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Falling Lakers need to let go of Pau Gasol

SportsNBAProfessional BasketballBasketballLos Angeles LakersPau GasolBrooklyn Nets

It's time for the Lakers to state the obvious and utter the three words that could save them from continuing their sad decline into NBA irrelevance:

Ciao, Pau Gasol.

Thanks for the championship memories. Thanks for being such a classy guy and investing so much of yourself in matters more important than basketball. Thanks for shrugging off actual and imagined trades while continuing to play your best.

Now see ya.

Rather than let Gasol walk for nothing in July, the Lakers should nudge him out the door before the Feb. 20 trade deadline in exchange for something more meaningful than the rest of this lost season.

Closer to last place in the Western Conference than a playoff spot, the Lakers need draft picks. They need impact players. They need to move on.

Kobe Bryant's payroll-gobbling $48.5-million contract over the next two seasons leaves the Lakers with little room to maneuver through free agency. They'll be able to add one maximum-salary star and another mid-level player, at best.

That's not going to make them contenders for anything besides the final playoff seeding in their conference.

So they need to be aggressive in the draft and via trades. The former route is filled with Julius Randle-sized potholes given that the Lakers owe Phoenix their first-round pick in 2015 as part of the Steve Nash trade and they owe Orlando a conditional first-round pick in 2017 as a result of the Dwight Howard debacle.

Here's where Gasol enters the picture — by leaving. His recent resurgence (averages of 18.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists over his last five games) and expiring $19.3-million contract should make him attractive to contenders and cap space hoarders alike.

Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak should place his first call in the trade telethon to the Brooklyn Nets, who are in desperate need of a productive 7-footer with center Brook Lopez sidelined the rest of the season and veteran power forward Kevin Garnett, 37, playing like someone twice his age.

Kupchak should see if the Nets would be willing to give up Lopez (two years, $32.46 million left on his contract) in exchange for a player who could help salvage a season in which owner Mikhail Prokhorov has already invested $183 million in salary and luxury taxes.

There would be risk on both sides, of course. The Nets would gamble that Gasol could elevate them from a fringe playoff team to a contender in the Eastern Conference, not to mention that he would head elsewhere this summer in free agency. The Lakers would have to worry about Lopez's chronic foot issues preventing him from becoming their next dominant big man.

But if you think about it, what does either team have to lose besides becoming an afterthought?

If the Nets say nyet, Kupchak could try the oh-brother approach and inquire whether the Memphis Grizzlies would be interested in pairing Gasol with his younger brother Marc. The Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph tandem may have run its course given the Grizzlies' sub-.500 record one season removed from the conference finals.

Randolph, who has a player option for $16.9 million next season, would provide the kind of belligerent defensive presence the Lakers need around the rim. And what are the chances Pau doesn't want to play alongside his baby brother long term?

Another option would be to let Gasol experience life as a Houston Rocket some 26 months after he was cleared for liftoff as part of the Chris Paul trade before Commissioner David Stern intervened.

The Rockets need another impact big man alongside Howard and are eager to unload the unhappy Omer Asik, though they would need to bundle a handful of other players (Donatas Motiejunas? Francisco Garcia? Aaron Brooks?) to meet trade salary requirements. This would also entail the Lakers dealing with the peculiarities of a contract that will pay Asik $15 million next season, even though only $8 million will count against the salary cap.

The Atlanta Hawks have been known to covet Gasol in recent years and may be willing to part with Paul Millsap (one year, $9.5 million left on his contract) and another player or two now that Al Horford has been lost for the season with a pectoral injury.

The Lakers could also choose to trade Gasol for a passel of players with expiring contracts as long as they also receive a first-round pick, preferably in a 2014 draft that is expected to produce at least a handful of All-Stars.

Do nothing, and the Lakers (14-23) face a future as bleak as their recent past. They have lost 10 of 11 games and are coming off a 36-point loss to the Clippers that is the worst in franchise history to their crosstown rivals.

Even the typically upbeat Gasol sounded glum Friday night when asked about the best-case scenario for his perpetually short-handed team, which has fallen to such depths that it could get everybody back and still miss the playoffs.

"We come out every day competing with great effort, get some bodies back and we get some results," Gasol said. "Then, from then on, whatever that is at the end of the season and whatever record we finish with, we should be OK if we gave everything we have.

"If that means making the playoffs, that would be great. It'd be tough because of the position we put ourselves into right now."

The fastest way to get out of that position would be to part with a player who has helped them win two titles and, more recently, descend into one of the darkest periods in franchise history.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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