In his twelve year NBA career that has had numerous highs and lows, Pau Gasol has never been a free agent. He has never had suitors aggressive enough and committed enough to buy his services. He has never had to balance his need to make money with his need to win a title with his need to simply be happy. Pau has never had to decide between big market and small city, between NBA champion and team on the rise. And so here he is in the summer of 2014 with a myriad of choices before him, a decision to be made and a future hanging in the balance.
Perhaps this is his last chance to do something great and to be appreciated for it in a way he was never appreciated which seems odd- that a player of his caliber has been tolerated at best, heavily criticized, liked and respected, admired but not really worshiped. Not crazy in love. People admire Pau and are grateful to Pau and want their sons to be Pau but they don’t love Pau like they love Kobe, they don’t love Pau like they love God.
But outside of Los Angeles it’s a different story altogether. The love Pau has always been denied here he is receiving from other teams and players and management who recognize his skill, sacrifice and talent. It’s not that we don’t recognize those things but there has always been a hierarchy in the city of Los Angeles. We want greatness first and always. We want our breath stolen. We want a hero. We want a savior. We want exhilaration. We want personality. We want magical.
Pau delivered a title and he did things right and he did things wrong and he was mortal and he was great and he came through in game 7 against the Celtics and he had a terrible playoff against the Mavericks in Phil’s last year. I could go on and on but what would be the point. Pau wants to be wanted. He wants to be loved. He wants to play for a contender. He has grown weary of Los Angeles. He rejected a 2 year deal for $23 million and a 3 year deal for $29 million. Because of everything the Lakers have put him through can anyone blame him for wanting to turn the page, for desiring another chapter?
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were first in line to sell Pau on changing addresses. The Durant/Westbrook duo were the primary drivers of a team that went to the Western Conference Finals. But as high achieving as they are in their individual brilliances Durant and Westbrook lost the series to the Spurs because they did not have a skilled big man to share the burden. Pau would be a perfect fit for their perimeter schemes, opening up lanes for the rest of them, anchoring the defensive skill of Serge Ibaka, creating ball movement for a low assist team. But the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have much money to spend.
The Bulls sent a hallelujah chorus of men to convince Pau too. The city of Chicago could offer Pau cultural benefits similar to the city of Los Angeles where Pau is known to go the opera, eat sushi, hang out at the beach and drop in at the world class Children’s Hospital. Pau plays basketball for a living but he is also interested in culture and medicine and healing sick children. Chicago has all of that plus a team with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah that had the NBA’s best record three years ago. With Pau and Noah in the frontcourt the Bulls would be the favorites in the East.
The Spurs have given Pau a similar argument about winning and championships even if their city is not what the Barcelona native is used to. Tim Duncan and Pau, with the passing talent of Boris Diaw, would further entrench the Spurs as the most unselfish team in the NBA. Their identity is exactly who Pau is as a person, giving, selfless, kind. Really, it is a perfect match, one champion going to another.
Those are the players. They have all come to speak to Pau Gasol, to romance him and to dine him and to woo him into crossing the line. But sometimes things just don’t make sense; they don’t. After two years of suffering under Mike D’antoni, of being marginalized and disrespected, Pau Gasol is the third most wanted man in the NBA.
Seven years is a long time to be in one city, to be associated with any one organization. Pau was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks and traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001. He still holds all the Grizzlies records in rebounds, points and blocks. Six years later he was traded to the Lakers and he went to three straight NBA Finals and won two titles. He came to the Lakers as good player and he is leaving the Lakers as a star. He was the difference maker with his skill in the paint, his ease and effortless touch around the rim, his mid range jumper, his footwork and post moves.
But what people will remember about Pau is his loyalty. The Lakers tried to trade him a dozen times and Pau remained true to them. He was devalued and demeaned by Mike D’antoni and only when it was nearing a particularly bitter and ugly end did Pau fight back.
The choices are now the Chicago Bulls or the San Antonio Spurs. The Bulls work only as a sign and trade and there is no one the Lakers want from Chicago, especially not a slow and descending Carlos Boozer. The Lakers signing of Jordan Hill pretty much took a Carlos Boozer deal off the table. Besides, why should the Lakers bail the Bulls out. Let them amnesty Boozer and if they Lakers want him they can bid for him off the waiver wire.
The Spurs seem logical. They are the defending NBA champions. They are continually looking for ways to upgrade their front line with big men who enjoy passing the ball, who want to make plays for others. Their ego-less team fits in with Pau’s ego-less nature and even though there is no confusing San Antonio with Los Angeles, if he signs with the Spurs Pau will be able to enjoy these last years in the NBA. San Antonio fans wrap their players in love, they take them in as family, they adore them with all of their Texan hearts, they appreciate their presence like they appreciate a gift. It would be 2008 all over again for Pau Gasol. Then, he escaped Memphis, had a 3 month honeymoon until the NBA Finals and Kevin Garnett.
Here, in this city, playing for the Lakers, you always have to prove you belong. There is no immunity. A team with 16 banners is a team that is continuously searching for excellence and so are the fans. Pau was excellent the six years he was here. He was a perfect citizen because not only did he love the city, he loved the people who lived in the city even if they were so-so in their affection towards him. But what more can you ask from a professional basketball player. Three straight years in the NBA Finals. The rewriting of Kobe’s legacy. Turning Phil into the most celebrated coach in NBA history. Meeting expectations to the point we can’t absorb a terrible year.
Pau is the nicest player to walk through the Lakers facility in the last decade. His number will be retired. We will remember him and what he did and how he changed us and what we never said to him that we should have said and how it all went so fast. With Pau leaving only Kobe is left, the last link to a championship era.
Pau, Phil, Fisher. They were here and it was special. Now they are gone. Pau is the last of them to walk out the door and not look back.