The Makelele Role and Pau Gasol

Darius Soriano —  December 22, 2010

[picappgallerysingle id=”9035058″]
A while back me and one of my good friends from college and fellow Laker fan, Mike were talking about him contributing some to this site. He’s always had a great sense in looking at basketball and is someone that I try to touch base with throughout the season to talk Lakers and sports in general.  Below is his first offering for FB&G.

Who is Pau Gasol?  What is his role on the Lakers?  Where is he in the pecking order of The Association’s big men?  The elites?  All-time Lakers?

Does it matter? Why are we as fans always questioning this player in particular?

The answer from a broad perspective is because its fun. Part of being a fan is analyzing how good are our favorites. Whether it’s considering Kobe’s status among basketball’s all-time greats, or scrutinizing the importance of Lamar Odom, it’s just what we do.

But Pau seems like an interesting case. He seems to be under constant criticism from Phil, Kobe, the media, and fans.

Although this criticism seems to have quieted some this season, as there was the early MVP talk and his obvious reexamination after the second title in the row. Even the biggest Laker’s hater has to recognize his role in winning back to back to back championships.

For me, Pau as a champion is personified with his bucket at 1:37 of game 7 of last finals. He got the ball at about 17 feet away from the hoop with his back to the basket.  He was guarded by Rasheed Wallace, inarguably one of the best post-defenders ever. Pau backed down Sheed with the dribble, keeping his balance as Sheed brilliantly “pulled the chair”. Pau got to the block and turned baseline to be met with Garnett (another all-time defensive great) and Pierce, pump faked to get Sheed and Garnett slightly out of position (this fake dusted Pierce), and then rise for his high-release turn around jump only to be met with Sheed and Garnett at full extension. Pau then hestitated on the shot and finally released it on the way down (actually down?) to put the Lakers up 6 with 90 seconds left. I felt at the time that shot sealed the game. This wasn’t exactly true, but we all know the outcome.

It’s not a singular event or performance that defines a player. Just as Ron Artest’s heroic game 6 and 7 performances do not trump his consistent defensive energy, this play does not prove to me that Gasol “has what it takes.” Like Artest’s games, it punctuates what I have known by looking at the body of these players’ work.

There have been volumes written about how Pau is soft; he isn’t tough, he wilts under physical play, etc. From my perspective, this analysis has mostly been a mixture of xenophobia, racism, and misunderstanding of the European player. Certainly the criticism of Pau’s pain threshold seems valid. He seems to have missed an inordinate amount of time with the hamstrings last year, while Kobe has played through as much pain as Omar after he jumped out of a terrace in season 5 of The Wire.

Pau is an easy target. He is a 7-foot Spaniard with bad hair, a beard like an eighth grader’s, and has had braces for most of his Laker tenure.  He seems more likely to a character on MTV Made’s episode of “I Want to be a Starter on an NBA Team,” than one of the 10-15 players in the world.  But he is.  The advanced statistics bear this out.  Here is how Pau compares against his elite contemporaries:

Player        From To   PER   TS% TRB% USG%  ORtg DRtg  WS
Chris Bosh    2004 2010 21.2 .570 14.8 24.8  113  106  59.3
Kevin Garnett 1996 2010 23.7 .548 17.1 25.4  111   99  162.4
Pau Gasol     2002 2010 21.8 .570 14.2 23.9  114  105  77.9
Dirk Nowitzki 1999 2010 23.8 .580 13.2 26.9  117  103  144.6

Pau compares favorably to these all-time players, especially when you consider the circumstances of him playing for the Grizz to start his career and then being the second option for 2 years here. Pau is great, elite, but he is just…different. More than him being great, his value to the Lakers comes from how unique his game is (much like Odom).

It’s Pau’s style of play that makes the Lakers so successful. He is the perfect fit in the system because he is the ultimate conduit for the triangle. The length, the vision, and the awareness make him the real fulcrum of our offensive attack. As an aside, calling Pau the fulcrum does not diminish Kobe’s overall importance to the team. Without Kobe, we have nothing.  If a car has an axle but no engine, it goes nowhere.)

