Suddenly it is here, the near end, the almost goodbye. Pau Gasol, after six years, is closer and closer to freedom while being farther away from a playoff berth. It has happened to him before so in one way this type of sorrow is familiar and sobering. He lost fifty nine games in 2001. He lost fifty four games in 2002. As a 20 point scorer, he lost sixty games. He lost fifty eight games in his seventh year as the face of the Memphis Grizzlies. It was all a twisting, brutal experience that had him perplexed. Other players were saviors, why wasn’t he? And so here he is again, the European seven footer who has amazed with his skill. He is in his thirteenth season and on pace to lose fifty games again.
He never thought he would have a season this grim, a eyes wide shut sort of year, the kind of year in which there was no escape, no freedom, no refuge, no Kobe limelight to hide behind, his coach not trustworthy. His nature is one of hope and kindness. It is all he has left now. Everything has gone so wrong. And even though he did not want to be traded- he wanted to finish out his Lakers contract- it is going to end much like it started. In 2008 he was humiliated by Kevin Garnett losing in the NBA Finals by 35 points. In 2014 he was humiliated by Mike D’antoni losing nearly every game he played.
There is no pretty way to end this and the truth is the ending does not even matter anymore. Pau’s frustration and his inability to hide his agony grows exponentially. Pau Gasol and the Lakers management share a certain symmetry. They are at the same place and not particularly proud of the other. Neither wants to be reminded of the past. Neither has the desire to go down some road that is nostalgic or romantic or just plain lame- a remembering of what Pau did in 2009 or a remembering of what he did in game 7 in 2010. Still it is true that once upon a time the Lakers were all that Pau Gasol ever wanted, and when he first came here his ambition was fulfilled. He had so much pride. Much of it has disappeared after the pitiful nature of these past two years.
But if nothing else this is a fluid world, always changing. One game replaces another, one season lords over all others, players come and players go. This year Pau had to endure everything, next year he may have to endure nothing. To put it in perspective, six years is a long time to play anywhere. Most players have short careers, most players are traded, most players never win anything. But what has happened to Pau Gasol in the six years he has been a Laker is that the game has changed dramatically to such an extent that players like Gasol can no longer count on the regular passage of time, of twenty four hours. They are slowly and methodically becoming extinct, these big man who play in the paint, who are skilled offensively with an array of moves, who rebound but do not block shots. For them, the NBA’s underclass, it is the 25th hour, the hour between being free and being marginalized and being no one special anymore.
Only a handful of teams in the Western Conference run their offense through their power forward: the Clippers, the Blazers, the Mavericks, the Grizzlies. That is slightly less than 3% of the teams in the West. The rest run a guard oriented offense, a pick and roll game where the guard dominates the ball and the play. He is the hero or he is the villain and he is also everything in between. It is a great responsibility and yet these athletic guards reap extraordinary rewards even as the game is an unrecognizable version of itself. It is certainly not the way Pau was taught basketball should be played. Execution and ball movement and the inside out game is replaced by small ball. Explosiveness and athleticism are the holy grail and post scoring has been diminished. It is true. Mike D’antoni has had a powerful effect on the NBA without having won much of anything. The NBA has transformed itself into a hybrid game of three point shots and lob passes and dunks. In this emerging landscape Pau does not have a country, he does not have a homeland, he does not have a language, he does not have an identity.
As he looks forward to being a free agent he has to face a grim reality. He will be 34 years old this upcoming season, beginning his fourteenth year. Currently only 25 NBA players are 35 or older. 350 NBA players are thirty or under. So where exactly does that leave Pau. What sort of contract does he deserve? He is still a double double guy but he plays a lackluster defensive game. He does not have much of a lift. He cannot keep explosive players out of the paint and he does not do much in the way of contact to impede their progress. As a defender he has regressed to the point that he is a liability. No longer does height matter. Athletic players use his height against him by dribbling around him, faking him with a head or shoulder shake and putting him in a position in which he can do nothing but foul. Or, they simply out jump him. It is demoralizing and because Pau is an emotional human, when things don’t go well, he plays like he is being tortured. Or, like life is not fair. (It isn’t.) Pau has a hard time getting out of his own head. And when he is double teamed more often than not he turns the ball over.
But that is not even his biggest challenge, this natural descent as a player, the evolution of a skilled seven footer who has suffered foot problems and groin problems. As a free agent, the market for him has narrowed. The teams with money to spend either already have a power forward or want an athletic power forward to compliment their guard play. In the Western Conference four teams have money to spend: the Lakers, Suns, Mavericks and Jazz. But recently Pau said he wants to win a championship. None of those teams are expected to contend next year. And the contenders, the Thunder, the Clippers, the Blazers and the Spurs have no money to spend. Does that mean Pau would take the mid level exception? Or the mini mid-level? Does that mean he would willingly come off the bench? Does that mean he would chase another ring no matter where it was and no matter what his role would be?
The Chicago Bulls may in fact amnesty Carlos Boozer and have some room to sign Pau. If Chris Bosh opts out and leaves for the Lakers or Mavs the Heat will look for a center. But the Bulls and Heat play a defensive oriented, athletic game in which they relentlessly compete in the paint. Their goal is to exhaust you with a defense so smothering and pressure oriented you want to quit. Pau is not that type of player, it is not in his DNA. Besides, as he ages his efficiency has begin to slow down. His last two years he has shot under 50%. Last year was the worst field goal percentage of his career. This year he has taken the second most shot attempts in his thirteen year career but the results have been no better than a shooting guard. He plays offense like he is a six five wing player, not seven feet and the results indicate as much. Of course a good deal of the blame, as far as Pau is concerned, belongs to Mike D’antoni and his small ball philosophy and where he has Gasol launching his offense. Pau is to blame too. He is not aggressive enough and it affects his defense. He has posted the lowest offensive rebounding numbers since he has been a pro.
Very few traditional power forwards exist anymore. There is Tim Duncan. There is LaMarcus Aldridge. There is David West. There is Carlos Boozer. And there is Pau. That is about it. The rest are composites, a little Blake Griffin, a little Serge Ibaka a little Chris Bosh, a little Zach Randolph. You can see where the NBA is going, how it is becoming a quick league, an athletic man’s dream. The NBA cupboards have always been deep, big men were their bread and butter. Not anymore. Perhaps Pau does not realize this. Or maybe he does. Maybe that is what his sadness is really about. Yes, the losing is terrible. Yes, he probably only has six weeks left as a Los Angeles Lakers. But the NBA is a place in which he has no home. That is the cruelest irony of all, the fact that Mike D’antoni and his style of play have actually won. But Pau Gasol has something D’antoni will never have. He has the face of a champion and he has two rings to go along with it.