Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
Pau Gasol has played his last game in a Laker uniform.
Two ignominious second round playoff exits have left the league’s most historically dominant franchise searching for a scapegoat- which they have found, at least for now, in the soft-spoken, do-everything forward/center who had only recently reinvigorated the Laker brand.
Many factors are contributing toward Gasol’s impending exit from Lakerland- the sudden rise of occasionally dominant anti-hero Andrew Bynum has made his post role redundant- particularly with the scrapping of the triple-post offense in which Gasol thrived, and the grotesque contract of Kobe Bryant has made Gasol’s salary an unaffordable, untenable luxury under the new salary cap rules. Conventional wisdom states that he will surely be shipped out for some combination of draft picks and role players before the summer’s end.
Gasol’s departure not only marks the end of an age in Los Angeles, but the dissolution of one of the unlikeliest and most harmonious marriages in recent sports history between he and Kobe Bryant. Pau, like no player before him, understood Kobe’s game and matched him, if not in murderous intensity, in basketball IQ, commitment to fundamentals and passion for the minutia of the game. The five year pairing of Bryant and Gasol would come to define the prime of both players, and it’s undoing will serve as yet another sign that a new era is firmly upon us.
Hit the jump for the rest of Martin’s piece…
I was in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan when news of the Lakers’ trade for Pau Gasol broke on ESPN. The bartender turned up the volume, and I stood, slack-jawed, taking in Stephen A. Smith breathlessly delivered and now famous “It’s KWAME BROWN” speech.
For Laker fans the world over, February 1 2008 became a dividing day marking the end of a long stint (by Laker standards) in the wilderness following recalcitrant superstar Center Shaquille O’Neill’s destructive exodus from Los Angeles. In flipping brick-handed perpetual disappointment Kwame Brown for versatile basketball genius Gasol, the Lakers immediately re-took their seat at the table as perpetual contenders. As importantly, Laker management had finally found what was seen at the time and for years thereafter as the perfect compliment for their cerebral, mercurial, hypercompetitive superstar guard, Bryant. Fueled by mutual admiration and harmonious on-court styles, the duo led the Lakers to three straight finals appearances and two championships, reviving legacies that had hitherto been flagging.
Gasol’s controversial trade to the Lakers paid immediate dividends, with he and Bryant leading the Lakers to the 2008 NBA finals (an unthinkable accomplishment a year prior) where they were nonetheless defeated by a superior Boston Celtics squad. Gasol was showered with criticism- labeled “soft” and unfit to lead the Lakers to a title against the Kendrick Perkins of the world. To the surprise of pretty much everyone, Kobe Bryant, who had famously spent close to a decade calling out teammates (one in particular) through the media for laziness, softness and other sins against The Kobe System, had Pau’s back. In interview after interview, Kobe spoke about his teammate in reverent, almost lovestruck terms. When he stated in July of 2009 that “Pau Gasol is my favorite player”, one got the sense that it was not just reflexive teammate boosterism, but a sincere statement of fact. “Pau Gasol has a versatility that is unmatched”, Kobe gushed, “he can post, shoot, use his left and right hand, drive from the free throw line, can dribble, run a break, make free throws, pretty much everything.” Kobe had found his basketball soulmate- a player who could think about the game on the same level that he did, who could inhabit the read-and-react triangle offense with the same improvisational virtuosity as he always had, and on whom he knew he could count when the moment mattered.
Pau responded to Kobe’s positivity and vote of unconditional confidence with a welcome if surprising development to his game: toughness. He found his chest-pounding, board-crashing inner junkyard dog, leading to two consecutive championship runs- for which many people believe he deserved at least one Finals MVP. Though never feared leaguewide the way he would have been as a “first option”, Pau was beginning to get the vocal recognition he had earned as “the most skilled big man in the game”, with a finesse offensive skill set rightfully acknowledged as the class of his generation.
