The Lakers have moved closer to starting their rebuilding process, engaging in trade discussions with the Phoenix Suns for veteran forward Pau Gasol, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The Lakers are hoping to shed Gasol’s salary and accrue future draft picks before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
It’s usually a no-no to deal with a division rival, but the Suns have quietly stockpiled draft choices and can offer the Lakers a first-rounder in the June draft, considered one of the best in years. The Suns could hold up to four first-round picks this year, depending on the records of past trade partners Minnesota, Indiana and Washington.
The Lakers are almost surely lottery-bound and currently hold the seventh pick in the draft.
As part of the deal, the Lakers would acquire veteran center Emeka Okafor, who has not played this season because of a neck injury.
Gasol, 33, arrived from Memphis six years ago almost to the day, helping push the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two of which ended successfully for them.
But the Lakers have all but punted the 2013-14 season, mired in injuries and tied for 13th place in the Western Conference with a 16-31 record.
Gasol was dragged down with everything else, his stats falling as he complained about his role in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
But he rallied recently, averaging 20.8 points and 11.9 rebounds last month. He scored 20 or more points in his last 10 games, the longest such streak of his career.
Gasol would be comfortable with a trade to the Suns, eager to prove himself in a new system on a better team, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
He is in the last year of a contract paying him $19.3 million this season. He is sidelined until at least next week because of a strained groin that first took root Tuesday against Indiana.
Okafor, 31, is making $14.5 million in the final year of his contract. An insurance clause could potentially cover about $5 million of his contract, making him more attractive to the Lakers.
Okafor has career averages of 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds but might not play this season.
If Gasol is traded, the Lakers have few frontcourt options. Jordan Hill is limited offensively, Ryan Kelly is only a rookie, Robert Sacre is in his second NBA season, and veteran Chris Kaman has fallen out of favor with D’Antoni.
The Lakers weren’t expected to challenge for anything noteworthy this season, but reality became worse when injuries hit their aging roster.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have each played only six games this season. Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry have also missed substantial swaths of time.
Phoenix, on the other hand, has exceeded dim expectations and is sixth in the West with a 29-18 record. The Suns do not have a proven threat in the post, relying more on speed and perimeter shooting.
Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.