Los Angeles Lakers fans breathed a sigh of relief earlier this month when veteran center Marc Gasol announced that he planned to return to the Lakers for the 2021-22 season. While his role last season was inconsistent and he has lost a good deal of athleticism with age, the Lakers played well with him on the floor and his shooting and passing should fit in very well alongside newly acquired point guard Russell Westbrook. At the moment, Dwight Howard is the only other full-time center on the roster, so Gasol's return would be quite meaningful for Los Angeles.
But that return may no longer be guaranteed. Marc Stein noted in his most recent newsletter that he is hearing that Gasol, despite his announcement, is "not a lock to return to the Lakers." What exactly that might mean is still unclear.
Gasol signed a two-year deal for the minimum last offseason, but his first year in purple and gold wasn't always enjoyable. The Lakers, when healthy, thrived with Gasol as their starting center early in the season, but in response to a number of injuries, they signed Andre Drummond as a replacement and moved Gasol to the bench. He called that decision "a hard pill to swallow," but ultimately fought his way back into the starting lineup in time for the Lakers' season-ending loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Gasol is still under contract with the Lakers, so he cannot simply leave of his own volition. With so few big men on the roster, the Lakers are unlikely to negotiate a buyout that would allow him to sign with another NBA team, though it should be noted that Marc's older brother Pau finished his career in their native Spain. Perhaps Marc is interested in a similar finale. Gasol will turn 37 in January, so even an immediate retirement shouldn't be ruled out.
The Lakers could also trade Gasol, but that presents some complications. At the moment, there are only three other tradable players on the roster: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. None of them are going anywhere, so for now, the Lakers would have to trade Gasol on his own if he did want to leave the team. At a salary of only $2.6 million, there aren't that many possible financial matches for him around the league, and even fewer would likely appeal to the Lakers. If they are going to make a trade, it would likely come on or after Dec. 15, when all of their free agent signings become eligible to be dealt themselves. At that point, the Lakers could aggregate multiple lower-salaried players together. They'd also likely have a better sense of what role Gasol would play in their rotation.
At the moment, that isn't fully clear. Several reports have suggested that Anthony Davis is likely to play center more frequently this season than he has in the past, but that may or may not mean that he will start at the position. If he does, there may only be enough minutes available for a single backup, Howard. If he doesn't, the Lakers could still use him as a floor-spacer in their starting five as they did early last season.
Just because Gasol is "not a lock" to return to the Lakers does not mean that he absolutely won't. He himself said that he planned to and until he or his representation says otherwise, that should be the assumption. The Lakers still have three roster spots available, and to this point, they have primarily worked out guards for those spots. If they believed Gasol was not going to be on their team next season, they'd likely be linked to more big men. Until they are, the assumption should be that Gasol returns next season.