Kobe, too, had begun to change for the better. Like in any healthy marriage, Bryant’s partnership with Pau resulted in a sincere desire to better himself. Kobe had always been a maniacal, lifelong devotee to self-improvement, but this was different. Pau was able to inspire the one quality in Bryant that had always eluded him, even during the first three-peat with Shaq: ungrudging trust. During their three consecutive finals appearances, Kobe’s game shifted from desperate, mad-eyed volume scorer to that of a vocal, three-dimensional leader, contributing anything and everything that his team needed. While he may have partially reverted back to his old self since that time, the two championships that Bryant won with Gasol resulted in a total reevaluation of his place in basketball history. Even the always Laker-hostile Bill Simmons of ESPN crowed about Kobe’s embrace of “the secret”- Simmons’s amorphous formula for historic greatness. Suddenly, with two more titles, Kobe had been elevated from a hyperathletic scoring phenom who had been fortunate to ride Shaq’s coattails to a top-10 all time player, second greatest at his position and sharing honors with Tim Duncan as the dominant player of his era.
It was never a perfect partnership. Over the course of their five year pairing, at their worst, Pau’s passivity would goad Bryant into 2006-style gatling-gun takeover mode (which at his age, he could no longer effectively pull off) which would in turn morph the naturally deferential Gasol into a sulking, disengaged, loping non-entity on the court, shying from contact, overpassing and getting decimated on defense.
But at their best, Gasol and Bryant constituted the league’s deadliest high-low duo, melding their respective basketball brains into a private game of multi-dimensional chess, all diving cuts and touch passes, anticipating one another’s movements and picking defenses apart. They played like brothers who had grown up on the same court, speaking their own bizarre twin language of basketball savantism.
The question must be begged- why in fifteen seasons was it Pau Gasol alone who was able to untangle, albeit for a brief shining moment, the Kobe enigma? What was it about Pau’s game, personality or temperament that made him such a perfect fit with a player who mimicked nearly every element of Michael Jordan’s oeuvre? Surely Lamar Odom, who fit the Scottie Pippin template to a tee- and who was brought in to serve just that purpose- would have been the more logical sidekick. One theory suggests that Kobe Bryant, at his core, is more a European player than an American one. Raised abroad, he learned to play the game on the courts of Italy, learning the language to the point of fluency (and later Spanish.) His commitment even as a teenager to footwork, textbook shooting form, movement without the ball and other on-court fundamentals was surely more evocative of the European method than American AAU-style lob-fests. His return to Philadelphia to play high school ball again cast him as an alien- a foreign-raised African-American kid at an almost entirely white suburban school. From there, he forewent the chance to assimilate with kids of his own age and skill range at Duke, instead choosing at 17 years old to challenge the world’s best players- grown men- in the NBA. His few attempts at culture/age/race appropriate posturing (his rap single, his stoic interview style) smacked of effort and inauthenticity. While he certainly settled into himself as his career progressed and became more comfortable in his own skin, it wasn’t until he paired with the Catalonian Gasol that it became clear what had been in front of our noses all along: Kobe Bryant plays euroball. And in Gasol, he finally had a running mate who spoke his language, both literally and figuratively.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will likely never wear the same uniform again. The most likely outcome for each player, respectively, is that Gasol will toil in obscurity for a lottery team, putting up 20 and 10 as a first option, while Kobe will chase the all-time scoring record but never get a sniff at another title. Unlike the famous implosion of the Kobe/Shaq duo, this is not a premature parting of ways. The scuttling of the Triangle offense that the two players made sing, along with Kobe’s advancing age and untenable contract make this a natural ending point to a mini-dynasty. Not to be mourned but certainly to be appreciated.
It makes an interesting wrinkle to the upcoming London Olympics, where Gasol’s Spanish national team is expected to meet Kobe’s Americans in the gold medal game. Though they’ll be facing opposite one another, watch for the mutual recognition of brothers in arms. I know I will.