Visions of Pau Gasol in a Thunder uniform next season suddenly don’t seem so far-fetched.
According to ESPN.com, the Thunder has emerged as a leading candidate to land the skilled 7-footer, who is an unrestricted free agent after spending the past 61/2 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
At first glance, Gasol appears to be an unlikely acquisition. He earned $19.3 million last season, and because OKC is over the salary cap, the best contract the Thunder could offer is the mid-level exception, which carries a first-year salary of $5.3 million.
But there is a way the Thunder could net Gasol without him needing to take that significant of a pay cut. It would be a bold move that requires a pinch of creativity and a pound of good fortune.
The Thunder would have to trade Kendrick Perkins.
Oklahoma City’s commitment to Perkins over the past 31/2 seasons would lead you to believe that’s out of the question. But Thunder general manager Sam Presti, remember, repeatedly has shot down only the idea of amnestying Perkins. He has never commented on the possibility of trading him.
And though it seems the Thunder annually is the league’s quietest team when it comes to major transactions, the truth is Presti never has been opposed to pulling the trigger on a mega deal. He did it to acquire Perkins when he traded Jeff Green to Boston. He shipped James Harden to Houston. Going back to his Seattle days, he set in motion his plan for the franchise when he traded Ray Allen to Boston and sent Rashard Lewis to Orlando.
So there’s precedent.
In this case, the Thunder would have to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the Lakers. Los Angeles would need to sign Gasol into its salary cap space, which could give Gasol a contract twice as large as he’d get simply by signing with the Thunder, and take back Perkins and perhaps a few pot-sweeteners.
Under league rules, contracts that are consummated in sign-and-trade deals must be for at least three years in length. That’s a bit of an issue for a Thunder team looking to keep the books as clean as possible for the 2016-17 season, the first year of Kevin Durant’s potential new deal. But here’s where the Thunder would need to get creative.
For the Thunder’s purposes, the final year of a three-year deal for Gasol ideally would be non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed. Gasol will be 36 at that time and might balk at financially uncertainty by then. If so, an alternative is to frontload the deal, which would be mutually beneficial for Gasol and the Thunder. The player gets financial security. The team gets a critically-important descending salary that helps sustain increasing salaries on Durant, Russell Westbrook and others.
Using the latter scenario, the Thunder hypothetically could take on Gasol with a generous three-year, $33.3 million contract that has a first-year salary of $12 million — which adds only $3 million to what Perkins was set to make but keeps OKC beneath the tax threshold — and a third-year salary of $10.2 million.
Perhaps a more realistic offer given the widely held belief that Gasol will take less to play for a title contender is a three-year, $27.75 million deal. It would have a first-year salary of $10 million and decrease to $8.5 million by the final year.
Why would the Lakers take back Perkins?
Start with the fact that L.A. is at risk of losing Gasol for nothing. If the Lakers help the Thunder in this manner, Oklahoma City could send them a quality post defender and perhaps some mix of a future draft pick, a prospect such as Tibor Pleiss or maybe Perry Jones III. Not only could the Lakers slide Perkins in nicely with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle, but L.A. also retains ample room under the cap to chase an additional star this summer. And Because Perkins’ $9 million is coming off the books, in addition to Nash’s $9.7 million deal, the Lakers would have about $19 million in expiring contracts to again play with next summer.
Adding more intrigue to the idea is the possibility of Gasol being joined in OKC by an old pal — Mike Miller.
Miller and Gasol were teammates for five seasons in Memphis and share the same agent, the powerful Arn Tellem, who also represents Perkins. Miller turned down the Thunder last summer to return to Memphis, and already has expressed his desire to remain with the Grizzlies. But how might the presence of Gasol on the Thunder change his mind? Oklahoma City reportedly is again targeting Miller, and when Miller posted an Internet picture of himself and Durant in Los Angeles this week it only fueled speculation that he could be headed this way.
An off-season that started with a draft that left you wanting to see more suddenly has the potential to be spectacular.
For that to happen, the Thunder must fend off teams such as Chicago, San Antonio, Miami and Golden State, a high hurdle in and of itself, and the Lakers would then have to agree to the proposal. Gasol, meanwhile, would have to be willing to structure his deal in such a way that it would either eliminate annual raises or include only partial or conditional guarantees in the final year.
Much must go in the Thunder’s favor.
But it can be done.