Since Rob Pelinka took over as the main decision-maker in the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office, public opinion on the franchise has largely been positive. After all, Pelinka built a championship team in his first season in charge after the resignation of Magic Johnson. The next year, he completely retooled the roster to a point at which most were convinced he had built a better team than the title-winning one from the season before. While not the most popular figure around the NBA, Pelinka was receiving praise for his courage and reluctance to rest on laurels.
Somewhere along the way, however, things went wrong. Injuries were largely to blame for the Lakers withering away to end the 2020-21 NBA season and ultimately falling far short of their expectations. But it was also clear that the team never rebuilt the chemistry that made their previous iteration special. The connection that players and coaches credited for their dominant postseason run was nowhere to be found amidst the rough times. Pelinka bet on more talent but steered too far away from building a team atmosphere.
No player embodied the issues that seemed to plague the Lakers all season and especially towards the end of the year than Marc Gasol. The Spaniard was one of several talent upgrades in the offseason, a replacement to JaVale McGee in the starting lineup and a completely different profile of a player that could serve to play smart defense, space the floor, and help make plays to ease the load on LeBron James’ shoulders.
For one reason or another, Gasol never seemed to get a solid footing in LA where his older brother made himself a legend with two championships alongside Kobe Bryant. But he was still largely a positive influence on the floor for all of the aforementioned reasons. The Lakers were learning to play with him while players were in and out of the lineup and not getting sufficient reps to build that on-court chemistry.
Then, the Lakers made another wager that had avalanching effects on the rest of their season. They signed Andre Drummond after a buyout from the Cavs and despite the big man having not played for months, they promised him Gasol’s starting job. What followed was Gasol publicly showing his disapproval with questions about his future in LA surrounding the team. Eventually, he changed his tune and, at least publicly, showed his support for Drummond and helping the team in whichever role they asked for him to fill.
But that decision had long-standing effects. Gasol’s playing time fluctuated as Frank Vogel struggled to fit him in a frontcourt that featured Drummond, Anthony Davis, and Montrezl Harrell, another center who was shunned with the arrival of Drummond.
The Drummond experiment resulted in a failure across multiple fronts. Drummond himself was not good enough to deserve the preferential treatment he received (though it’s unfair to pin the blame on the Lakers’ first-round flameout on him considering he was fairly productive across the six games). Gasol was never able to contribute to the level that was expected from him. And Harrell saw himself benched even with Davis’ season-ending injury.
And now, several months later, Gasol is no longer with the team. The big man seemingly preferred to stay in Spain following his Olympics campaign with the national team, reportedly opting to play for the club team he owns there. The Lakers have replaced their trio of maligned centers with Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. They will supposedly give more minutes to Davis at his natural position though whether that actually happens remains to be seen.
None of this is to say that Gasol was the Lakers’ savior, that his satisfaction last season would have kept a sinking ship afloat, or that his inclusion this season would cement the team as favorites. But the Lakers lost out on a good, albeit flawed, player because they flew too close to the sun, making a promise to a player that had not at any point proven to be more valuable than what they already had in store. Now, they are left asking similar questions about their depth in the middle, though Howard and Jordan at least provide that vertical spacing that the Lakers missed with Gasol, Drummond, and Harrell.
But will Jordan and Howard outproduce the value that Gasol brought to the table? Possibly. We’ve seen what Howard can provide to the Lakers but that was two seasons ago. Jordan seems over the hill and could barely play for a Brooklyn Nets’ team whose biggest weakness was, well, its lack of bigs. Gasol himself also looked old as Chris Paul and Devin Booker drilled pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper against him in the limited minutes he received in the first round. But at least he provided a different profile, someone who could add some spacing to lineups with three paint crashers in James, Davis, and Russell Westbrook even with his reluctance to pull the trigger at times. Time will only tell but the Lakers may miss that skillset that neither Howard nor Jordan can provide. If Davis does indeed start at the five as some reports indicate, much of those concerns will be diminished but they will not be completely hidden.
What is most concerning is not losing out on Gasol but rather the front office’s propensity to make these moves that are high risk without much of a high ceiling. Could Drummond have turned out to be a high-value addition? Maybe. His rebounding alone was seen as a potential game-changer against the Brooklyn Nets who the Lakers were favored to see in the finals. But was that potential added value worth the risks of signing a player whose fit was questionable due to his poor hands and finishing around the basket and inability to space the floor? Was it worth the risk of alienating another player – Marc Gasol – who could provide a similar added value in a much different way? Who is to say the Lakers won’t make a similar decision again this year that could change the mentality and mood of a roster that, so far, seems destined to build the chemistry that 2020’s title winners had?
This isn’t meant to be some sort of indictment on the Lakers’ franchise or a prediction of calamity because of the loss of one player that frankly was disappointing in his short tenure with the team. But it, alongside the trade for Dennis Schroder that probably looks worse in hindsight than it actually was, could be a troubling trend and one that they do have to reverse in order to maximize their superstars’ windows. Maybe it won’t matter because of their top-end talent but wins around the margins are crucial to winning titles and the Lakers are certainly no strangers to that. That just includes taking the necessary measures and cautions not to ruin a good situation in the hopes of pursuing a more feeble one.