LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for a shot against Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Pau Gasol's place in Lakerdom depends on his play against Dallas on Friday night.
As the reigning NBA champs (though who knows for how long) prepare to face the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night in the NBA Playoffs, Lakers fans are attuned to the idea that their team has reached a historical inflection point. A loss in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals all but kills the three-peat dream. We'll invoke the 2004 Red Sox and, in front of the mirror, give ourselves the pep talk about things not being over until they're over, but we won't be fooling anyone. If the Lakers can't beat the Mavs once in three tries with two of those tries coming at Staples Center, they're not about to turn on a dime and rip off four straight. The Mavs are too good, the tyranny of probabilities not so easily overthrown.
And if it all ends here, the offseason tumult won't be pretty. We've known Phil Jackson is gone, but even the most bitter-minded pessimists wouldn't have bet on these circumstances. He'd be stepping down in the wake of a humiliating defeat to Mark Cuban -- his foil and peer in theatrical arrogance -- in the second round, no less. Our brains struggle to accept that this coach, who for so long has seemed able to bend the sport to his will, could finish his career on such an off-key, pedestrian note. But really, this sort of thing happens all the time. Michael Jordan's last game was a regular-season loss to the 76ers. He was in a Wizards uniform and shot six for 15. Larry Bird's final game was a second-round L to the Cavaliers. He had 12 points and five rebounds. The game has no regard for myth. In the end, it beats everyone down. Why should Phil be any different?
There'll be a new Lakers coach next season. There could be several new players as well. For a team built to win championships right this second, any loss short of the NBA Finals counts as provocation for a roster shakeup. The Lakers are expensive, old and getting older. Jerry Buss isn't bankrolling the priciest team in the league so he can collect second-round gate receipts. If these guys are already too decrepit to compete? There's no point in keeping the band together. It'll be time to retool.
Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, those Laker eternals, would be back, of course. Unless the Orlando Magic come calling with a trade offer involving Dwight Howard, so would Andrew Bynum. Lamar Odom and Luke Walton would return -- the former because he has one of the best contracts in the league, the latter because he has one of the worst. Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes, who've had calamitous postseasons, would likely exercise their player options. Devin Ebanks is probably worth keeping around on his rookie deal.
That's eight guys. The list doesn't include one especially notable name: Pau Gasol. Though Pau is far from solely responsible for the Lakers' deepening trauma, he's the most culpable of anyone making more than $6 million. He's also in his prime and very, very good, which makes him the one player existing in the overlap of Lakers the front office might be willing to trade and Lakers another front office might be willing to trade for. Pau could bring back a star or some luxury-class draft picks. He could be sufficiently coveted that another team would consider absorbing Ron Artest. If Kobe in particular feels aggrieved by Pau's disappearing act, Mitch Kupchak might start thinking about a Pau-ectomy.
It seems kind of implausible that the organization would collectively lose its poop and try to export Pau, but then again, it's no less plausible than the idea of trading Shaquille O'Neal was seven years ago. The Lakers are better than most organizations at not panicking or overreacting. That doesn't mean they don't do peculiar things when desperate. See, e.g., Caron Butler for Kwame Brown.
Pau's the only Laker whose legacy is truly at stake in Game Three. Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher are immortal, win or lose. Heath permitting, Andrew Bynum's defining years are still ahead of him. But our interpretation of Pau Gasol hangs firmly in the balance with his performance tonight. He's the one at risk of excommunication.
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