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Pau Gasol handles trade talks with grace, mixed emotions

In the next 24 hours or so, Pau Gasol will find out whether he remains a Laker or whether his season-long insecurity will become reality.

Gasol has circled this date on the calendar -- March 15, noon PST -- because it marks the NBA’s trade deadline. Best-case scenario, it will provide him at least three months of security before seeing what the Lakers’ off-season plans are for his remaining two-year, $38.3-million contract. Worst-case scenario, it will mark the official end of what he dreaded all season.

However the outcome, Gasol has remained painfully professional about the Lakers keeping him in limbo all season. Yet he’s also handled the uncertainty with mixed emotions.

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He doesn’t have the same outward indifference that Kobe Bryant possesses; Bryant has scored a league-leading 28.9 points per game while dealing with a divorce. But Gasol has displayed far more resiliency than Lamar Odom. Odom’s off-season adversity involves many things. His cousin died. Odom sat in a car while the driver struck a pedestrian. The Lakers’ initial attempts to trade him in the Chris Paul deal hurt his sense of self-worth with the organization. All factors contributed to Odom’s career-low 7.4 points per game on 35.2% shooting with the Mavericks.

Gasol may have remained open about his vulnerabilities in becoming the Lakers’ most talked-about trade asset. But he’s never used that as an excuse.

“To what level?” Gasol repeated a few weeks ago when asked to what degree the trade talks have truly affected him. “You just don’t know. I don’t know. It hasn’t been easy all the time. I think I’ve been mentally tough enough to put it on the side, for the most part. But it’s not the most ideal when you don’t have that certainty or security if you will be here this season or gone at some point. Who knows. That doesn’t help your stability and focus.”

It’s become easy to overstate how much the trade talks weigh on Gasol.

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To the Lakers’ chagrin, they still remember Gasol’s disappearing act in the 2011 playoffs. That coincided with Internet reports suggesting personal problems played a factor, leading many to wonder if the trade talks would have the same effect.

Last month, Bryant brought up his emotional state as a way to pressure the front office into upgrading the roster, and to provide locker room support. Gasol remains polite and willingly addresses trade-related questions to reporters. Lakers Coach Mike Brown once revealed he saw Gasol reading trade reports on his laptop during the Lakers’ Grammy trip. Even when he addressed his conversations to Minnesota guard Ricky Rubio last week about his season-ending ACL injury, Gasol veered that topic unsolicited back to the trade speculation. He mentioned how that injury provides further perspective on how his flimsy standing with the Lakers means little.
The trade talks may have battered him like a physical defender. But he hasn’t shied away from the contact.

Gasol still remains jovial.

He’s laughed at the pendulum-swinging analysis that hinges on this formula: good performances = Gasol has shaken off trade rumors while bad games = Gasol remains affected by it. Gasol made his yearly visit Monday to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where he spent time with cancer patients, helping one kid make a drawing featuring Brown and his custom sweater-vest and rimmed glasses. Gasol eagerly congratulates Andrew Bynum over his career-best 17.6 points on 57.7% shooting. He’s leaned on mentors, such as former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, or his brother, Marc, to help keep him in high spirits.

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Gasol still remains effective on the court.

A missed All-Star bid and a drop-off in the team’s pecking order aside, Gasol still has helped the Lakers. His 16.6 points on 50.4% shooting ranks in the Top 15 among NBA forwards. He went on a 10-game stretch in February where he logged 10 consecutive double-doubles. He’s increased his aggressiveness as both a facilitator and low-post presence.

More importantly, Gasol remains professional.

He’s repeatedly vowed his desire to remain a Laker. Gasol has talked directly with General Manager Mitch Kupchak twice since the initial trade, leaving Kupchak marveling at Gasol’s handling of it and feeling sorry for what he’s experiencing. And the Lakers forward routinely shows understanding toward the organization’s thought process.

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“I dont think this is personal at all,” Gasol said. “It’s a business move. The franchise is looking to do what’s in the best interest of the franchise and team.”

It hasn’t been easy. But Gasol’s remained resilient and valuable enough that he may have successfully reached his goal in remaining a Laker. He will officially find out soon.

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