What makes Pau so different, foreign, is what makes him so perfect. This is also why he and Kobe seem to have such a strong chemistry. It might be trite to make the European player–soccer analogy, but it is so apt I need to have a go at it. It’s impossible not to explore this corollary when discussing Pau’s ability to move without the ball and his floor vision that expands more than just one pass ahead. Pau, and Kobe to a lesser degree, grew up watching midfielders and strikers, where the American player grew up watching wide receivers and running backs as their secondary sport influences. While American Football skill positions have a singular focus, World Football skill is defined in more than just scoring.

Scoring is the ultimate goal in World Football, but what players offer to a team’s success seems to have a greater value in the analysis of soccer. For example, Claude Makelele is considered to be one of the greatest all-time footballers. He is so influential that he has a position named after him: The Makelele Role. He never scored goals, rarely assisted or even hockey assisted on them, but is central to Premier League titles with Chelsea, Primera Division titles with Real Madrid, Champions League trophies with Real, and a Euro Championship and World Cup trophy with France. Makelele was never the greatest player on his teams. I mean if you look at Real with Zidane, Figo, and Roberto Carlos and them, he wasn’t even close. But he enabled the creative players to be creative, to express themselves, by being in the right position, by being an outlet, and by sometimes subjugating his own talents for the team. He was also a disruptive force in his own right, but his gift was the ability to facilitate greatness in others. Not in the way Nash or Kidd makes Shawn Marion or Richard Jefferson an all-star, but in a subtler way which again makes him as valuable. Makelele was never a star, he does look like a 5’2” Seal (recording artist not sea mammal) which might be a factor, but his winning trumps all.

Pau plays the Makelele role for the Lakers. I’m sure a more likely comparison would be with a striker as we see Pau as a finisher. I thought about it: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, moody, bad hair, lanky, plays for AC Milan, great touch, but ultimately too selfish; Raul, a Spaniard, dark, a facilitator more than a finisher, bad hair, but ultimately too handsome. Emile Heskey, the England target-man seem the most appropriate comparison as he, like Pau has this incredible understanding with teammates and seems to bail them out by positioning, but he just isn’t the winner Gasol is. As looks playing goes, Pau’s striker–self is a cross between Tottenham’s Peter Crouch (lanky and Gruiform) and Man U’s Berbatov (skilled and enigmatic), which is close but really not truthful.

So Makelele it is. I’m sure the Catalan Pau is would see himself as the cultured Xavi or Iniesta (maybe even the 5x defending champion most handsome man in sports: Carlos Puyol, but sorry, you are the short black guy with the bad complexion.

Gasol makes the Lakers great the same way Makelele made his team great: he is there. By there, I mean everywhere. His length, athleticism, positional and situational intelligence make him the ultimate outlet. Whether its Kobe or Lamar penetrating too deep (and then Pau finding the angle that allows them an angle to get to him for the finish) or at the high-post as the initiator of the offense, he is always available.

His value to the Lakers and the their composition may be greater than his value to Golden State or Milwaukee (I know, he would kill on those squads too), and that is why he is an all-time great and unlike Bosh or Stoudemire. They aren’t as good, they aren’t as valuable, and they don’t make their teams into contenders. Gasol does.

-Michael Crowder

Darius Soriano

Posts

37 responses to The Makelele Role and Pau Gasol

  1. Great post.

  2. Pau does always not play with the same intensity, drive and determination as he did in that shot. Pau is a very good player, and a very smart player, but he is too easily frustrated by obstacles that should be expected and overcome. Kobe had a horrible game 7, but still found a way to contribute. That can’t always be said about Pau. And to say that xeonophobia or racism has to do with it, that’s just ignorant. Pau is a finesse player – so the soft label is somewhat justified. And when you pout and cry on the court, like he occasionally does, it feeds into it. Just ask Tim Duncan.

  3. Great read!
    As a swede growing up with european football (soccer) on every channel every day, I can totally relate to the comparisons.
    Hope to see more of you here and of course another 3-peat!

