It's not going to be the Dwightmare. It won't be the MeloDrama or the LoveBoat. And it certainly won't be the Decision 2.0. But the reality is this: Marc Gasol is a legit star in this league, even if few casual fans know who he is. He's a major impact player who can instantly transform your team on both sides of the ball. And he's a free agent in 2015.
So you're about to hear a lot about Marc Gasol over the next 10 months. It's going to be a running conversation. The Grizzlies won't be extending Gasol under any reasonable circumstances, because the last CBA limited the number of years a player can sign an extension for. Gasol stands to benefit in a big way from reaching free agency and then signing a new deal, whether with Memphis or elsewhere.
The Knicks have already immediately been put in the rumor mill as a suitor for Gasol. The Los Angeles Lakers, who acquired Gasol's brother from Memphis in 2008... in exchange for a package that included the younger Marc himself... will have max cap room. Nearly every powerhouse with cap room will make a run at the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, even at age 30 which the Spaniard will be next summer. He'll be sought after, wooed, tempted.
More so than other stars, there's reason to think it will never come to this, that Gasol will eventually re-sign in Memphis, or perhaps even sign an extension just to avoid the nonsense and help the team. That wouldn't be out of profile for Gasol, it's just unlikely from a financial perspective. Gasol has always been willing to sacrifice for the team. He balks at talking about his own talents. The word humble is thrown around too often so I'll just say that in my interactions with him through the years, he's always been understated.
And make no mistake about it, Gasol has made it clear what he says he wants: to stay where he's been, the only place he can see himself playing.
Gasol went to high school in Memphis after his brother was drafted by the Grizzlies. He's spent most of his adult life there. The franchise has built itself around him, and unlike during his brother's term, the team has found legitimate and sustained success during that time. Whether that says more about the players Memphis surrounded the younger Gasol with or the value of Marc's more physical, versatile game vs. his brother's finesse style is something to debate another time.
Gasol came into the league in Mike Conley's second season. He's spent his entire NBA career with Conley. He's been teammates with Knicks point guard Jose Calderon for the Spanish national team for years. But he's been teammates with Conley through all of the success and challenges. And he's built a special relationship with Zach Randolph. The two big men, who couldn't be more dissimilar in disposition and play-style, formed an early bond and have established themselves as one of the best interior combos in the NBA. The Grizzlies locked Randolph into a long-term extension this offseason. and Mike Conley is locked in through 2016, where he's likely to receive another, larger long-term extension. To leave the Grizzlies next summer would be to leave two teammates who have been through a tremendous amount with him.
The Grizzlies will have Conley and Randolph under contract, along with Tony Allen, the "heart" of the team. They'll have quality wing players, and for the first time since Gasol first came to the Grizzlies, a young core of promising players like Jordan Adams, Jarnell Stokes, and Jon Leuer. They made the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago, and last season took the Thunder to seven games after finishing seventh in the West despite massive injury issues (including Gasol missing two months of action).
In short, Gasol's got it pretty good where he's at.
So why are we talking about this? Is this just media-driven hype? Is this just pie-in-the-sky talk from teams like New York (who in the past have promised they would get major stars who they, um, did not)?
Yes... and no.
The reality is that Gasol has to see what's out there. Gasol isn't his brother, despite how many people want to make it seem like they're the same people. Gasol mentioned to me years ago how tired he gets of the comparisons. It's hard to believe that's changed in the years since. So the allure of the opera of LA or other cultural factors won't matter as much to Marc as they did to Pau. But playing in LA, New York, Boston... those things are special to players. It's being a part of something with a grand and storied history.
And there's a lot that can happen in that time. The Memphis front office was in chaos in early summer after Jason Levien and Stu Lash were removed. Chris Wallace, who first acquired Marc in the Pau trade, is back in charge, so there's some familiarity, but there's still an uneasiness about what the future holds under owner Robert Pera.
Gasol will be 30, which means this is the last major contract he'll sign. While his specific game, ground-based, skill-oriented, is likely to sustain well into his mid-30's, this is still the last time he'll be in line for what should be a max or near-max contract. This decision will lock him into his last opportunity to win a title as a starting contributor. And while Memphis remains very much a sub-contender, look at the moves players have made through the recent years. Stars are targeting situations to not just be good, but great. To have everything: the money, the city, the superstar teammates, and the control of their own future.
Gasol doesn't seem to have the same aspirations as a lot of these other players; I don't believe he's ever once uttered the word "brand." But if you talk about his love for his teammates, LeBron James had close relationships with his Cavaliers and Heat teammates. If you talk about how much he loves the town he's in, Dwight Howard was a Fourth of July barbecue with the Orlando community the summer before he was traded.
Throughout the year, you can bet you'll hear the same thing from Gasol that you hear from all free agents.
"I'm just focused on this season."
"I'll worry about that when the time comes."
"I let my agent handle all that."
"To talk about it wouldn't be fair to my teammates."
"I love Memphis and would love to stay."
It doesn't matter what the veracity of those statements is. That's just what you say. And it's impossible to discern the seemingly genuine conviction of Gasol about staying with Memphis vs. the platitudes provided by stars with one foot out the door.
Despite the chaos, Memphis locked in their franchise icon in Zach Randolph. They have a point guard who has elevated himself to top-ten floor general status. They are versatile, deep, and play a style that teams dread having to face, especially in the playoffs. But free agency is what it is, and barring a Memphis City Miracle that would involve Gasol taking fewer years and less money, the Grizzlies will have the looming shadow of Gasol's free agency hovering over the team until his name is back on a contract. That's not about Gasol, that's not about Memphis.
That's just how it works now.