For months now, maybe the man most responsible for Los Angeles’ championship run has been ripped over the Pau Gasol trade. The mere mention of suspicions over Memphis’ motives gets the Grizzlies owner’s voice rising on the telephone, gets him going on the gossip that suggests something unseemly happened on the way to a Lakers renaissance.
Michael Heisley starts to ask, well, who is ripping Minnesota for the Kevin Garnett trade?
How about Seattle and Ray Allen?
“Is anybody jumping on Popovich in San Antonio because he traded that center to Houston for virtually nothing?” Heisley wondered.
Heisley was talking about Luis Scola, the forward, whom had been a long-ago draft pick of the Spurs. Only problem was, Scola never played a minute for the four-time champions. Gasol was the Grizzlies’ franchise player, and it was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saying on the record what most of his peers had only the guts to say without attribution: What in the world was Memphis management thinking on the Gasol trade?
When much of the league was determined to make a serious bid for the 7-footer, how could Memphis settle so long before the February trade deadline for such a paltry offer out of the Lakers?
For the first time, even Heisley wondered whether his general manager, Chris Wallace, blew it by caving so soon to the Lakers.
“I don’t know if I got the most value,” Heisley confessed. “Maybe our people should’ve shopped (Gasol) more and maybe we would’ve gotten more, done a better deal. Maybe Chris did call every team in the league. I don’t think he did, but maybe he should’ve…”
Around the league, nothing will change this belief: Whatever the reasoning, this was one of the NBA’s worst trades in years. Most of all, rival executives wonder why they never had a chance to submit a best offer. For Gasol, the 7-footer who transformed the Lakers in the absence of Andrew Bynum, the Grizzlies were willing to take back the expiring contract of Kwame Brown, rookie point guard Javaris Crittenton, two future No. 1 picks and the draft rights to Gasol’s brother, Marc.
Crittenton is nothing special, and those draft picks in 2008 and 2010 will be near, if not at the end of, the first round. Gasol had demanded a trade out of Memphis, had been moping around, giving less than his best. Yes, he had to go, but you don’t trade your franchise player without getting back a minimum of a sure-thing young star and/or two solid young starters. For Memphis, salary-cap space will probably turn out to be money that’ll never make it back into the roster.
The one-sided nature of the trade inspired a lot of people to believe that retired Memphis GM, Jerry West, a Lakers’ legend, played a part in facilitating the deal. West was instrumental recruiting Wallace as his replacement in Memphis and still holds a close relationship with Heisley. His history in Los Angeles, especially his bond with Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and star Kobe Bryant, made even the fair-minded cynical about the scenario.
Several sources close to the process insist West played no part, and Heisley swears, “Jerry didn’t know about the trade until after it was done.”
Still, it hasn’t stopped a rampant anger around the league that this wasn’t so much of a trade, as much as it was the word that Bryant himself used: a “donation.” Privately, the Lakers were thrilled that they were able to keep negotiations with the Grizzlies quiet because Los Angeles officials were blown away that they could get Gasol for so little.
One source with knowledge of the process said the Bulls had made the most credible offer. For Gasol and Memphis’ Hakim Warrick, the Bulls were willing to part with Andres Nocioni, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Thabo Sefolosha, possibly Adrian Griffin and draft picks.
Heisley didn’t offer up those names, but insisted, “Chicago wouldn’t offer us any of their good, core players,” he said. “Our people told me that we weren’t able to get equal trade value for Gasol and that we needed to do a deal that would give us cap space and draft picks. It was no secret in the league that we were considering offers for him, but the Lakers were the one team that stepped up.”
Heisley has been losing money in Memphis, a small market where the franchise has come to flounder. He tried to sell the team, but no one has reached his asking price. Around the league there are those who believe that Wallace was forced to turn the Gasol trade into a salary dump, and there are league officials, including a close friend, who believe, “There is no way that Chris ever would’ve made that trade on his own.”
“I have no buyer’s remorse,” Heisley said. “Listen, I can’t tell you how many people would tell me, wherever I went in Memphis, ‘Get rid of Gasol. …Trade Gasol.’ And then some of the same people are booing us because we traded him. But I don’t mind that. I’m a big boy. I can take it.”
He could live with watching Gasol playing an immense part in bringing the Lakers to the Finals, but he just wonders: When do we get our just reward for gutting this roster, for relentless futility? He keeps watching teams with better records get the luck of the bouncing balls in the draft lottery and the Grizzlies never get that transcendent player to save the franchise’s fortunes. Memphis missed on LeBron James and just one year ago, with the worst record in the sport, they still didn’t get a top two pick to take Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.
“We’ve been in the lottery more than anyone in the NBA, and we’ve definitely had the worst record twice as much as anyone else,” Heisley said. “This is sure a fantastic system we have – isn’t it? – where we’ve never gotten the No. 1 pick. Our ticket sales just stopped last year when we didn’t get one of the top picks. What’s the sense in of all this?”
The Grizzlies have been waiting for something, for someone to save them – maybe the bouncing the ball, maybe dumb luck – but they’ve done little to help themselves. The owner of the Memphis Grizzlies says, yes, come to him with criticism for the Gasol trade because he had the power to stop it. Now, he’s watched the Lakers rush to the NBA Finals, the immense impact Gasol has had with Bryant, and he’s asking the same question the rest of the league hasn’t stopped grumbling for months.
Did the Grizzlies get the best value possible for Pau Gasol?
“I don’t know if I got the most value,” he said.
Even so, you get the idea that, yes, the man most responsible for the Lakers' championship run does know now.
Between February and now, that truth hasn’t changed. The answer’s still the same.
Not even close.