Wearing a Lakers’ jersey invites scrutiny. The team has produced many great players, but none have been immune to being second guessed at some point in their careers. Ask Kobe the “ballhog”. Or Magic after he “choked away” the ’84 Finals. Kareem and Shaq also received their fair share of blame for Lakers defeats during their tenure with the team. It’s just how it goes.
Today, it’s Pau Gasol’s turn.
To be clear, no one can diminish the impact that Gasol has had in turning the Lakers from playoff team to to championship contender. Before his acquisition (as Bynum took a leap in his development), the Lakers were making strides in becoming a challenger to be reckoned with, but his arrival advanced the team’s cause instantaneously. Three championship round appearances and back to back titles speak for themselves and no one can argue the vital role he played in the Lakers achieving those heights.
However, with the Lakers not playing to the level that many fans and pundits would have predicted and Gasol now in his 4th season (if you coun’t 2008 as his 1st) in a Lakers jersey, the questions and outright doubt surrounding him seem as prevalent as they were following the 2008 Finals that showed him not quite ready for championship level basketball. Fans just seem quicker to jump on him and less willing to trust.
So I ask, is that fair?
Looking strictly at Pau’s numbers, you’d be hard pressed to see any real decline in his play. His scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals are all at the levels that he’s provided during his time in L.A. His blocks have nearly doubled since the 2009 season. The only drop you see is in FG% – in the past three seasons he’s gone from 57% to 54% to 52% this year – but that can be (at least) somewhat be explained by the fact that he’s playing more PF and is shooting more jumpshots than in year’s past.
However, when digging deeper and looking closer I think we can all agree that those numbers don’t really tell the entire story. This year, we’ve seen a less consistent Gasol. In December, Pau had nearly as many games where he scored 10 or less points (3) as he did 20 or more (4). In January, if you raise that standard to the number of games he’s scored 13 or less points (6) and compare it to games of 20 or more points (8) you see a similar trend. And while his rebounding numbers have not fluctuated as much, the point still stands: I’m having trouble recalling a time during Pau’s stint as Laker where there’s been as much wonder surrounding what he’ll produce on a given night.
Gasol’s most recent 5 game stretch is a perfect example of this. Against the Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz here are Pau’s numbers (points/rebounds): 23/5, 19/13, 20/7. However, in the two most recent contests versus the Kings and Celtics, Gasol gave the Lakers 9/11 and 12/7.
In looking at Lakers’ losses, you see a similar trend. In those 15 games that the Lakers trailed at the final buzzer, Gasol has had 13 or less points in 7 of them. Against the top 4 teams (Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Boston) he’s scored 23, 17, 9, and 12 points respectively. Obviously losing those games involved so many more identifiable issues besides Pau’s play but I point out his numbers just to again show the up and down nature of his play this year.
Look, I’m not here to bash Pau. I know that he’s quickly becoming a whipping boy of sorts for the Lakers’ issues but I don’t think he should be a scapegoat by any means. There’s too much going on with the rest of the team to try and pin all blame to a #16 Lakers jersey.
That said, I think it’s fair to say that the Lakers will need Pau at his peak level of play if they’re to advance as far as they’d hope when the playoffs start. As recently as the beginning of this season Gasol was being touted as the league’s most skilled big man. We haven’t heard that as much lately, and likely for good reason.
But in the end, shouldn’t we trust that he’ll be there when we need him? I mean, in the past two playoff runs he’s been the best big man on the court when facing off against the likes of Nene, Boozer, KG, and Dwight Howard. He’s raised his play to levels that many wondered he could and conjured performances that keyed victories in every playoff round including the Finals. He’s proven tough enough physically and mentally. He surely has earned some benefit of the doubt, has he not? Maybe I’m alone here, but when the going gets tough I think he’ll be ready to give his best. Maybe I’ll be wrong (and with his up and down play, that’s a distinct possibility) but I’m going to give him the chance to prove it.