(Aside from, you know, the really obvious stuff, like being excellent at basketball.)
Thursday morning, when rumors of a new Dwight Howard deal began percolating around Twitter, it was believed that the Lakers, in an effort to finally acquire Orlando's superstar center, would send out not just Andrew Bynum but Pau Gasol as well, getting Al Harrington in return. As the day went on, the winds began to change. Maybe Gasol was involved, maybe not. In the end, he stayed put. The Lakers acquired Howard (along with Chris Duhon and Earl Clark) for Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2017. (Why 2017? Because it's the first one the Lakers have available for trading after the Steve Nash deal last month.)
Improbable as it might have seemed a few months ago, the Lakers have reinvented themselves as a legitimate top-shelf contender, and Gasol remains in Los Angeles. In the wake of the Howard deal, here are four reasons why that matters so much:
1. Dwight insurance.
Howard may not be ready for the start of the regular season while recovering from back surgery. With Gasol, the Lakers have the ability to accommodate whatever Howard requires to be totally healthy when it really matters. Antawn Jamison slides over to the 4 temporarily, and while the Lakers' bench thins out a little, a starting five of Kobe, Gasol, Nash, Jamison and Metta World Peace is pretty stout. Certainly enough to win some games if Howard needs a little time.
2. Gasol's versatility will be key.
I'm less concerned than some about the sheer age of the team, but without question, the lesser the burden put on Kobe and Nash the better. In many ways, Gasol does out of the frontcourt what Nash does in the backcourt -- greases the wheels and makes life easier for others, both with his passing and how he can force a defense to react. For a team still not rich with shot creators, losing Pau would have had a profoundly negative impact on the Lakers' offense (bad offense, of course, often leading to bad defense). While Gasol still might not find his way into the post as much as he'd like/his talent dictates, the rest of his skill set adds a completely different dimension to what the Lakers can do, and is integral to keeping the team's backcourt stars fresh. Plus, he's a far better defender than anyone likely replacing him, meaning the Lakers don't forfeit a portion of what Howard brings on that side of the ball.
3. The Lakers need givers.
Having "too many" highly talented players on the roster is one of those quasi-problems that every GM in the league would love to tackle, but nonetheless presents challenges. Statistically at least, the four stars will all have to sacrifice for this to work effectively. Having Gasol, who last season demonstrated a willingness to play a role outside his comfort zone without complaint and who plays with an unflinching team-first ethic, only helps the endeavor. Granted, had Gasol been traded we'd be talking about three guys having to share instead of four, but I'd much rather have another talented guy who models the necessary mindset over role players without the skill to merit a larger profile.
4. The Lakers need talent.
And here's the big one.
A core of Howard, Bryant, and Nash ain't bad, but without Gasol, the Lakers would have been a much thinner group with almost zero ability to absorb injury. Jamison likely would have moved into the starting lineup, by definition eliminating his impact off the bench and likely leaving the Lakers short on scoring from their reserves. That's not a roster taking down Oklahoma City and Miami in the playoffs. So while the Lakers would have had their star of the post-Kobe era, they likely would have lowered their title chances had Gasol joined Bynum on the exit ramp and undercut the moves coming before the Howard trade.