  4. I really want to thank Mike for putting together a great, thought provoking post.

    Pau’s an interesting player to look at because his skill set is so varied and he can impact a game in so many ways. As Mike mentioned, it’s easy to see him as a finisher, but I think we also see how much better this Lakers team is when he’s the initiator from the hub of the Triangle where he’s not only directly setting players up for the score, but kick starting the flow of the offense in general and really getting the team on the right track on that side of the ball.

  5. #2. Flip,
    I wouldn’t call it ignorant at all. Basketball is an American game and its fans tend to place great value in the traits and styles that American players play with on the court. I think it’s fair to question the backlash against the great European and South American players that bring non-traditional elements into the game and wonder where that mindset comes from.

  6. While I, as a total Pau-fan-boy, most definately appreciate every article aiming at singing his praises – I can’t totally agree with the comparison to Makelele. And the fact that they don’t look alike has nothing to do with my objections.

    Sure, they both make their teams better, and sure people (especially casual fans) sometimes don’t fully appreciate what they do – but that’s pretty much where the comparisons stop.

    While Makelele was an all-world defender, Pau is merely a good one. While Makelele was a limited offensive player, Pau is arguably the most lethal big man in the game today.

    If I had to compare Makelele to a basketball player (which is a tricky proposition since the two sports are very different), I’d probably go with Shane Battier. Meanwhile, Iniesta who you also mentioned would be a better comparison for Pau. Although – contrary to popular belief – Andresito is not catalan, and Pau – again contrary to popular belief – actually prefers Espanyol to Barcelona, despite the fact that he played for the latter club; they both share an understated elegance in their games. Not pure passers, nor pure finishers – but a very nice combination of the two. They are also very humble guys off the court. Sure, Iniesta is 5’7 and Pau 7 feet, but since there aren’t too many skilled 7 footers playing soccer, we’ll just have to live with that little discrepancy.

    If we’re talking classic players, I’d probably go with Zidane as a comparison for Pau. (Style-wise ie, Zidane was a bigger star of course.)

    Still – I very much appreciated the article=)

  7. Also, I absolutely agree that xenophobia and ignorance come into play when criticizing Pau. The perfect example is Reggie Miller who, for lack of smart things to say, always try to portray himself as a tough guy by picking on “finesse players”, who, more often than not, happen to be non-american. If I had a dollar for every such platitude about toughness coming from Reggie’s mouth, I could single-handedly finance another stimulus package;)

  8. Great, fun article. The kind of stuff that makes this site so good.

    I’m laughing about this line “Raul, a Spaniard, dark, a facilitator more than a finisher, bad hair, but ultimately too handsome” I’m not sure which guy would feel more insulted.

  9. I don’t recall anyone calling Sabonis soft. or Sarunas Marciulionis. Or Steve Nash. Or Detlef Schrempf. Or Rick Smits. Does anyone call Scola soft? Or Ginobli? What about Pau’s brother Marc? Some of these guys cry just like Pau does, but the soft label doesn’t stick. So where’s the racism or xenophobia? Pau is soft – which I define as someone who can be easily pushed around (mentally and physically). When you pout and mope like he does on the court, you only amplify that impression. It doesn’t happen every game. Pau can play against tough players and I’m sure Pau plays hurt. But Pau’s earned his reputation as soft and it will take more than 1 play or 1 season to change it. With Bynum being out, he knew what to expect – since the summer! That’s the summer he took to rest (which he earned). And he failed to fully prepare himself for it.

  10. #9. I say we just agree to disagree.

  11. Darius,
    I guess we Americans just don’t do subtle very well.

  12. Great piece, hope to see more of your stuff on this site in the future.

    I don’t watch much international soccer so I’m completely unqualified to offer my opinion, but when thinking of Makelele (and reading this article), one player kept popping to mind, and it wasn’t Pau. Andreas beat me to it – I kept thinking of Shane Battier, the No-Stats All-Star.

