Pau Gasol strolled down a Staples Center highway, bearing a bright smile on his face and appearing eager to tackle what lay ahead of him.
Trade rumors? He’s heard that plenty of times before ever since the NBA nixed the Chris Paul deal nearly two years ago. But Gasol sensed the latest scenario involving the Lakers sending him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum could happen, a move the Lakers will only do so if they compile assets, such as young players and draft picks, while also ensuring they stay under the luxury tax.
So as he ran into former Lakers video coordinator Patrick O’Keefe, who’s now a member of Brian Shaw’s coaching staff with the Denver Nuggets, Gasol could only acknowledge the obvious.
“We’re still here,” Gasol said. “I don’t know for how long.”
So with Gasol admitting he hasn’t received “clarity” on whether he had just played his last game as a Laker, he laid everything on the line. It certainly wasn’t enough to change the outcome of the Lakers’ embarrassing 137-115 loss Sunday to the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. But with posting 25 points on 10 of 22 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks, Gasol provided a nice lasting memory on why the Lakers felt inclined to pluck him from the Memphis Grizzlies six years ago en route to two NBA championships.
“Any game could be your last game,” Gasol said. “It’s not something you think about very often. It could be an injury, trade or anything like that. I’m happy with the way that I’m playing and the few games I’ve given everything I have. That’s all I can do.”
In the last three games, Gasol has 24.33 points on 46.7 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, 4.67 assists and 3.33 blocks, marking a sharp increase from his season-average of 15.6 points on a career-low 44.9 percent clip. Credit that to Gasol’s improved health from an upper respiratory infection coupled with better aggressiveness. But also credit to Gasol in fighting through yet another trade scenario that he admitted is “not easy.”
“I try not to let it affect me at all,” Gasol said. “I think it’ve done a pretty good of it so far. Let’s see if it continues or if something actually happens.”
The Lakers have talked for the past week about a possible deal that would entail Gasol going to the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Andrew Bynum returns to the Lakers. A source familiar with the situation said nothing materialized “as of right now” on Sunday. But a deal could happen today so Bynum has time to clear waivers Friday when his $12.5 million contract becomes guaranteed.
The Lakers would immediately waive Bynum, a move coupled that could save the Lakers nearly $20 million in luxury taxes. But the Lakers remain firm in wanting assets, such as young players and/or draft picks. Per NBA rules, the deal would have to include at least another player to match Gasol’s contract this season worth $19.3 million.
“He’s used to it. If he’s not in trade discussions, it’s not a normal season,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “He goes out and plays. He does a phenomenal job and stays composed and I’m sure there’s a lot of frustration inside of him. But he does a great job of being professional and keeping it in and going out and playing.”
Bryant has often stood up for Gasol in the past, an affection that stems from the pair winning two NBA championships together. So much that Bryant had criticized the Lakers’ front office two years ago for leaving Gasol in the dark on where he stands with the team. So much that Bryant asked the front office to keep Gasol even last season after acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. So much that Bryant echoed Gasol’s argument last season that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t feature him enough in the post. So much that Bryant pleaded to the front office again last summer to keep him.
Will Bryant voice support on Gasol’s behalf to the front office this time?
“How much more am I supposed to support a guy besides making a Pau flag and riding in here on a horse with Spanish colored paint on my face like the Spaniard William Wallace?” Bryant said with a laugh. “I don’t know what else there is to do.”
The Lakers wondered the same thing, noticeably demoralized as their seventh loss in eight games coincided with too many egregious statistics.
The Lakers allowed the Nuggets to score 62 points in the paint and shoot 12 of 29 from 3-point range. Denver backup center Timofey Mozgov looked like an All-Star candidate with 20 points. Six others posting double figures in Nate Robinson (21 points), Ty Lawson (20), Wilson Chandler (17), Kenneth Faried (17), Randy Foye (14) and Evan Fournier (12 points), The only time the Lakers showed grit involved Robert Sacre receiving five stitches to his lower lip and posting 15 points on a 5-of-5 clip. Meanwhile, the Lakers shot a season-low 14.3 percent from 3-point range.
Through the ugliness, the 18,997 fans at Staples Center belted out chants of “We want Kobe.” There were no such chants reserved for Gasol.
Has the uncertainty surrounding Gasol’s future negatively affected the team?
“Yeah,” Lakers forward Nick Young said. “He’s dealing with a lot. That’s a lot of pressure on him and a lot of rumors going on around him. You have to find a way to play basketball. It’s about having fun out there and doing your part.”
Gasol did his part on Sunday, putting together a possible last act that leaves a lasting impression.
“The love of the game and sense of pride and loyalty to my teammates and to myself and to the fans, I put that together and put everything else aside,” Gasol said. “I played my best, played hard and gave everything I have.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org