Who is Pau Gasol?

This trade has since been killed by the NBA. – Ed.

As I write this, a three-team deal that would make Chris Paul a Laker, Pau Gasol a Rocket, and Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom, and Luis Scola all Hornets is reportedly being finalized. More details are available to publish, but right now they aren’t important. What is, from the perspective of basketball fans in Houston, is this: Can Pau Gasol be a franchise player? The question is convoluted in that both pro and non believers have firm arguments, yet each must accept truths on opposing sides of the fence. Gasol wasn’t polarizing before the lopsided trade that sent him to Los Angeles. He was appropriately analyzed as being a very good big man, yet one destined to play second fiddle. Evidence of this is one organization suddenly halting its construction of a castle at Gasol’s feet, and instead thinking they’d be better with Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton (…) and some draft picks.

He was a multi-skilled, multi-lingual gentle giant with soft touch and inner warmth for opera; a spare part making over $12 million, not someone who could lead you to a championship. (Gasol was 0-12 in playoff games before being traded to the Lakers.)

That’s how his narrative began. Then the trade to Los Angeles happened, followed by a prompt Kevin Garnett evisceration in the 2008 Finals, and opinions of who Pau Gasol is grew decisive. Is he too soft to play alongside a maniacal sociopath like Kobe Bryant? Can someone who both acts loquacious and uses it in a sentence care enough about basketball to win consistently? Does his worldliness combat the fire all greats who’ve stomached sharp elbows need to persevere. Is Pau too merciful? Or was he just outplayed by one of the greatest, most motivated power forwards of all time?

A 2009 championship did little to snuff out the flames his doubters continued to douse with gasoline. “So what?” they said. “He didn’t get tougher; just lucky no bullies—like Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins—were there to set him in his place.” Pau went about his business with finesse and let Bynum play meadow to Dwight Howard’s tractor. A ring is a ring, yes. But in the eyes of many, if Gasol didn’t beat the Celtics there’d always be an asterisk on his resume. Despite Perkins’ Game 6 series ending knee injury, once the 2010 Finals happened perception shifted yet again. Gasol now had two championship rings. In the biggest game of his entire life, with Kobe Bryant feebly posting what could have been a legacy altering 6-24 performance, Gasol stepped up. He grabbed 18 rebounds (nine offensive!) and asserted himself as the only question Boston’s asphyxia inducing defense had no answer for.

How’s that for slushy spirit? And, more importantly, what did this game mean for Pau Gasol? Throughout his tenure in Los Angeles, television announcers and national writers would routinely refer to him as “The Most Offensively Skilled Big Man in the Game”, meaning for it to be complimentary, of course. But why didn’t they just say he was the best? Or the most dominant? Or the most imposing? It was always the careful word choice of “skilled” that stunk of a backhanded compliment. Even after those playoffs, where he led all players in Win Shares (4.3, that’s good for a series), and rose above three battle tested Hall of Famers, Gasol was still a player who had much to prove—imaginary or not.

In what felt in the eyes of many to be the other shoe dropping, Gasol failed in last year’s playoffs. He shot 42% from the floor (12% less than the year before), and his PER plummeted seven points from 2010. Pau didn’t look like Pau…or did he? Frankly, there’s no way in knowing which is a better representation of the true Pau Gasol, and that’s ultimately why the Lakers deemed him expendable. During the 2010 Finals Celtics radio announcer Cedric Maxwell, a man known for hyperbole, said on the radio he swore Pau Gasol was at least 7’3″. While Gasol, who’s officially listed at 7-feet even, probably isn’t that tall, one thing is for sure. In a game that regards height as its most valued commodity, today he was traded for a player who stands at least a full foot shorter. Now, after departing an era of brilliance that some believe could’ve catapulted him into the Hall of Fame, at 31-years-old, what is Pau Gasol?

Replacing Kevin Martin and Luis Scola’s contracts with Gasol’s opens up some cap space for the Rockets to go hard after another big man: Nene, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, and, yes, Gasol’s brother, Marc, are all technically available. Should one of those players join him, the question of how sturdy Pau’s shoulders are becomes aimless. Morey will have taken the team’s greatest weakness (a talentless center position) and abracadabra’d it into the league’s most brilliant frontcourt. Once again Pau would be a really important spare part, but not a 24/7 dependable superstar.

Until any of that happens, for now, Gasol is the man. And the mystery of how he handles this trade should make Rockets’ fans more nervous than whether or not he’s physically capable of showing those pleasing skills.


Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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