way to do that is to stink bad enough to be in position to land one of the franchise-changing talents that are expected to be available at the top of the draft.
Gasol has to know his chances of being a part of that window are slim. In addition to a high draft pick, the Lakers are expected to go free-agent hunting this summer. Armed with $20-plus million in cap space, L.A. is expected to court Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, among others. Gasol will be 34 in July and though his numbers this season (17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds on 48 percent shooting) are closer to his production during the Lakers title seasons than last year's injury-riddled season, the Lakers commitment to Gasol has been questionable, to say the least. Los Angeles dumped Gasol on the trade block in 2011 --remember the aborted Chris Paul trade? -- and seemingly have never taken him off, a fact not lost on Gasol. Neither side will rule out a Gasol return (which would have to be at a steep discount from the $19.3 million Gasol will make this season) but throw in Gasol's problems playing for Mike D'Antoni and it doesn't appear to be a top priority for either.
Gasol, though, will have options. A poll of NBA executives on Gasol's future returned many of the same answers: Chicago. Cleveland. Charlotte, if the Bobcats believe a Gasol-Al Jefferson front line can stop anybody. Memphis, if Zach Randolph opts out. Even after a disappointing season -- and with the understanding that Gasol has never been a strap-a-team-on-his-back kind of player -- Gasol will be among the most sought after free agents on the market.
"There are a couple thoughts out there on Pau," says an Eastern Conference executive. "Some people say he is worn out, that he is too far past his prime to really help a contender. There are others that think that LA, that environment the past two season, that style of play has destroyed him and if he goes somewhere else, plays with a different coach, he might be rejuvenated. I could see someone who thinks the latter paying him $10 million a year."
After 13 seasons, Gasol has experienced everything the NBA has to offer. He has been a high draft pick and a franchise savior, a position he was never well suited for. He has been the second star, the chief supporter, a role he has thrived in with the Lakers. He has won 22 games in a season and won 65, been swept out of the playoffs -- three times, in fact -- and won two straight championships. Those experiences have given Gasol clarity on what he wants as he heads into the winter of his career.
"I want to be in a team that is going to be built to win a championship," Gasol said. "That's my top priority. Money won't be the main priority. Length and money are factors, but we'll see. Until I know all the options, I won't be able to measure them. But we're getting close to the end of my career. I want to be in a good situation. It's an important decision to make."