Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns, among the options being weighed as part of their well-chronicled desire to acquire an established player as they make an unexpected playoff push this season, have been exploring the feasibility of trading for the Lakers' four-time All-Star.
One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor's $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol's $19.3 million.
The Lakers engaged in similar trade discussions in late December and early January with Cleveland in a proposed deal that would have sent Gasol to the Cavaliers for the partially guaranteed contract of ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who then would have been waived to help L.A. save roughly $20 million in salary and luxury-tax obligations.
Those talks, though, broke down because of the Lakers' insistence on receiving another asset of value in addition to the significant financial benefits, only for L.A. to see Cleveland successfully switch gears and trade Bynum to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng.
A trade for Okafor's expiring deal would not save the Lakers as much as a deal for Bynum would have, but it would come with undeniable financial benefits. The $4.8 million difference between Gasol's cap number and Okafor's would immediately drop the Lakers less than $3 million away from the league's luxury-tax threshold, meaning one more smaller deal before the Feb. 20 trade deadline could conceivably be enough to take them out of tax territory completely.
There would also be salary savings involved because insurance began picking up 80 percent of what remains on Okafor's contract once Phoenix passed this season's 41-game midpoint because of a long-term neck injury that has sidelined the nine-year veteran all season.
The Suns are known to be shopping Okafor's contract aggressively in advance of the trade deadline as a means for whoever acquires the 31-year-old to potentially save more than $5 million in salary payouts thanks to the insurance coverage.
The Lakers, though, have been adamant that they won't part with Gasol merely for financial relief, even in a season in which they've slipped into the West's bottom three at 16-31. Lakers officials refused to relent in their talks with Cleveland, convinced that they had other means to get below the luxury-tax threshold before the trade deadline and that Gasol still holds trade value.
Gasol responded by averaging 20.8 points and 11.9 rebounds in January. He's expected to miss the next week because of strained right groin that's not believed to be serious.
How much the Suns would be willing to add beyond Okafor to a potential trade for Gasol, in terms of young talent or draft compensation, remains to be seen. But Suns officials have made no secret of the fact that the team's wholly unexpected 29-18 start -- despite playing without the injured Eric Bledsoe for the last 17 games -- has led to some revisions in their long-term planning.
In mid-December, general manager Ryan McDonough told NBA.com that the Suns are indeed open to trading one (or more) of their possible four first-round picks in the loaded 2014 NBA draft if it meant they could get an impact player immediately.
"We're obviously all looking for stars," McDonough said at the time, "and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available."
The appeal of a Gasol trade is that the Suns would be adding a front-line big man for the rest of the season without impacting their future flexibility to pursue younger stars via free agency or trade. It also gives Phoenix a chance to evaluate Gasol -- as well as acquire his Larry Bird rights -- before he becomes a free agent in July to assess whether he's a long-term fit.
It's believed that the Suns, knowing that a franchise-type talent is unlikely to become available between now and the deadline, like the idea of acquiring a proven veteran of Gasol's caliber who won't slice into the club's projected cap-space riches in this and future summers.
The Suns acquired Okafor from Washington shortly before the start of the season in a deal for center Marcin Gortat, which also brought a first-round pick to Phoenix.