The Pau Gasol Exception


Apr 9, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) and shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) in the second half against the New Orleans Hornets at the Staples Center. Lakers won 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It has been six years since he planted his flag on the Los Angeles beach. It has been two years since he was traded to Houston and, for basketball reasons, not traded. There are four days remaining before anything is official yet. This much is true: the melodrama that has overwhelmed Pau Gasol’s basketball life is coming to a quiet close only because it is losing its oxygen. Either Pau will be traded before Thursday’s deadline to a team willing to give up a first round draft pick in 2013 or he will play seven more weeks as a Los Angeles Laker and then who knows what happens for the rest of his career. The Lakers prefer a trade and at the same time they are reluctant to make a trade because Pau Gasol breathed life into the organization in 2008 and cemented their championship identity. He anchored three title runs. He made it possible for Kobe to best Shaq, for Phil to best Red Auerbach, for the Lakers to best the Celtics in game 7- Pau had 18 rebounds in that game, 8 offensive, 8 defensive. None of this was on the shoulders of Pau when he came here in a brilliantly shocking but timely transaction but all of it he carried as a burden even as he will never be the face of a franchise. He will never be appreciated but he will never be forgiven either for not being tough and physical, the sort of street fighter Americans love to imagine they are. Yet in his own way Pau is the heart of the Lakers organization. He is their kindness and generosity and also their frustration. He was coached these last two years by someone who does not appreciate his talent and Pau could not hide his antipathy. All of this happened in six years, the brilliant and the impulsive, the excellent and the important. And now the Lakers have to try to convince other teams that this player they do not want any more has some sort of value left in his aged, frequently injured body.

This is the truth of Pau, what is not spin, not in dispute. He has excelled as no European player ever has; he is a Hall of Famer. Drafted by the Hawks and traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, he was Rookie of the Year. He is the all time leader for the Grizzlies in efficiency, total rebounds, blocks and points. In their inaugural year in the musical rib loving city of Memphis, Pau was their first star, his career began when the Grizzlies career began. Three years later he took them to the playoffs where he could not win a single playoff game which started in motion the whispers: Pau cannot carry a team. But he is only 33 years old and is still skilled in the post. He averages ten rebounds a game and even though his shooting percentage is no longer 50% a lot of that is the product of a system that does not appreciate what he has to offer. He has three more years left, give or take, of being a double double low post scorer and he is a two time champion. He was humiliated by Kevin Garnett in 2008 then dominated Dwight Howard in 2009 and got his revenge against Garnett in 2010. He excelled playing with Kobe, they established a brotherly bond that is unbroken even as Kobe is difficult to play with (his own admission.) Pau understood Kobe’s willfulness and drive. If he can thrive with Kobe he can thrive with just about anyone.

But. He has lost explosiveness and more importantly lift. He cannot elevate anymore. Rarely does he finish in traffic. He is a finesse player who struggles with physicality. He does not block shots. He is not athletic enough to get offensive rebounds. He is a passive player a lot of the time and he is at the age where injuries set in. His knees, foot, groin, lungs. It is always some new body part preventing him from playing well. Besides all of those things, Pau is too nice on and on off the court. He hears his critics and sometimes plays as if he has been tortured. Come summer he is a free agent so he is a rental player.

The Lakers counter. They say Pau is an exception to the rule, the rule being when big men disappear they go fast, their career does. The Lakers talk of his reward. He is seven feet tall and takes up space in the paint. Yes he is an older player with injuries but he is healthy now and whoever he goes to will have a free two months to try him out. He may fit into a championship system. Besides he is tough. You have to be to play with Kobe for six years, for Kobe to love you to the point of begging any organization not to trade you.

It is all a game of chess, of back and forth. Of he said, he said. At stake is a first round draft pick and at stake is a tax bill and at stake is the final admission that six years have come and gone and it is time to start over. The Lakers are tireless supporters of their Hall of Fame Players, giving them the benefit of the doubt and allowing them to decide when it is the end. In Jerry West’s last year he shot 44%, his worst since his rookie year as was his 20 points a game. In Wilt Chamberlain’s last year his 13 point average was a career low even though he still pulled down 18 rebounds. But that was a far cry from his career best of 50 points and 27 rebounds. In Kareem Abdul- Jabaar’s last year he averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds and shot 45%, all career lows. But he was 42 years old. Pau, at 33, is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds even as he is playing the fewest minutes of his career since his third year in the league. Clearly he has more left but is that even the point? Perhaps Pau was a rental player for the Lakers after all, a six year rental.

Nostalgia is an illusion. You look back and you think you remember the truth, but what you remember are moments pressed into a subjective reality. The truth is what is happening right now. Pau used to be unstoppable. But then his knees and his feet began paying the price for his dedication both here and in Spain. Now he is a good player but not a great player and they are some who say he was never great, that he was always dependent on a larger, more aggressive ego to push him into his destiny. But imagine the Lakers without him, go ahead, imagine what might have happened had Pau not saved games for the Lakers because of his size and skill and determination, imagine the impact of Kobe’s career had this gift not fallen into his lap, imagine the black cloud that hovered over the Lakers in 2007 continuing for four of five years. That’s right, Kwame Brown could still be here. Pau is easy to love but easier to hate and blame, to lay it all upon him, every loss, every mistake, every sorrow. But the hardest thing he has ever done was playing here and failing and the hardest thing he has ever done is playing here and succeeding. And the hardest thing left to do is to leave. The Lakers are trying to make it happen if the circumstances are right. They hold all the cards. And all Pau can do is wonder what is next for him, what awaits in the future, where does his career go next.