As I look at the Lakers’ upcoming salary commitments, it seems pretty obvious that somebody has to go for financial reasons. Assuming the team is able to re-sign Dwight Howard, their 2013-14 payroll will once again push $100 million. But this time being that far over the luxury tax line will carry a much steeper penalty. Being $30 million over the tax line in 2012-13 will cost a paltry $30 million in luxury tax. In 2013-14 that bill will rise to $85 million.
But the Lakers still haven’t used their amnesty waiver — a one-time opportunity to waive a player with his salary exempted from the salary cap and luxury tax (although they still have to pay his salary). Only players who were on the team continuously since the CBA was signed in December 2011, and who are still playing on the same contract, are eligible to be amnestied. For the Lakers, only Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake meet these criteria.
You can forget about Bryant, for obvious reasons. Unless he loses a leg in an industrial accident between now & July, he’s safe from the amnesty axe.
I have always thought that Gasol was equally safe. Even if the Lakers decide that Gasol & Howard just aren’t a compatible combination, you have to remember that amnesty is more of a last-ditch resort than a preferred option. Assuming the player(s) or pick(s) returned in a trade are acceptable, teams will always prefer a trade to an amnesty waiver. Teams don’t have to continue paying a traded player, they can get assets in return, and they get to preserve their one-time amnesty waiver to use on players they can’t trade.
I thought — and still think — that Metta World Peace is the logical choice to amnesty. As I told Ramona Shelburne, waiving Peace and his $7.7 million salary would save the team over $30 million in taxes. With Peace gone the team would be about $22.3 million over the tax line rather than $30 million, and the luxury tax bill would drop from $85 million to about $53.6 million. Still a lot, to be sure, but I think he’s the best choice from the standpoint of production vs. savings.
More than one person has responded by saying that it should be Pau Gasol, not Peace, who is amnestied. The Lakers’ luxury tax savings would certainly be greater — closer to $62 million — and these people argue that the soon-to-be-33-year-old is no longer the same player who teamed with Kobe Bryant to win titles in 2009 and 2010.
There is certainly evidence to support this contention. He hasn’t been an all-star for two seasons, and he has seen a decline in several stats including minutes, points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and PER. He is signed for nearly $19.3 million next season, and no team is going to want to pay that amount for an aging big man who clearly is about to fall off the cliff. The Lakers, they say, will have little choice but to amnesty him, because all they could get in return for him are bad contracts which don’t help their tax situation.
But I think that’s short-sighted, and doesn’t accurately reflect the Lakers’ situation with Gasol.
More than anything, Gasol’s highest levels of production in LA coincide with playing for a coach in Phil Jackson who could utilize multiple post players effectively. Even then, he didn’t have to share the paint as often because of Andrew Bynum’s extended stints on the sidelines. As Bill Simmons pointed out in this piece for Grantland with Zach Lowe:
When they made the 2008 Finals and won the 2009 and 2010 titles, it happened with Gasol playing center, Lamar Odom playing power forward and Bynum either wearing a suit or carrying the second team’s offense. Here, look:
2008 Playoffs: Gasol, 39.7 MPG … Odom, 37.4 MPG … Bynum, 0.0 MPG
2009 Playoffs: Gasol, 40.5 MPG … Odom, 32.0 MPG … Bynum, 17.4 MPG
2010 Playoffs: Gasol, 39.8 MPG … Odom, 29.0 MPG … Bynum, 24.4 MPG
The presence of a healthy Andrew Bynum, and later Dwight Howard, has pushed Gasol outside where he is less effective. Here is where Gasol’s shots came from in 2009-10:
Now compare that to this season:
Here is how his shots have moved:
|8′ to 15′||25%||17%|
Gasol’s utilization of long twos — the worst shots in basketball — nearly quadrupled from 7 percent in 2009-10 to 27 percent in 2012-13, and correspondingly his shots close to the hoop have dropped. This doesn’t come from being washed-up. This is a result of playing for two consecutive coaches who haven’t been able to play to his strengths, and instead left him to languish out on the perimeter.
So what would happen if Gasol were to be utilized correctly? In response to that question, I give you the 2012 Olympics, and also last night’s game against the Hornets. My colleague J.A. Adande summed it up nicely in today’s ESPN Daily Dime:
It didn’t matter that Nash was out with a hamstring injury, and Howard was limited by foul trouble; Kobe probably wouldn’t have involved them anyway. Like a mischievous schoolkid enticing his friends to ditch class, Kobe convinced Gasol to abandon Mike D’Antoni’s offense and head down to the low block. That’s where he kept going to Gasol — three straight times down the floor during one third-quarter stretch.
Gasol responded with a 22-point, 11-rebound, four-assist game.
Bryant called it “2010 Pau.”
Adande also pointed out that according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bryant-Gasol duo (without Nash or Howard) is plus 18.8 points per 48 minutes, which is almost double the Lakers’ next-best combination of Bryant, Howard and Nash.
So what should the Lakers do with Gasol? The biggest factor in their decision is whether Howard comes back. If Howard leaves for greener pastures (actually a misplaced metaphor, since there’s more green available to him in LA), then Gasol immediately becomes the Lakers’ starting center and too valuable to them to lose.
But what if Howard stays, as the Lakers are hoping and many people (including me) are assuming? The next biggest factor in this decision is the identity of their coach. If D’Antoni stays — and I think Howard will be the key factor in determining whether D’Antoni stays or goes — then Gasol likely will continue to be mis-utilized. At that point a trade would be a strong consideration.
What’s Gasol’s trade value? These last two seasons in LA have hurt his trade value, to be sure. Still, he’s a seven footer, a mobile & efficient scorer in the post, a great passer, effective in the pick-and-roll, has range out to 18-feet, has a high basketball IQ, and comes with an expiring contract. There’s clear evidence that he hasn’t been used effectively for two years, and that he could thrive in a better situation.
He can also play either four or five, but at this point in his career is probably better utilized as a five. This would mean he’d face fewer stretch fours who would draw him out of the paint and kill him off the dribble. So who would want a center with that kind of pedigree? I’d say at least half the league.
The Lakers will have an interesting summer ahead of them, to be sure, and this summer will likely see them utilizing their amnesty waiver. But not on Gasol. While it’s still not clear whether Gasol will be a Laker next season, the idea of dumping him via amnesty is ridiculous.