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Two years ago, the landscape of the entire NBA changed. Thanks a huge, very lop-sided trade, the Los Angeles Lakers would morph from a team that clung to a low playoff seed thanks to the heroics of their star Kobe Bryant to the best team in the league. The trade, which, in retrospect, isn’t as bad as it seemed at first, brought Pau Gasol over from the Memphis Grizzlies.
Prior to the deal, Gasol hadn’t won a playoff game with the Grizzlies, but he was still one of the best post players in the league. In 2006-2007, Gasol averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 54% shooting in 59 games. Once the trade when down during the 2007-2008 season, in 39 games with the Lakers, Gasol put up 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists while shooting 59% from the field. During this stretch, Pau received a jolt of confidence and was actually playing for attainable success.
With someone that could live up the role of playing second fiddle to Kobe Bryant, the Lakers made a surge to the NBA Finals. However, once they got there, they ran into a more disciplined Boston Celtics team. With Andrew Bynum out with a knee injury, the Celtics made a living off of buckets in the painted area. And because Gasol inherited the starting center spot, he received the label of being “soft.”
It was all anyone could say about the guy for the entire summer. Nobody was reminiscing about Gasol’s amazing performance down the stretch to put the Lakers in that position. It shouldn’t have been a glory fest; he deserved to be scolded for soft play in the Finals. However, he didn’t receive nearly as much credit as he deserved.
As the Lakers once again got back to the Finals last season, now on the winning side when all was said and done, Gasol started to get more and more attention and credit for being one of the best players in the NBA. Period. Not just one of the best power forwards or foreigners, but one of the best all-around players in the league.
With another year under his belt, Gasol was fitting in perfectly with the Lakers’ triangle offense. His skillset was no longer just there, it was being put to use within the offensive scheme and that led to some of the most efficient basketball in the NBA for Pau. However, a better understanding of the triangle offense was not the only reason Gasol started to excel last season. Kobe Bryant has also played a big role in Pau’s growth as a Laker.
At first, in 2008, it was just Kobe and Company. The Lakers were nothing more than a team, while filled with talent and potential, that was focused solely on the play of Bryant. If Kobe had an off night, there was nobody that could step up and play at a championship level in order to make up for Bryant’s mishaps. Part of that is on Bryant. He was still playing with the belief that the Lakers could only win if he went off, a mentality that served as a dual edged sword. If he wasn’t on, he tried to do too much, making it harder on his teammates to have a positive impact on the game. If he was on, he would dominate the ball, leaving less and less room for his teammates to help him out.
Since then, Bryant’s changed up his game. He hasn’t become a more potent distributor; he’s always had the ability to pass the basketball. Kobe simply embraced that skill, perhaps his most important basketball gift, and implemented it in brand new ways that elevated the play of his teammates. Especially Gasol.
Kobe and Pau have combined to form maybe the most lethal 1-2 punch in the entire league, both individually and when they are working as a tandem. Pick and roll, high-low game, isolation. Bryant and Gasol have mastered each section of the game and ever since they put it all together last season against the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals, there hasn’t been an opposing coach that has been able to stop them.
In the pick and roll, opposing defenses have to make a tough choice between allowing Bryant a uncontested (or single contested) short to mid-range jumper, or rotating over to stop Bryant from getting to the cup, leaving Gasol open on a roll to the rim or for a mid-range jumpshot. A simple drive and kick works just as well. Anytime Bryant puts his head down and goes for the hoop, though he is not where he once was athletically, defenses still have to respect his tremendous ability to finish shots creatively at the rim, even if there is contact. If Bryant feels his shot is going to get block or if he has a bad angle, there’s his seven foot buddy Pau waiting patiently to take a perfect jumper from the wing.
As a combo, they can’t be stopped. There isn’t a defensive scheme that can take away every single option for these guys. You can stop them from making the entry pass to Gasol, but there’s a counter. Pau doesn’t have to post up to score, so the Lakers have multiple fallbacks if there initial plan doesn’t go over smoothly.
