- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With just a week remaining until the NBA's trade deadline on Feb. 20, it's that time of the year when a fog of uneasiness settles over the Los Angeles Lakers.
This season there is more at stake for everybody involved.
Whereas past trade deadlines came and went with the Lakers making some sort of minor move to tweak the roster and make it more championship ready -- if they even made a move at all -- everything is set up for the Lakers to be a major player on the market this time around.
For starters, the Lakers don't have anything left to play for this season. At 18-34 and losers of 21 of their last 26 games, there is no playoff berth in store this spring, let alone a title run.
With the present all but meaningless, it becomes all about the future.
And with a team that's set up to have 12 of its 15 players on expiring contracts, pretty much everyone -- outside of Kobe Bryant -- is expendable.
Pau Gasol has already been on the block for more than a month, first dangled to Cleveland before the Cavaliers instead chose to swap Andrew Bynum to Chicago for Luol Deng. Since then, Gasol has been the subject of trade talk with the Phoenix Suns for a package built around the injured Emeka Okafor and a potential draft pick.
Moving Gasol could accomplish two goals for Lakers management at this point: shedding salary to try to get under the luxury tax threshold and also adding a young piece or a draft pick it can use for the future.
When the Lakers-Cavs talks were still active, one league source described L.A.'s motivation to ESPNLosAngeles.com by saying, "The Lakers are in the assets-acquiring business."
The Lakers are approximately $8 million over the luxury tax line, so there are other ways they could get under without dealing Gasol.
Some combination of Steve Blake's $4 million expiring deal, Chris Kaman's $3.2 million contract or Jordan Hill's $3.5 million cap figure, along with a lesser contract or two, could accomplish the goal of getting under the luxury tax level of $71.7 million.
In the past, the Lakers simply swallowed hard and wrote a luxury tax check out to the league annually as sort of the cost of doing business when you're trying to perpetually field a contender, but under the new collective bargaining agreement, there is a far more punitive "repeater" luxury tax fee that a team has to pay unless it gets under the luxury tax two out of every four years.
While the Lakers' front office team of general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss will be left with the tough decisions to make in the next week, the rest of the Lakers will try to continue to operate like business as usual with a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday and another against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday sandwiching the All-Star break.
"I haven't sensed it," said Blake when asked if there was any nervous energy building in the Lakers' locker room with the trade deadline looming. "Not here, but in past years, you can sense guys can be a little antsy about it. But so far I haven't really sensed it on this team. I think we all, in the back of our minds, know it's a possibility. Especially when a team is losing like we're losing. In this business anything can happen. We don't know, so it's really not worth spending too much time on it."
"We all understand it, we don't really discuss it," Blake said. "I think probably wives and girlfriends think about it more than we do. That's just the nature of it, because it's probably harder on them than us. So, that's kind of where it is."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said it's OK to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
"We talk to individuals," D'Antoni said. "But again, I think when they sign up, they know. We have a good enough relationship with guys, you joke about it, talk about it and just try to get through it."
In a sport where instability is built into its structure with free agency, nonguaranteed contracts and the like, the trade deadline is just a fact of NBA life.
"They know it's part of the business, but there's always a sigh of relief after it's over that you don't have to pack your bags and leave," D'Antoni said.
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