May 9, 2011, 9:56 AM EDT
He won two titles for them. Yes, the Lakers had improved tremendously in 2007-2008 , but without him, they never would have made it to the Finals, nor won them the next two. It was only eight months ago that he was called “the best big man in the league” and touted as a possible MVP candidate.
So before we get to the business of burying Pau Gasol for arguably the most disappointing performance by a Lakers star in NBA history, we should take note. The crushing disappointment of failing to close out the three-peat, the seemingly inevitable glorious end to Phil Jackson’s coaching career, the cementing of the Lakers as the winningest team in the NBA with their 18th title, all of these expectations would not have been possible or reasonable without Gasol’s contributions. So before we start to flambe his role in this disaster, we had better recognize that Pau Gasol has been an incredible player for the Lakers, and a huge debt of gratitude is owed to him for his contributions to the Lakers’ title runs.
Now that we’ve said that… man, did Pau get punked.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Perhaps more than anything, the notion that Pau Gasol can be this teams next great leader was swept away. His sudden and odd postseason disappearance was the most obvious reason for the Lakers troubles, his fall completed Sunday when he scored 10 points while being pushed around by everyone but his coach, who thankfully refrained from hitting him for a second consecutive game.
“I have to learn from this,” Gasol said. I have to learn that when something happens off the court, you have to keep it off the court.”
He was referring to the report that he stopped talking to Bryant during the postseason because Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, had contributed to the breakup of Gasol and his longtime girlfriend. Lakers fans will remember that Karl Malone once publicly accused Vanessa of interfering with his personal life in a similar fashion.
Gasol denied Bryant’s involvement in the situation in an alternate report, but the shady nature of the rumor and Gasol’s response to it blends in with this L.A. nightmare. The bigger problem is that even though breaking up with your fiance is a rough, rough thing to go through, especially when it’s tinged with public scrutiny, it won’t matter. Just like fans and media revolt at the idea of it being a worker’s right to change jobs or locations once his contract is available, despite it being totally acceptable outside of sports, so too will they reject the notion that a significant disruption in one’s personal life is an acceptable cause for failure. All of Gasol’s previous efforts and triumphs are being rewritten as more to do with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson (who has bizarrely escaped much scrutiny in this disaster, despite most of the problems being directly in his wheelhouse, effort, motivation, mental focus, etc.). The calls are out there to trade Gasol and bring in someone tougher. Gasol’s soft touch has always bugged Lakers fans. You want your big man to throw it down, not tap it in; to reject the opponent, not faintly contest. But the biggest reason he’s being flogged for all of this?
He really was that bad. He’s been badly outplayed in these playoffs by his younger brother Marc, whose Grizzlies hold a 2-1 series lead over the second-favorite Thunder. And everything the younger Gasol has shown (toughness, tenacious attack, physicality, and that soft touch that proves so effective) is what the elder lacked. He was bullied by Tyson Chandler, abused by Dirk Nowitzki, and his string of mistakes seemed to feed off themselves. Blown passes, mishandled catches, missed layups, botched tip-ins, Gasol was outworked, out-hustled and looked older than his birth date would suggest.
Being a No.2 on a team is difficult, you have to be great without getting all the credit. But you’re also counted on to be the emotional and physical leader when the star is too bogged down with his responsibilities. Gasol found out the hard way what happens when things don’t fall exactly right, and if the talk of a Lakers’ blow-up is accurate, it could be a lesson that shows him out of town.
We won’t forget what Gasol did for the Lakers to get them two titles and three consecutive Finals appearances. But we also won’t forget how when the going got tough? The Gasol got got.