But let’s not forget how great Gasol is as his own player. For years Kobe endured the criticism that he was not able to win without Shaq. Bryant was the #2 option on that team (except in the fourth quarter) so, up until last year, the line “Kobe can’t win without Shaq” was uttered thousands of times.
There is no question that Bryant is the ring leader of this current Lakers squad. He’s the one that pushes everyone to exceed their own abilities, who makes his teammates better than they are, and who leads with a cerebral mindset that is unmatched by anyone in today’s game. That being said, Gasol’s better than just a second fiddle.
He’s better than what most perceive him as. Yes, he’s the second option on this team, but, just like Bryant on the ’00-’03 Lakers, Gasol is not just the second best player on his team. He’s one of the best players in the league in his own right.
This post-season, Pau has come through time and time again for the Lakers. When Kobe wasn’t on his game against Oklahoma City in Game 3 (10-for-29 for 24 points), Gasol was there, putting in work, going for 17 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. Even though it was a loss, the Lakers finished within five thanks to Pau. When Kobe missed the baseline fallaway in the final seconds of Game 6, Gasol was there to tip the miss home, capping off a poor shooting night by making the most important shot of the post-season. And when Kobe dropped 32 on Utah in Game 4? Pau actually outscored him. 32 for Bryant on 11-of-23 shooting while Gasol had 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting with 14 rebounds (seven offensive). That kind of game shows both Kobe’s development as a teammate and Gasol’s ability to perform despite getting limited touches.
All of Gasol’s skills have been on full display in these games. Pau has faced a variety of different defenders this post-season from Jeff Green to Carlos Boozer to Paul Millsap and now Amare Stoudemire, and none of those guys have been able to stop him.
He’s got the mid-range jumpshot, which he makes efficiently from the baseline, the free throw line and either wing. He’s effective with either hand. He can left in from left block and toss in a right handed floater, or he can turn baseline and dunk on you with the left hand. He can drive to the basket, absorb contact and put in a runner. He can run off of a pindown screen, normally set by Ron Artest, catch the ball eight feet from the hoop and hit a fadeaway jumper. In transition, Gasol is lethal. Pau fills the lane as well as any other bigman in the league on the break and his length allows him to catch a lob at the rim or dunk the ball on the run.
And, that’s not all. He isn’t just a scorer.
Gasol’s ability to pass out of the post is just unfair. Gasol is already fantastic at successfully contributing offensively from the free throw line out, so when you put him within 10 feet of the hoop and give him passing lanes, you’re done for. Gasol is such a gifted talent on the post and that goes beyond scoring. He’s so tall and long that he can see and pass over any defender in the painted area. Because he has a wide variety of moves that cannot be guarded by any one player, the middle of the paint is left open for cutters like Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom.
When Oklahoma City fronted the Lakers bigs, Los Angeles answered by facing up Gasol from 15 feet and allowing him to: a) take the shot, b) reset the offense by giving it Fisher or Kobe, or c) find Odom on a dive to bucket or hit Bynum with a high lob at the hoop. It worked perfectly.
In 12 playoff games, Gasol has averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 58% shooting from the floor. Those numbers surpass his production from the 2008 post-season (17 points, nine boards, four assists on 53% shooting) and last year’s (18 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks on 58% shooting). Gasol has a 26.59 PER for the playoffs, which ranks fourth in the NBA. The three guys ahead of him, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, all played in less games, making it easier for them to sustain a high PER, played more minutes and had a higher usage rate than Pau. In fact, Gasol ranks 37th in the league for usage rating this post-season and he has still posted the most efficient numbers of anybody left in the playoffs.
For two years now, anytime Kobe Bryant is asked of Pau Gasol, there is a good chance he says Gasol is still underrated despite possessing all of the skills, numbers and accolades of a superstar. And he’s still right. I have started to recognize his immense talent but it’s a shame others haven’t. The Lakers are well on their way to their second straight NBA Championship and their third straight Finals appearance and Kobe has a whole lot to do with that. But don’t underrate Pau’s value to this team. He’s been more than a wingman for Bryant, he’s been the best big man on the planet. And Kobe’s out to make sure you know that for a fact.
Pau Gasol Photo Credit: Icon SMI