If anything is true it is this: they are the same man twice. They are loved and reviled, scorned and tolerated, rejected and spared. Now they are at odds. Pau Gasol and Mike D’Antoni in this fight of their own making are trying to bury the other. But that is not the worst part. The worst part is how they refuse a cease fire. Each thinks the other is to blame and each thinks the other has failed and each is somewhat angry and a lot of it shows. Perhaps it is the cost of doing business this year when egos are at stake. Pau is in a contract year; nineteen million dollars is a grotesque sum for what he produces. D’Antoni is once again excelling with mediocrity but failing with talent.
Depending on what you believe and or see Pau has not played hard and he complains. Amir Johnson of the Toronto Raptors scored a career high with little resistance from him last Sunday. In the next game, Marcus Morris did the same. And yet it was not a turning point, at least not for Pau. The conventional wisdom is the body goes first then the mind. It was that way with Bird and Jordan and Shaq. With Pau it seems to be in reverse. He has dismissed that part of his mind that forces him to compete. When push comes to shove even his critics admit Pau still has an elegant game. It is the one tangible thing everyone points to as if they are talking of an old man who once ran but now walks up the stairs with a cane. Pau’s offense, instead of being a straight line, is a crooked collection of marks that don’t make sense. His scoring has deviated because of his age but his defensive identity in the paint- the refusal to let someone score on him as a matter of pride- has eroded to the point of bewilderment. If Pau has not changed other than being perpetually bludgeoned by fatigue, if he has not wanted to change, has fought it tooth and nail, the league overruled him. It has shifted on purpose away from the norm, from skill to explosiveness, from post ups to screen and rolls, with one particularly glaring exception. Big men are still asked to be big men, to rebound, to protect the paint, to not shrink.
Rarely does Pau campaign for himself. He wants his on court behavior to speak for itself. Well, okay then. He is shooting 42%, a nothing percentage for someone of his size. Against Phoenix he grabbed 5 rebounds. Against the Thunder and the Bobcats he had 7 rebounds. In fact, in the last ten games he has had double digit rebounds twice. It is no coincidence the Lakers won each of those two games. In the other eight games where he had single digit rebounds the Lakers lost five. That is not the only troubling thing about Pau Gasol and what he has become ever since D’Antoni was hired to coach the Lakers. Pau is often an enemy to himself, entrenched in a vague listlessness and lethargy as he clearly is doing something he does not want to do. So he distorts reality, a big man acting as a guard. He catches the ball fifteen feet from the basket and he does not move, and this is the peculiar part, he is dismayed when his long heave of a shot does not go in.
Pau has admitted to missing Dwight Howard, a physical demanding presence in the paint that hid his own deficiencies. Pau has never been the type of player to take his weaknesses and readjust them into strengths, to want to be complete. When did it happen that he accepted his flaws? Pau was not a shot blocker and was not going to try to be. He was not a physical player and he was not going to try to be. He was not someone who pushed his opponent out of the paint and he was not going to try to be. He stayed in his lane but the lane is shrinking as he is falling backwards into his own biography. Pau has always had a passion for playing for his country, an admirable trait, but this is not his country. It is not. His game is looking closer and closer to what he used to be in Memphis when he wanted out and played like it. He is fond of saying how much he appreciates Los Angeles the city and then he gave an interview to NBA. com where he stated he would not mind returning to Memphis which brings up this sobering point: how committed is he to this season?
Before the game against the Thunder, Mike D’Antoni had a team meeting with the intention of regaining the focus of his younger players after losing Steve Blake for six weeks. And yet, despite his storming of the palace walls, there is something about D’Antoni that it is hard to take seriously. He is an architect of an offense that has never done much besides provide entertainment and he seems fine with that, with alienating an entire base of people who look at Lakers basketball as gatekeepers to past generations. But D’Antoni does what he does. He has a seven footer taking perimeter shots. He has guards shooting behind the three point line. He has no one rebounding the long three point misses his offense creates. He has no mid range shooters. It is all a bit ridiculous as if he just stumbled into basketball.
Over a year ago, D’Antoni accepted the job aware that Pau Gasol was the power forward and then he hated that Pau Gasol was the power forward. He spent two months sabotaging whatever confidence Gasol had left. Gasol, perhaps buoyed by Kobe’s reentry because he has cover now in the ultimate street fighter, is firing back in his quiet though direct way. Kobe is the peacemaker, something no one thought they would ever see. But if D’Antoni is right about one thing it is that Pau needs to impact the game. He can play harder. He needs to play with urgency instead of going through the motions and then shrugging as if to say I tried.
With Kobe back, the stakes for Pau and D’Antoni are different in the sense that Kobe can do what D’Antoni cannot. He will push Pau to the edge of his sanity such as he did last night and it was all so familiar: Kobe yelling at Pau, Pau contrite and obedient. His shooting was not efficient but he blocked four shots including a key last shot possession of Al Jefferson. If Pau has anything left, Kobe in his mania to force Pau to move closer to the basket, will discover it. So Kobe has a new job besides the Lakers point guard scorer, he is the Lakers archaeologist. He is instructed to go find Pau Gasol. Dig him up. Make him respond. Does he still exist besides what we see on the perimeter? Or is it just a figment of our imagination that a seven foot center from Spain was one of the Lakers most dependable players?
If Pau is right about one thing it is that D’Antoni’s offense cannot overcome talent and cannot manage without post play. Perimeter shots come and go, strength and toughness endure. And yet as mediocre as the results have been for D’Antoni he is not getting fired, at least not this season. So that leaves Pau. The idea of trading him is not something the Lakers want to consider even as they may be forced to. There is no getting around the idea that his contract is prohibitive. Someone would have to take on his ridiculous salary and the Lakers would have to take on salary in return which they are vehemently opposed to doing.
This is all a preventable spectacle. Pride is the beginning of all wars and pride is what war destroys. War is the enemy of mankind. When a war ends, when it is forced to end, and someone is thought to have won all those battles in the trenches and someone is thought to have lost everything no one remembers the original point. Epiphanies no longer matter. There is only damage. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 effectively ending the Cold War with Russia. Its crumbling into pieces could not change the fact there had been hostages. And let that be the guide. When this wall goes away between Pau and D’Antoni, when it crumbles around them there should be peace in the rubble but more likely there will just be men ruined by their own selfish desires. Once upon a time they thought they were right. But history will show they were wrong not because they disagreed but because they took it too far.