- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Granted, there's no way of knowing if Pau Gasol would have made any difference in the Los Angeles Lakers' past two losses, to the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers, two decidedly sub-.500 teams that L.A. fell to by a combined nine points.
Even if Gasol fought through his upper respiratory infection and came close to his 14.7-point and 9.4-rebound averages, L.A. might have still lost with the way it missed 16 of the 23 3-pointers it took against the Jazz and turned the ball over 22 times against the 76ers.
But here is the unwavering truth that makes the outcomes of the games almost irrelevant when considering Gasol's lost contributions, no matter how strong or how meager they would have been: He could have played.
It was Gasol's decision to sit out as his team extended its season-high losing streak to five with a 111-104 defeat to Philly. It's not like he has been bedridden or completely unable to exert himself physically. According to a team source, Gasol still showed up to Lakers shootaround to lift weights Sunday, and when he told longtime trainer Gary Vitti he wanted more time to get over the infection and was not going to play against the Sixers, Vitti said to not even bother showing up to the game.
Gasol has not spoken to the media since Christmas Day -- the last game he played in -- when he chose to battle through the respiratory condition he was already dealing with then and finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal. L.A. hung tight with the Miami Heat before losing by six.
After the Utah loss, Gasol tweeted, "Great team effort in Utah last night despite all the injuries #GoLakers."
Before the Philadelphia game, he tweeted, "I hope to recover soon and be back on the floor again. All my support to my team mates tonight vs the Sixers #GoLakers."
With him, the Lakers nearly knocked off the back-to-back defending champions Wednesday. Without him, the Lakers fell to a Philly team that had lost its past 13 road games coming into Sunday.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was asked point blank after the game if L.A. would have won if it had Gasol against the Sixers.
"I don't know," D'Antoni said after letting out an exasperated laugh and then quickly changing the subject to the team's turnovers, which led to 27 points for Philadelphia.
After meeting with the media postgame, D'Antoni was greeted by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak in the locker room, and the two retreated for a meeting of their own in D'Antoni's office as two men who both predicted a return to All-Star form for Gasol this season. They are left to pick up the pieces after another loss, while Gasol, the league's seventh highest-paid player this season at $19.3 million, stayed at home, earning approximately $175,000 to rest.
D'Antoni publicly challenged Gasol before when he famously said he benched the 13-year veteran late in a game last season because he "wanted to win," and then said "there's no reason not to play hard" this season in response to Gasol telling the Los Angeles Times that his positioning in the offense affects his aggressiveness. But D'Antoni protected the Spaniard on Sunday.
Not everybody did, however.
Were there any players in the Lakers' locker room who wondered if the Philadelphia game could have been different if Gasol had decided to play?
"We've had that [thought] the last couple nights, the past couple games," Jodie Meeks said. "It is what it is. Hopefully, he'll be back next game. If not, the guys that are there will play as hard as they can."
One thing to note about those guys playing hard: The 11 players who did play for L.A. on Sunday will make about $14 million combined this season -- or more than $5 million less than Gasol is taking home individually.
"We’ve fought. We’ve done everything we’re supposed to," said Xavier Henry, who suffered a strained right knee in the first quarter Sunday from playing the game full out, the only way he knows how, even though his veteran's minimum contract doesn't become fully guaranteed until next month. If Monday's MRI result shows major damage, he could have been putting those dollars in jeopardy by playing in such fashion.
Of course, it's not like you could say the Lakers directly lost their past two games because of a lack of production at the starting center position with Gasol out. Chris Kaman filled in with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Utah. Jordan Hill followed with 18 points and 13 rebounds against Philadelphia.
But, in a way, that's an even bigger indictment on Gasol. There are players on L.A. champing at the bit for an opportunity to play while he chooses not to. Kaman was still feeling stiffness in his moderately sprained left ankle Sunday, but he still laced them up.
With Kobe Bryant in the throes of rehab to try to come back from a knee fracture after he already made the long climb back up the mountain from a torn Achilles, and Steve Nash making specialized trips to Vancouver, Canada, to try to finally control the nerve-root irritation that's crippling him in his back and hamstrings, and Steve Blake still practicing daily with his left hand while he wears a stabilizing brace to let his injured right elbow heal, the baseline has been set for these Lakers that you're supposed to do whatever you can to play. Basketball is a privilege, not a right, especially when you're being compensated handsomely for it.
Gasol seems to have missed that message.
6hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne