Marc Gasol was a wanted man last offseason. The Toronto Raptors had the ability to offer him a hefty one-year deal through their Bird Rights. The Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors saved portions of their mid-level exceptions to offer Gasol as well, but he sacrificed millions of dollars to sign a minimum-salary deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. He did it for the chance to join a special group of players in their effort to defend the 2020 championship.
"When I signed with the team, I was signed to contribute to the team, especially the two main guys, to help their games and accomplish their goals, which is win another championship," Gasol said Friday as he spoke to the media for the first time since the Andre Drummond signing. Yet when LeBron James and Anthony Davis return to the fold, Gasol may not even be in the lineup. He is the obvious casualty of Drummond's arrival. Were it not for the newcomer's toe injury on Wednesday, Gasol, who did not play until the fourth quarter, likely would have received a DNP-CD. He started and thrived in Drummond's place on Friday, but even he knows that the writing is on the wall. With Drummond set to return soon and Montrezl Harrell entrenched as the sixth man, there simply aren't enough centers to go around. At best, his role is going to be reduced. At worst? It won't exist.
"It's a hard pill to swallow because I know I'm going to be out of the lineup at some point," Gasol said. "That's never easy on the player. As a basketball player you want to play, you want to contribute, especially when you've made that commitment for that reason, but we'll see."
Frank Vogel has vouched for Gasol and argued that the Lakers will need all three of their centers to win the championship. The numbers don't support that theory. There are 48 minutes in a basketball game. Drummond averaged 28.9 minutes per game in Cleveland. Harrell has averaged 25.3 for the Lakers. That duo is going to have to sacrifice minutes before Gasol, or even Anthony Davis, enters into the equation.
Vogel has suggested that he will attempt to circumvent the math by playing Gasol and Harrell together in bench units. It's an interesting concept on paper, especially while James and Davis recover from injuries. Harrell is power forward-sized. Gasol shoots as well as any Laker wing, and he's an all-time passer from the center position. Harrell has scored 213 points on cuts. In a vacuum, the pairing might work. The question is who else will play with that duo when the team is healthy. For obvious reasons, it would have to come during LeBron's bench shift, not Davis', which, in turn, pairs Drummond with Davis for virtually all of his minutes. Neither alignment is ideal. In a perfect world, the James-Drummond pick-and-roll would be a bench lineup staple. Minutes spent on Gasol have to come from somewhere. There is no way to satisfy 12 Lakers eager for minutes.
It's a reality Gasol is facing, and one he is justifiably unhappy with. The Lakers were worldbeaters when healthy, and Gasol was at the literal center of that success. The original starting lineup featuring him, Davis, James, Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. Davis and James protected Gasol athletically, and he made their lives easier by spacing the floor, encouraging ball movement and playing his role defensively. Their injuries exposed weaknesses that the Lakers knew existed, yet wouldn't ultimately matter when the stars returned to the lineup. In that sense, Drummond was signed to solve a problem that didn't really exist.
It's an uncomfortable situation for three highly accomplished veterans. Drummond and Harrell are headed for free agency this offseason. Gasol left money and minutes on the table to play for the Lakers. In the end, at least one of them is going to lose out. For now, it looks like it's going to be Gasol.