1. Once Indispensable, Pau Gasol Awaits Fate
LOS ANGELES -- Let's start this with a flashback to simpler, happier times, like Walt and Jesse cooking in the RV again in the opening scene of Breaking Bad's climactic "Ozymandias" episode.
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are sitting at a news conference table in the old Orlando Arena, NBA champions for the first time. Odom felt compelled to remind the media of how those two came to be Lakers in the first place.
"First of all, I got traded for Shaq," Odom said, "He got traded for Kwame Brown."
They both laughed. It was impossible for Gasol to feel insulted when he, Odom, Kobe Bryant and everyone else knew that they wouldn't be champions without Gasol, regardless of how lopsided the trade with the Memphis Grizzlies appeared to be at the time. (History showed that the Grizzlies did well for themselves by also acquiring Marc Gasol in the deal).
Fade out. Fade in to Tuesday night.
Gasol is walking out of the Lakers locker room after his team lost a home game to the Milwaukee Bucks. Yeah, those Milwaukee Bucks. The team with the worst record in the NBA. This is the opposite end of the sports emotion spectrum from the euphoria Gasol felt after winning that first championship. His eyes are watery, his words have an added coating as he struggles through an upper-respiratory infection.
It's time to talk about trades, and this time there's absolutely nothing to laugh about.
Gasol could be on the move again, once more for a player whose greatest appeal is his expiring contract. Andrew Bynum's contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers is what some call a "super-expiring" contract, because it isn't fully guaranteed. The Lakers can acquire Bynum, waive him and get rid of the remaining half of his $12.5 million contract -- saving themselves $20 million including luxury tax expenditures in the process.
"It's not easy," Gasol said. "As much as I'm used to it after three years of several [years of potential trades], it's not easy."
He has his answers down to a routine, having been through this ever since he and Odom were included in the attempted trade for Chris Paul that was nixed by David Stern. This time feels different than the previous rounds of rumors that didn't go anywhere. Now Gasol is in the final year of his contract. The trade deadline is approaching next month, in addition to the deadline to waive Bynum before his contract becomes guaranteed next week.
This has been building since December. It felt like Bryant's contract extension was the online check-in for Gasol's trip out of Los Angeles. Bryant and the Lakers stressed that the widely criticized contract still left them with room to offer one maximum contract to a free agent next summer. Left unsaid was that would only be possible if Gasol didn't return.
"If something happens, so be it," Gasol said. "If it doesn't, I'll just try to do a better job of trying to help our team have the best chance possible.
"It's kind of out of my control. I'd like to continue to be here. It's been my home for the good and the bad and everything else. I can't control what ownership and the franchise want to do in moving forward. We're struggling right now, and that doesn't help."
The downturn in the Laker season makes a move feel necessary, even inevitable.
The notion of treading water until Kobe returns from the latest injury is gone like 2013. After six consecutive losses, the past two at home to a pair of the league's worst teams in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the Lakers are officially submerged. They're 13-19 and 5 ½ games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Things are getting worse, not better. Jordan Farmar's hamstring tightened up and he sat for most of the second half and he'll get another ultrasound exam tomorrow. Steve Nash said before the game that when he put up some shots the other day, his left leg still felt off. It's as if his nerves are communicating with the muscles in different languages. Steve Blake's still out with a torn elbow ligament and Xavier Henry is a week away from being re-evaluated for a knee bone bruise. Wesley Johnson was at home, sick.
As often as Bryant has piped up on Pau's behalf when the trade talks start swirling, the duo has not presented a convincing case on the court lately. They're moving in the wrong direction, having gone from the NBA Finals their first three seasons together to the second round the next two and a first-round departure last year.
So there's no incentive for the Lakers to place basketball over budgets. Apparently there's no sentimental feelings, either. It was telling that there was no organizational outcry about columns in ESPNLA.com and BleacherReport.com that called out Gasol for missing recent games with the illness. It's as if the Lakers don't want him to be missed when he's gone.
There's a cyclical nature to all of this. Gasol was brought to Los Angeles because the Lakers needed to replace an injured Bynum, who suffered the first of his many knee injuries in January of 2008. The Lakers believed that a star center could keep them in contention for a championship, and thus keep a frustrated Kobe Bryant in purple and gold. They were right. First came the championship, the next year came Kobe's contract re-up and all was well in Lakerland.
Now Bynum could be coming back to L.A. to replace Gasol ... on the spreadsheet more than the court.
"Those coincidences happen," Gasol said. "My brother was traded for me. That was kind of ironic. Life's going to have those ironic moments at times."
Gasol wasn't in much of a mood for thinking about life's whimsies. He had scored 25 points, but grabbed only six rebounds on a night the Lakers were pounded 51-39 on the boards. His missed free throws and a turnover helped finish off any semblance of a Lakers comeback attempt.
Near the end, Lakers fans chanted, "We want Phil", still yearning for a coaching ship that sailed long ago.
Fans don't chant for expiring contracts. These fans also didn't demand the Lakers keep Gasol. Maybe they should have. Even if it were just as unlikely to produce results as the Phil chants ... it would imply some deserved appreciation for the second-most important Laker of the past six years.
2. Around The Association
MVP: Brandon Knight scored a career-high 37 points while also nabbing eight rebounds and four steals. While he didn't often set up his teammates (two assists), Knight spent a lot of the night on a one-man fast break in the style of John Wall.
