Dealing Marc Gasol exacerbates a serious preexisting issue for the Lakers: Their lack of tradable salary
The Lakers never seemed to fully appreciate what Marc Gasol brought to the court. They signed him to shoot, pass and play intelligent defense, but despite doing exactly those things, they have now replaced him with questionable fits on multiple occasions. The Andre Drummond saga was well-documented, and while it isn’t clear whether DeAndre Jordan’s addition was a reaction to Gasol’s desire to return to Spain or what motivated it in the first place, it should be noted that Gasol did publicly commit to returning to the Lakers in August, before Jordan was in the picture.
But for a Lakers team that is certain to close with Anthony Davis at center in the playoffs, Gasol’s on-court value in the postseason was fairly minimal. He turns 37 in January, and Phoenix brutally targeted him in pick-and-roll in the first round. As snug a fit as his shooting and passing would have been alongside Russell Westbrook, the Lakers are really only losing a 15-minute per game or so player by giving him away. That probably isn’t going to be the difference between winning a championship and losing prematurely, but what Gasol brought to the Lakers on the floor was ultimately not as valuable as what he could have done for them off of it. Gasol was one of the most important trade chips the Lakers had.
No, that does not mean Gasol actually held substantial trade value. The Lakers gave the Grizzlies a second-round pick to take him. But the Lakers have an extremely unorthodox salary structure. Ignoring dead money, over 81 percent of their team salary is devoted to three players: Davis, Westbrook and LeBron James. Only five players on the roster make more than the minimum salary, with the other two being Talen Horton-Tucker ($9.5 million) and Kendrick Nunn ($5 million). The wisdom of building such a top-heavy roster is debatable, but what isn’t is the limitations it imposes on a front office. When your top three players are functionally untradeable, making any sort of meaningful in-season trade with what remains becomes significantly harder. Even if the Lakers can use draft picks to convince a rebuilding team to give them an expensive player, they just don’t have many ways of matching that salary to make such a trade legal.
This is where Gasol comes in. Most of the minimum salary Laker signings will count for a bit less than $1.7 million against the cap. That is the minimum salary for a player with two years of NBA experience. Older players make more, but the NBA reimburses teams for the difference and doesn’t count it against the cap so as not to discourage them from signing veterans. There is an exception to that rule, though. When a player signs a multi-year minimum contract, he counts for the actual amount he is getting paid against the cap. That was the case for Gasol, as he signed a two-year deal last offseason. That made him count for roughly $2.7 million against the cap rather than the $1.7 million or so all of the other Laker minimums will. He was, in cap terms, the sixth-most expensive Laker even if he was technically making the minimum.
All of this is to say that if the Lakers had wanted to make a worthwhile in-season trade, keeping Gasol’s salary would have been helpful. Combine the salaries of Gasol and Nunn, for instance, and the Lakers could have absorbed a player worth roughly $9.6 million. Sub in any other minimum player and that figure drops to only $8.4 million. That difference might seem minimal, but when you factor in other players and possible cap machinations like step-ladder trades, it could be the difference between the Lakers being able to match salary on a valuable 3-and-D wing like Terrence Ross and not being able to do so. We can reasonably assume that the Lakers are thinking about trades of this nature because J. Michael, then of the Indianapolis Star, recently reported that they are interested in Jeremy Lamb and his $10.5 million salary. Yet they actively made such an acquisition more difficult by surrendering Gasol now.
So why did they do it? Gasol had some agency here, for one. He could have retired at any time and taken this decision out of their hands. Charitably, we could call it a favor to a veteran player. The Gasol family is Laker royalty thanks to Pau’s tenure in purple and gold. His breakup with the Lakers wasn’t particularly amicable. After a tumultuous season, the Lakers might not have wanted a similar fate for his brother. He probably wouldn’t have been thrilled waiting in trade purgatory for a midseason deal that might never come.
But there was an undeniable financial element to the decision as well. Moving Gasol saved the Lakers $10 million in salary and luxury tax payments, and even if the Lakers sign another veteran to fill the 14th slot on their roster, downgrading from Gasol’s $2.7 million to that player’s $1.7 million will still keep those tax savings at roughly $4 million. If they had instead retained Gasol for the express purpose of trading him later, the cost would have been eight figures. Remember, they not only would have been forgoing those savings, but they’d likely be adding a player more expensive than the package they’d be sending out in the aggregate. On top of the trade increasing their payroll, they’d also have to sign more players to fill the roster spots vacated in what would almost certainly have been an unbalanced trade.
It would be unfair to call the Lakers cheap in an offseason in which they acquired the fourth-highest paid player in all of basketball, but they’ve unquestionably made financially motivated decisions. Alex Caruso was reportedly willing to leave money on the table to return to the Lakers, but they still chose not to re-sign him. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that they planning to keep their 15th roster spot open entering the season, a decision that will ultimately save millions more against the tax. They have access to revenue streams other teams can only dream of, but they currently have only the sixth-highest payroll in basketball. Forget about big markets like Brooklyn and Golden State outspending them. At the moment, they are far closer to the small-market Bucks and Jazz. They’ll need to sign a 14th player to surpass them in salary commitments.
The Lakers certainly could still make a decent-sized in-season trade. They could even give themselves more tradable salary by re-signing Wes Matthews to a deal worth more than the minimum by using his Non-Bird Rights. It just doesn’t seem like the Lakers want to make the financial commitments necessary to position themselves for such a move without knowing for sure that it is coming. These budgetary concerns aren’t necessarily firm. For the right deal, the Lakers might still be willing to add salary. They just don’t appear willing to do so blindly.
Gasol’s decision might have been out of their hands. He might have decided to retire regardless of their moves. They might also have recognized these savings and gotten the ball rolling themselves by pursuing Jordan. As the Drummond saga demonstrated, they weren’t exactly enamored with his skill set. Regardless of how or why the Lakers decided to trade Gasol on Friday, the probable result was a slightly less flexible roster. Unless the Lakers surprisingly bring back Matthews above the minimum or add a similarly priced player through the trade exception dealing Gasol generated more than 60 days before the trade deadline, their non-minimum salaries to dangle in possible in-season deals will be Horton-Tucker and Nunn. That’s it. That doesn’t necessarily preclude trades, but it makes them that much harder for a team that was front-loaded to begin with. Gasol might not have been a factor for the Lakers in the postseason. He might not have even been in the rotation. But he was a tool the Lakers could have used to help find someone that would have been. Now he isn’t, and the Lakers will have to place even more faith in who they already have to compensate.