His difficulties cannot be hidden. He cannot do what he used to do, not at his age, not against younger, more athletic bodies. He has lost a level of explosiveness. His elevation is affected by injuries. Add to that he is not American born, not raised in a cultural world that honors winning over everything. Lately Pau Gasol appears abandoned. The very nature of his game, his incredible skill, has been left behind somewhere. There is a line that is crossed when you realize you have left the world of greatness behind and are just another good player. That is the world Pau Gasol has just entered.
These days Pau treats every offensive possession as if he no longer has the ability to see his hands. He has lost confidence. He runs from the ball and from the moment. He admits to being a changed player. But there is a distinction to be made between a loss of elevation and a death of desire. Pau used to have an expression when he was on the court, a fierceness that seemed to bleed from his eyes. It was the only way you knew of the fire he had inside of him. Now he has the blank stare of someone who is not connected to much of anything anymore. It is similar to the passive look he had when he was playing out the days in Memphis. Perhaps that is what it has come to now, this twelfth year in the NBA. Pau is waiting it out, going through the hardships of a grueling season by remaining aloof and detached just in case what is coming is a disaster. He has the look of a person who is satisfied he got this far.
Mike D’antoni made it clear his thoughts on Pau before the season began. Pau had to have an All Star year. Only then would the Lakers meet their goals. In the first game of the season, matched up against DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, Pau shot 41%. His shots were on the perimeter. In Pau’s next six games he was either competent or terrible. He shot 50%, 47%, 27%, 44%, 10%, 25%. His turnovers were just as erratic. He started with five. Then he had three, two, three, zero, three, zero. The consistent thread running through all of his stats is that Pau is still an effective rebounder. Through the first six games he is averaging ten rebounds. But is that all he is now, a rebounder? Is that the best thing you can say?
His career average is 51% shooting, 18 points, 9 rebounds. This year as the primary offensive threat he is shooting 35%, averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds. Blink and a great player becomes an ordinary player. A player’s worth is suddenly corrupted. Of all the centers in the NBA only Portland Trailblazer center Robin Lopez (40%fg, 5pts, 4 rebounds) is worse than Pau, and even Robin is shooting better than Pau.
Pau’s bread and butter has always been his offensive skill set, his array of moves, his competency. Unlike Dwight Howard, Pau could get you a bucket when you needed one most. Until recently that is. He is woefully compromised. He cannot score. Outside of Tim Duncan, Pau is the most skilled big man of his generation. Duncan is 37 and is still as effective and as motivated as he was five years ago. His desire has not died.
Pau’s skills seemed to have eroded overnight. He looks like some watered down version of a European center. He has struggled for a variety of reasons. It has been a tough early schedule. Pau had to go up against Andrew Bogut and Tiago Splitter, both seven feet and younger. He had to defend athletes like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis. Once again, younger players. Recently, Chris Webber said Pau was no longer an elite player and it is hard to argue with that evaluation. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Pau has been playing basketball a long time. Pau has a variety of global interests away from his basketball career. Perhaps he has reached that point in his career in which it is just not that important to him anymore. Perhaps he is old; when big men go they go in a hurry. Perhaps his knees are shot. Perhaps he is exhausted from all the scorn. Watching him these last three games has been a lesson in grief. It is watching a person trying to hang on to something that they themselves have buried. Sure, the 35% shooting nights, the blocked shots, the turnovers, seem to signal a significant change for the worse but what Pau did these past three games that was truly stunning was to play as if he did not want to be there.
There is a theory. It says Pau is dependent upon Kobe. He needs Kobe’s willfulness and drive and punishment. Kobe makes him better because Kobe elevates Pau from the inside out. Beneath a perfectionists glare Pau is able to rise to another level, to ratchet up his intensity. Without Kobe on the floor, playing with a group of good guys but average players at best, Pau wanders in and out of games, losing focus. Once Kobe returns Pau will return. That is what many think. That is a reasonable explanation to what we have been seeing but there is something a little disturbing about a veteran who cannot take advantage of an opportunity. With Dwight gone and with Kobe gone Pau was expected to assert his will and excellence upon opposing centers.
There is a competing theory. When Kobe is on the floor he makes up for other players flaws and mistakes. The consequence of his brilliance is that everything revolves around him. You just don’t notice the rest of it. Maybe this is the natural Pau progression that we had not given much thought to or even noticed until the glare of Kobe was gone.
It is easy to overact to what you see. Phil Jackson used to have a rule. Don’t judge a team until twenty games. That is when you know what you have and what you don’t have. It makes sense and yet a lot of life is an eye test. You know what you know because you see what you see. In Pau we see disinterest and age and a bridge to nowhere. He is not posting up anymore, not even setting up on the block. You cannot blame D’antoni’s offense. Jordan Hill does not seem to have a problem asserting himself close to the rim.
In a way it seems like a trick, like something not true. He is the Lakers co-captain. Before the first game of the season Pau greeted the fans and talked about having a great year. He is the one who is supposed to be holding things together until Kobe’s return. He is the two time champion. By the very nature of his accomplishments, he is the one person who is supposed to set the tone, maintain confidence, encourage the defeated, provide the glue. But of course to do all that he has to care. It is the basic value of competition. It has to mean something to you. At this point it is irrelevant if he is an elite player or not. The question remains: is he a competing player? An effective player? A motivated player?
Anyone can have a stretch of bad games. It happens as you get older. But Pau’s body language on the court seem to suggest something else, that he is not playing hard, not playing for himself, not sacrificing for his teammates. He talks about the things he needs to do to compensate for what has been lost over the duration of his career. But even then, in his analysis, there is a sense that he is intellectualizing his faults instead of trying to overcome them. It is as if he still doesn’t understand that what the Lakers need out of him is fight, and grit. And a lot of heart. But this is the thing that is more overwhelming for Pau and for the Lakers too. Ten years ago basketball was one thing. Today it is another. Pau may never ever be what he used to be. What you see now may be all there is.