Defining moment: Milwaukee jumped out to a 14-0 lead as the Lakers missed their first 11 shots, including six from within 10 feet. Larry Sanders made his presence felt on the defensive end during this stretch, even as he was missing shots on the other end.
That was ... un-Laker-like: The Lakers have lost six games in a row, but the second half of that streak has come against Utah, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee -- aka teams with the three lowest winning percentages in the NBA.
MVP: How about a co-MVP? Paul George scored 21, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Roy Hibbert finished with 19 points and five blocks, helping hold the Cavs to 10 fourth-quarter points.
Defining moment: Twice on fast breaks in the fourth quarter, Cavaliers passively fouled George. Both times, George netted the and-1. This difference in clutch intensity separated the teams in a game where the Cavs led after three quarters.
X factor: In his fifth game back from injury, Danny Granger offered 12 points, four rebounds and two steals in 19 minutes, as the Pacers outscored the Cavaliers by 16 points during his time on the court.
MVP: Paul Millsap was Atlanta's only consistent force for much of the afternoon, dropping in a season-high 34 points and 15 rebounds.
Defining moment: Kyle Korver's four-point play gave the Hawks life early in the fourth quarter, as they eventually took the lead and the win.
X factor: After scoring just four points in the first half, Boston's Kelly Olynyk scored a career-high 21 points for the game, while notching 10 in the fourth quarter alone.
MVP: David Lee. Golden State's oft-maligned power forward had it going on both ends against Orlando. Lee reversed recent fortune by connecting on multiple midrange jumpers, and even blocked two shots in the first quarter. He scored 22 points (making 11 of 15 field goals) and grabbed nine rebounds in just 28 minutes of play.
Defining moment: Orlando slowly crept back into this one after halftime, cutting Golden State's huge lead to 15 by the third quarter's conclusion. Mark Jackson opted to open the final stanza with a quintet of reserves anyway, and the Warriors bench -- led by Draymond Green and Kent Bazemore -- surprisingly expanded the lead.
That was ... demoralizing. The Magic's overwhelming lethargy from the opening tip can't be excused, but perhaps partially explained: an empty, lifeless Amway Center might have done more to hurt the home team than help it. Not the best way to close out 2013.
MVP: Tony Parker. No one stood out on the box score for the Spurs, but Parker's relentless pressure on offense put the Nets in an early hole and gave San Antonio perpetual breathing room.
Defining moment: With time running out on the blowout, the clock stopped at .02 after a shot clock violation by San Antonio. The Nets, however, were forced into a 20-second timeout when there were no Brooklyn players left on the floor to run out the clock as most of the players had already departed for the locker room.
X factor: Offensive rebounds. San Antonio, the third-worst offensive rebounding team in the league, pulled down 14 offensive boards against the Nets en route to 12 second-chance points and a 47-34 overall rebounding advantage.
3. Tuesday's Best
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers: Beating the Thunder in their home building, the Blazers' big man had 25 points and 14 rebounds as Portland rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to beat OKC 98-94 in a showdown of West leaders.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Lou Williams, Hawks:
Missed all eight of his shots in 16 minutes of action, a far cry from the hot hand that sank the Bobcats with 28 points on Saturday. Fortunately for the Hawks, Paul Millsap carried the load during a 92-91 win in Boston.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I mean this has looked like a bush league organization much of the year, they don't play with much effort at all, a very uninspired team."
-- Former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, on the Brooklyn Nets.
8. Irving Injured
9. Stat Check
The Pacers ended 2013 with a 91-76 victory over the Cavaliers. It was Indiana's fifth consecutive win, all by at least 14 points. That matches the longest such streak in franchise history. The Pacers won five consecutive games, all by at least 14 points in March 1969, while the team played in the old American Basketball Association. You remember that league, the one with the red, white and blue ball? The Pacers' streak that year came in the middle of a 13-game winning streak and against the New York Nets (125-87), Minnesota Pipers (144-113), Nets (143-114), Pipers (132-113) and Los Angeles Stars (140-124).
10. Top 3 Plays
Around the Association
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge piled up team-highs of 25 points and 14 rebounds, none bigger than a late-game grab that gave Portland a second chance in the final minute after Mo Williams missed two critical free throws.
That was ... a heck of a comeback: Early on, Oklahoma City's defense made Portland's league-leading offense look silly and discombobulated. The Blazers trailed by as many as 16 points, but they never quit.
Turning point: After being on the wrong end of a few double-digit Thunder runs, the Blazers pulled off one of their own, scoring 10 unanswered points on the home team midway through the fourth quarter.
MVP: Nobody really stood out all that much tonight, but Jonas Valanciunas came up big on both ends of the court. He scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. He also chipped in with two steals and two blocks.
Turning point: The fourth quarter. The Bulls led by 5 at the start of the fourth, but they simply stopped scoring. Through the first seven minutes the Raptors limited the Bulls to four points as they pulled away.
X factor: Greivis Vasquez was great off the bench and sparked the comeback for the Raptors. He made some timely passes, hit some key shots and had a big rejection on Kirk Hinrich.
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins took over late, lifting the Kings to an impressive win in Houston. Cousins had 17 points and 16 rebounds on the night, energized by the prospect of facing Dwight Howard.
Defining moment: When Cousins nabbed an offensive board and put it right back in with 56 seconds left, it put the Kings up for good, 105-104.
That was ... a Rocket misfire: Just when it looks like this team is fully capable of nabbing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, it loses at home to the Kings.