- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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“The future is uncertain,” Gasol said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s a possibility that I could be gone and there’s a possibility that I could stay. I don’t know the exact percentages of it. But I’m prepared for either way.
“I understand the challenges that the franchise is facing, the decisions that they have to make in order to keep the team in the direction that they want to -- looking at the present and the future and also understanding the business side of it. So, it’s a lot going on. I wish things were a little simpler, but they’re not. So we’ll see.”
If the Lakers keep next season's payroll at about $100 million, as it was in 2012-13, the team would owe about $85 million in additional luxury-tax penalties because of the more punitive stipulations in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Could Gasol and the rest of the Lakers' major pieces all be back next season? Kupchak said that possibility is “in play.”
“We haven’t ruled anything out as of now,” he said.
Yet Kupchak used similar language to admit that the opposite is also a possibility: "When you lose, everybody is in play ... whether it's Pau or anybody else, we'll look for ways to improve the team."
Gasol's contract has one year remaining at $19.3 million. From a financial perspective, the assumption was that the Lakers would try to trade his expiring deal or opt to use their one-time amnesty provision on the 12-year veteran.
“(Kupchak) couldn’t really tell me, ‘Hey, thanks for everything you’ve done, it’s more likely you’re going to be gone,’ or no, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re going to stay here. We’re going to make it happen,’” Gasol said. “Which is to be expected. I appreciate Mitch’s honesty and everything that he’s done and the franchise has done for the last two years to keep me here and have me on the team.”
The two-year time frame Gasol was referring to started with his nearly being traded and has included a second-round exit from the playoffs last season, coach Mike Brown's being fired early this season, and a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs last week.
Gasol, who turns 33 in July, said his experience with the Lakers changed significantly after the three-way trade between the Lakers, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets was vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern on the eve of the first day of training camp for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
“It was definitely a point where I was pretty much gone and something happened and the deal was stopped by the NBA, which is pretty random,” Gasol said. “All of the sudden, I was still here. From that point on, as I try to do with my life, I was just trying to take advantage of every day and do my best, continue to be a good professional, good teammate and do what I had to do even though it was hard because in the back of my mind, it was pretty emotional. It was a lot going on. It puts you on edge a little bit.
“The uncertainty didn’t stop. I knew the reality. The reality is that they were exploring and I was the piece to move.”
Kobe Bryant knows that was the reality too.
That’s why, after Bryant went down with a torn Achilles tendon last month and was watching Gasol carry the team on TV, he tweeted, “Can the talk of trading @paugasol come to a cease now??” Gasol posted 17 points, 20 rebounds, 11 assists and two blocks in the regular-season finale -- one of three triple-doubles Gasol had in the Lakers’ last seven games, including the playoffs.
For all of Bryant's "big-boy pants" and "black swan" comments about Gasol, the two principal pieces of those two championship teams in 2009 and 2010 developed a genuine bond.
“I’m happy and proud that we’ve grown so much as friends,” Gasol said. “It’s been great. We communicate with each other a lot more now than we ever have. We’re on the same page. It’s great.”
Bryant verbalized the message from his tweet to Kupchak during his exit interview Tuesday.
“For me, it's a no-brainer,” Bryant said. “We need (Gasol) to get to where we need to go. Like I said, it's not my money. I'm not the one who has to pay some of those penalties. But my vote would be to keep him here.”
For as much power Bryant has in Lakers Land, his vote won’t be the deciding factor in Gasol’s fate.
Dwight Howard could always decide to sign elsewhere and open up the door for the Lakers to keep Gasol on the team as their starting center next season. Or the team could always spend an obscene amount of money to keep the core together and Gasol would be back. A remote possibility? Yes. But a possibility nonetheless.
The only certainty at this point is that when Gasol walked out of the Lakers' practice facility Tuesday, he left knowing that things might never be the same.
“It’s hard when you really think about it, but at the same time there’s certain things you can’t control,” Gasol said. “I appreciate Kobe’s support, I know I support him all the way too. It would be difficult. It would be difficult if that was my last game just because of what I feel about the team, about the city, about my time here and my expectations that I could have for the future -- wanting to get back to the top with this team.”