    To me, there are (and I cringe even as I use this term) “glue guys” who do the intangibles while letting other shine (Shane Battier, for example) and then there are glue-type guys who do the intangibles on top of stuffing the stat sheet and playing a starring role (Scottie Pippen, for example). Pau seems, to me, to fit in the latter category.

  13. Good post.

    @ 9,

    I think all of those guys except for maybe Ginobili and Scola have been called finesse guys, etc. Maybe the exact word “soft” is not used but the same thing is implied. The best comp is one you left out: Nowitzki. You can also add Stojakovic and Vlade.

    Also, Game 7 of the 2010 Finals and Gasol’s work against Howard in 2009 more or less put an end to a lot of that type of criticism. Sounds to me like you just don’t like Gasol.

    I think one off-court reason Pau/Kobe works well is that since Pau is an icon in Spain, there is no copetition to be Top Dog, like there was with Kobe and Shaq. Each of them is “The Man” in his own circles.

    I met an old-school guy from Spain at a conference once who had a Gasol Lakers jersey. He talked about “our great hero, Pau Gasol, and your great hero, Kobe Bryant, joining forces” in very flowery language. It was cool.

  14. I don’t know anything about soccer so I won’t spend time comparing Pau with some guy whose name sounds like a Hawaiian guitar. But I will note my disgust yet again that the East Coast media is again denying the Lakers the credit they deserve for their back-to-back titles.

    From SI.com’s Ian Thomsen:

    “A knee injury to center Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 of the Finals, combined with the lingering ailments of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, weakened the Celtics just enough, enabling the cold-shooting but tirelessly rebounding Lakers to overcome a 13-point deficit…”

    Yeah, Boston was the only team playing hurt in the Finals. That’s what pushed the Lakers over the edge, nothing more.

    Spare us, Ian.

  15. 9: “And he failed to fully prepare himself for it.”

    You make it sound like it’s the easiest thing in the world for a 30-year old 7-footer to play 40 mpg, at least if he prepares for it? It’s almost like me telling you “This Kobe-dude on our team is going to take next season off…we would like you to replace his production, and we’re telling you this early so you’ll have ample time to prepare”. I’m guessing that said preparation would allow you to replace Kobe pretty easily right?;)

  16. Pau is great player. He has played “tough” when it counts the past two seasons and does not deserve to be called “soft”.
    Pau does let himself become frustrated when a larger or stronger player plays him physically. This observation does not make any one xenophobic.
    I think a lot of his fans get overly defensive about any criticism of him.
    This discussion, like the “Kobe ballhogging” discussion, could go on forever without any parties giving an inch.

  17. I am extremely thankful for pau being on the lakers. i would not trade him for any other big man in the nba especially bosh or stoudemire. those guys dont bring the complete package to the game like pau does. I even think that pau and kobe complement each other more so than shaq and kobe because they actually wanna pass to one another and the passing that i have seen from kobe to gasol to lamar is just simply beautiful to watch, compare that to the one on one play of the heat

  18. @ 14

    Indeed. The Garnett and Perkins injuries are this generation’s Maxwell and McHale injuries. A Boston fan who stopped by yesterday brought it up. It will get worse if Boston wins the title this year.

  19. Reign on Parades December 22, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Great article. I almost thought you said Bosh was an all timer when he was listed with Dirk and KG, whoops

  20. Perkins got hurt playing against the Lakers. That meant he was not lucky and tough enough to last the grind of a 7 game series. Boston can stuff it with their “only because so and so was injured” crap.

  21. Oh, woe is me… Living in a mid-sized city in southwest Louisiana called Lake Charles. Why must I have to listen to how the rockets will get it together or how new Orleans is going through a funk a will “get back on track”. How I long to be with my displaced brethren in SoCal. Maybe one day I shall join you all, but until that day I say with a lowered head and a raised fist GO LAKERS!

