The Makelele Role and Pau Gasol

Darius Soriano —  December 22, 2010

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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

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