For a number of years, it has become a right of passage to have the name Pau Gasol talked about in February as possible trade bait. And by the end of each season, he still adorns his evil empire jersey. But in prior years, the Suns have only been marginally mentioned as a possible suitor.
This week, the Suns appear to be front and center in the annual act of “Gasoling.” Naturally, many of the Suns’ faithful are resistant at best or adamantly opposed at worst, and for good cause. Gasol is a Laker, and it would be hard to warm up to him in a Suns’ uniform. The Valley of the Sun is certainly a welcoming community to it’s newest members, but some are just never going to be embraced. Anyone remember Robert Horry? Further, the Suns are rebuilding through youth and team chemistry. Gasol is 33 years of age and has regularly supplemented his NBA seasons with his participation in the Olympics, FIFA and other summer international play. His tread must be wearin down. It is also fair to wonder whether any teammate of “Team Kobe” could ever adapt to team play. Add to that the fact that Gasol has been an outspoken critic of Coach Mike D’Antoni because he does not feel as if the offense meshes with his skill set. That is not a good predictor for dedication to team. Lastly, the Suns have Emeka Okafor (who has not appeared in one game) and his expiring contract so the they do not need another cap-clearer player. Gasol is a free agent at the end of this season and the Suns many would argue that the team should not part with a significant portion of their stockhold of draft picks and young talent without a long term deal in place for a front line free agent player such as Gasol.
But it is perhaps this last point that creates the greatest intrigue with Gasol. Gasol’s next contract is an exception to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that has become known as the “Bird Exception,” named after it’s first use by the Boston Celtics when they re-signed Larry Bird at a time of his free agency. Under the Rule, a team may re-sign it’s own free agent veteran to more money than any other team could offer and could offer a six- year deal. This gives that team a marked advantage over all other bidders. We last heard about it locally when Amare Stodemire was eligible for free agency some years back.
The Rule has some conditions. The free agent eligible player had to be with the same team for the prior three years, whether under a long-term contract or in a series of one year deals. Also, during his tenure, he could not have been cut, waived or released to play in the Developmental League. But here is the interesting part. If Gasol is traded to the Suns, so too are his “Bird Rights.” He has played for more than three seasons with the Lakers so, as goes Gasol, so too go his Bird Exception. This one fact adds significantly to the value of the deal for the Suns if the deal is consummated. First, it adds a known talent to this most surprising playoff bound season. The Suns could immediately move from playoff pretender to playoff contender, creating more defined roles for Miles Plumlee and improving Alex Len. Second, it allows the Suns a honeymoon period with Gasol without the commitment ceremony. If Gasol fits in and moves the team to the next level, he becomes yet another component to the McDonough/Hornacek rebuilding program. If he doesn’t fit, he has that all-too-valuable expiring contract for free agent cap space this coming summer.
Without the addition of Gasol, many still believe that the Suns will be shut out of the playoffs come April. With Gasol, the Suns stay in the race and would be one of the last teams another would want to be matched up against in the opening round.
Who thought back in September we would be having a conversation like this in February. More likely, we would have been pulling out our best Jim Mora imitations: “Playoffs?….Playoffs?….