  22. Great article Michael, this site never ceases to amaze me with its variety of topics and the style they are written in. I saw Pau Gasol live last night for the first time, and his playing is a beautiful work of art. He just seemed to stand out on the floor all of the time for me, his vision and passing and everything about him is just what the Triangle Offense needed on this team. Remember how quickly he just fit in as soon as he arrived. Unfortunately he is a 7 foot Power Forward, and not a true Center. Last night I noticed fairly close up that he was having problems in the paint with Bogut. This is why we HAVE to have Bynum healthy to three-peat, which I still believe is a possible goal. I will be around for this journey, that is for sure.

  23. This comparison is truly weak. Did you just compare pau to hesky who is a brute with no technical ability whatsoever? Crouch? Again a man with little technical ability that uses his physical attributes to win balls in the air? Not even close. Hesky reminds me of reggie Evans,lol. Makelele is another one that is known for his toughness and force and not at all for his skill. Of course I may be wrong on makwlele since I haven’t watched that long. I think berbatov is the closest guy you have. A highly skilled, not overpowering striker.

  24. BTW, raul not a finisher? Are we talking about the same raul who has more goal scoring records than basically everyone else in football? That made little sense to me.

  25. Makalele? And here I thought that we wanted the Lakers to imitate the NY Islanders and win 4 in a row and then lose in the finals in year 5? So maybe we should be asking who plays Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin and Ken Morrow?

  26. Off-topic, but, does anyone else hate seeing a green highlighted KG on the ESPN video box? That’s twice in the last two/three days I’ve come here and seen that trash.

  27. I love posts that stretch like this, that go outside the sport, that use non-typical comparisons. Then again, I like to write about Slava, go figure.

  28. sT: While it’s true that having a healthy Drew certainly helps, Pau does a decent job defending big centers when he puts his mind to it, as evident by the 2009 finals where he held Dwight Howard to a measly 15.4 ppg in 42.6 mpg.

    That being said, playing those guys night after night takes its toll on him. Especially if he has to be out there for 40+ minutes as well (while expected to produce on the offensive end too). That’s why I’m really happy to see Drew out there again.

  29. While I appreciate the link between soccer and basketball, Pau is nothing like Makelele. Makelele was basically there to take the other teams best attacking midfielder out of the game.

    The Makelele role is based upon shutting down the other team’s best creative force. If anything, someone like Artest is like Makelele – a pest on defense, but someone who doesn’t really fit into offensive flow.

    Pau is more like a classic back to the goal striker who can facilitate the offense or finish. I’d probably compare him to Dimitre Berbatov, a big target with great technical ability who has the tendency to drift in and out of games.

  30. Berbatov is not a bad comparison…the only reason why I didn’t choose him is that he’s not good enough, and that it was too obvious to choose a tall player;) But the comparison is sound.

    The one with Makelele? Not so much.

  31. what new insights to Pau or his game, did this article have? anyone? beuler?

  32. love this article…Pau is indeed a great compliment for Kobe….you can see the result for itself….3 finals, 2 rings…going for 3…

  33. Pau IS soft.

    Period.

    When compared to Kobe, that is ;)

    Kidding aside, I think Pau has a better understanding of his body and is more conservative about pushing it, which can be labeled soft in sports where athletes are expected to go until they break into pieces.

    It’s not exactly soft, but it definitely isn’t tough. I kinda think of him as the new Kareem, somebody who never really struck as being ‘physical’ or ‘tough’ but full of skill and longevity.

  34. #28, as I recall in 09 when Pau was matched up against Dwight, Lakers did a lot more double teaming, which opens up more possibilities for the opponent. When Bynum was in there, even hobbled, he was left alone more to play Dwight straight up.

    I recall the coaching staff saying this and why they were okay with Bynum’s fouls. He was limited with the injury and not going to play for a long time. So who cared if he got into foul trouble. Every minute he was out there was a bonus in taking a load off Pau and not forcing their D to be compromised by having to double team.

  35. You are wrong. Pau is not the Lakers´Makelele. He is the Barça´s Messi or REal Madrid´s Cristiano Ronaldo. He is the most talented player in the whole lakers roster. Is should be the nº1 option, yes, ahead Kobe

  36. 36 – LOL. You and the rest of Spain.