Earlier Monday, Brian Windhorst went onto ESPN 850 WKNR and said that the Cavaliers are mining the trade market for a big man. He mentioned three specific names: Omer Asik, Robin Lopez, and Pau Gasol.
Gasol is certainly the biggest name of those centers. However, he just came off of his worst NBA season to date, one mired in injury and coaching indecision. Having said that, Gasol averaged 13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, which is still an incredibly productive line. So the question is what can he bring to the Cavaliers that they don't already have?
Well, first and foremost he'd give the Cavaliers a legitimate, NBA-ready seven-footer. Tristan Thompson is only about 6'9", Anderson Varejao is 6'10", and Tyler Zeller is not yet able to play 30 minutes a night in the league. Gasol's 7'0" size along with his 7'4" wingspan make him extremely difficult to finish over despite only weighing around 230 pounds. He's also still a fairly mobile perimeter defender that is solid in the pick-and-roll, although it was admittedly difficult to tell how much that skill had eroded due to the fact that pulling Dwight Howard away from the basket was the primary goal of opposing teams. That skill is eroding, but it should still continue to be average through next season.
Offensively, Gasol would bring the Cavaliers a great, reliable pick-and-pop big man. Gasol has shot 43.3% from 16-23 feet over the course of the last three seasons while attempting slightly more than three per game. Kyrie Irving has not had a legitimate partner to pick-and-roll for an extended period of time within his two NBA seasons, so Gasol would be a welcome breath of fresh air. Gasol also features one of the most refined post-games in the NBA, able to score from a variety of positions in the post.
Of course, it's also worth mentioning that Gasol is turning 33 in four days. It's entirely possible that his skills and athleticism may have eroded to the point where he would become a total diminishing return due to injury and miles. However, that's part of the reason that he's possibly available, along with the possibility of Dwight Howard returning.
If Dwight Howard ends up returning to the Lakers, they will find themselves in luxury tax hell this season. They'll be at nearly $100 million in salaries without a full roster of players. Assuming they don't amnesty Kobe Bryant (which doesn't seem like an option in their minds at this point), they'll be over the luxury tax line (projected at $71.6 million) by around $30 million, and also in the repeater bracket. HoopsRumors.com gives a nice breakdown of the way the luxury tax system works for repeaters here:
Beginning in 2013/14, however, tax penalties will be assessed as follows:
$0-5MM above tax line: $1.50 penalty per dollar.
$5-10MM above tax line: $1.75 penalty per dollar.
$10-15MM above tax line: $2.50 penalty per dollar.
$15-20MM above tax line: $3.25 penalty per dollar.
For every additional $5MM above tax line, rates increase by $0.50 per dollar (ie. $3.75 for $20-25MM, $4.25 for $25-30MM, etc.)
Under the new system, a team $8MM over the tax line will be charged $1.50 per dollar for the first $5MM, then $1.75 per dollar for the next $3MM, for a total penalty of $12.75MM.
So if Dwight Howard signs the max contract with the Lakers, he'll receive about $20.5 million next season, which pushes the Lakers salary situation to approximately $97.8 million in payroll with 10 players under contract. Let's say they sign three more guys for approximately $1.3 million or so, that way I get a nice round number of $101.6 million, or exactly $30 million over the luxury tax line.
The Lakers would then be responsible for $101.6 million, plus $7.5 million for the first repeater line, $8.75 million for the second repeater line, $12.5 million for the third repeater line, $16.25 million for the fourth tax bracket, $18.75 million for the fifth, and $21.25 million for the sixth. With Gasol on their roster and a re-signed Howard, the Lakers would be looking at a payroll of about $101.6 million in salary plus $85 million in luxury tax, or about $186.6 million. I'm going out on a limb and saying they're not going to want to pay that.
Given how Gasol and Howard played together last season (plus this luxury tax bill), if the Lakers sign Howard, Gasol is likely gone. If he is amnestied, they'd still have a total payroll of $101.6 million minus whatever the team pays to pick up Gasol off of amnesty waivers (we'll say in this scenario, a fair $6 million, making their payroll $95.6 million). So subtracting Gasol's $19.3 million dollar salary from the billable luxury tax, that gives them a taxable payroll of $10.7 million. Therefore, the Lakers would now only have to pay $18 million in luxury tax. Adding that to the now assumed $95.6 million in payroll (which I'm going to make $97 million because they'll have to replace Gasol with a veterans' minimum guy), the Lakers salary cap total payroll goes down to approximately $115 million, which is a far cry from the $186 million they'd owe with Gasol.
Therefore, if Howard signs, the question will no longer be if Gasol is amnestied, it will simply be a matter of when. No player acquisition can make up for the kind of repeater luxury tax savings that they'll be receiving by amnestying Gasol. Even acquiring Anderson Varejao for Gasol would mean the Lakers would be on the hook for about $10 million dollars extra. Varejao is a nice player, but I don't think he's worth approximately $30 million dollars after the Lakers ship out Gasol's $19 million. The Lakers may try to move Gasol for draft picks, but with franchises knowing their luxury tax situation, I sincerely doubt anyone will offer them up and give up assets plus take on Gasol's full salary whenever they might be able to get him for nothing and a reduced salary.
Now, if the Lakers don't re-sign Howard, Gasol will probably be retained and this all goes for naught. Assuming they just sign veterans' minimum guys, the Lakers would probably have a payroll of around $85 million and would not enter the more punitive brackets of the luxury tax. But if they do re-sign Howard, I believe the Cavaliers should make an all-on barrage for Gasol.
I'd even be willing to bid upwards of $10 million for Gasol during the amnesty bid process to be sure to acquire him. He's an excellent fit on this team for the reasons listed above. He'd be "the man" in the post again -- helping him regain his confidence -- which I think is more important than him being on a contender. Finally, he'd potentially help lead this team to the playoffs for the first time in the post-LeBron era. This is the kind of big splash move that you make if you're Chris Grant and company. He'd be an expiring contract that comes to you at a discount, reducing risk to near nothing. It would create something of a logjam in the front court, but the Cavaliers been starved for good players for a long time. Having too many good players can't be a bad thing. And if you really wanted to reduce the jumble of bigs, you could attempt to trade Varejao for a small forward.
Consider me rooting for a Dwight Howard-Lakers reunion. It's worth it if only for a potential Pau Gasol-Cavalier marriage, if only for a season, even if it still remains highly unlikely.