For various reasons – some very personal, others less so – Pau Gasol has been front and center in my mind for the past couple of years.
The whole thing started almost two years ago, when my wife and I relocated, from New York to Barcelona, Spain. As an L.A. native, I couldn’t help but refer to the move as “the reverse Gasol”.
A pleasant surprise on arrival (that, in hindsight, isn’t surprising at all) was the social value of Lakers fandom. That’s all Pau. Magic and Kobe may have gotten that ball rolling over the years, but it’s the deep, heartfelt love for and pride in Pau (and Marc) that keeps it going. I’m eternally grateful to them for the opportunity to co-opt that while settling in to a new life.
Three months after our arrival, Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among eight casualties in a tragic helicopter crash. That Pau was a really good dude had never been much of a secret. However, the way in which he mourned with a devastated public, while extending every bit of love and support he had to Vanessa and the girls suggested that even his biggest fans had underestimated the measure of the man.
In a year-plus since, following his release from the Spurs, a three-game stint with the Bucks, ankle and foot injuries, and a gameless run in Portland, Pau’s NBA career quietly came to an end. Sadly, COVID protocols deprived him of the opportunity to enjoy a proper Staples Center sendoff.
On the plus side, he returned to Barcelona, and teamed with fellow ex-NBAers Nikola Miroti? and Nick Calathes, and Rod Higgins’ son, Cory, to lead Barça to 13-3 record, and victory in the Liga ACB Finals over, of course, Real Madrid. The league title, Pau’s third in Spain and Barcelona’s nineteenth, capped off a run in which, despite age (now 40) and having not played meaningful ball for about two years, Pau rivaled the league’s playoff per-minute efficiency records set by early-90s Arvydas Sabonis and Walter Berry, and 2007 Marc Gasol.
So, yeah, I’ve had Pau on the brain.
Given all of that, it’s tough to resist looking forward to the day when #16 is raised to the rafters, and consider Pau’s enduring place among Lakers legends.
A Lineup of Legends
I’m not interested in constructing a straw man here. In fact, I’m fully prepared to be (and hope that I am) wrong. However, I’ve recently gotten a troubling sense that, for some, Pau’s place in Laker history is up for debate, that he’s more Michael Cooper, Robert Horry, A.C. Green or Lamar Odom than James Worthy and Wilt Chamberlain.
You probably thinking it now. Worthy and Wilt? Are you sure??
Discussing Laker legends – even within the hive – can be a fraught exercise. For the most part, though, we can at least agree on some tiers.
Your top three are Magic, Kobe and Jerry West. Icons, statistical marvels and, the Logo’s consulting career aside, Laker lifers, central to the first eleven L.A. titles. Then there’s a trio of legendary bigs: Kareem, Shaq and George Mikan, along with Elgin Baylor.
By Win Shares, next up are Vern Mikkelsen (83.4) and Worthy (81.2), six- and seven-time (respectively) All-Stars, with multiple All-NBA nods, and (respectively), four and three titles.
I’m hardly breaking new ground here, but it’s always worth taking breath and basking in what a positively astounding top nine that is.
All this, and we’re only just getting to Wilt. As a Laker, The Big Dipper averaged “just” (roughly) 18 and 19, with a 20 PER and tallied nearly 64 Win Shares in 339 regular season games over five seasons. Of course, he teamed up with West and Gail Goodrich to deliver the Lakers’ first Los Angeles title, as part of the then-winningest team in NBA history. In five Game 7s as a Laker – three of them victories – Wilt averaged 23 points (on 63% shooting) and a silly 26.3 rebounds.
After that, it’s that cavalcade of supporting stars on title teams – Byron Scott, A.C., Odom, Coop, Jamaal Wilkes, Derek Fisher – and Gail Goodrich, a Hall of Famer who spent two prime seasons (and five of his fourteen in the NBA) not with the Lakers.
If I may digress for a moment…
With all due respect to Coop and Robert Horry and their contributions to the greatest eras in Lakers history, that they’re the subjects of chatter about possible Hall of Fame bids, while Byron Scott – he of 65.8 Win Shares (10th most as a Laker) and three rings – was not only never an All-Star, but is barely mentioned as a vital part of his own era…
If I ever wind up going full Joker, look here for the origin story.
I mean, dude ended his career with just 5 fewer Win Shares than Isiah Thomas, and 2 fewer than Earl Monroe. In ‘87-’88, he – not Magic, not Worthy, not Kareem – was the leading scorer (21.7 per, on 59% True Shooting) for the first repeat title team in 19 years, while averaging 4.1 rebounds and assists each, almost two steals… C’mon!
Sorry, I’m spiraling. Seriously, though, Byron Scott. Okay, let’s right this ship.
Ask most fans where Pau Gasol slots in, and the probable consensus is that he’s somewhere between Wilt and Scott/Goodrich/A.C., probably closer to the latter. This, frankly, is ludicrous.
Maybe it’s the sense that Pau wasn’t actually in Forum Blue and Gold for all that long, despite his playing 103 more games (90 regular season, 13 playoff) as a Laker than Wilt, and (WILDY different eras, I know) ten more than Mikan.
Maybe it’s because, in December 2011, he was actually traded, until “basketball reasons” dictated he wasn’t. Of the top nine guys above, only Shaq and Kareem ever played for an NBA team other than the Lakers. Of those nine, only Shaq didn’t finish his career as a Laker, and his trade was frankly more a salvage operation than an earnest attempt to improve the team.
Maybe it’s that his professionalism, which compelled him to soldier on – in the wake of the trade that wasn’t, and again while being nudged to the margins during the ill-fated Steve Nash/Dwight Howard experiment – without making a public stink, are somehow seen as weakness.
Maybe it’s that his final postseasons as a Laker consisted of second round defeats to the Mavs and Thunder in which the Lakers lost eight of nine games, and a sweep at the hands of the Spurs, during which Pau averaged just 13 and 9, and made less than 44% of his shots.
Maybe it’s that his last season in L.A. was the monumentally depressing 2013-14 campaign, in which post-Achilles Kobe suited up just six times before once again getting hurt, and Pau was left to shoulder the offensive burden with Nick Young and Jodie Meeks.
Try to make all of those cases if you’d like. You’re only ever going to wind up missing the mark.
Consider: Seventeen players have racked up at least 50 Win Shares as Lakers (again… DAMN). Twelve have topped Pau’s total of 59.2. Only six, however – Mikan, Shaq, Magic, West, Wilt and Kareem – have bettered his mark of .185 per 48 minutes. The gap between Pau and Elgin Baylor in tenth (with .148) is more than double the one between Pau and Kareem (.203) in sixth, which is itself comparable to the gap Pau and the two dudes behind him on the list: Mikkelsen and, yup, Kobe, both at .170.
In 429 regular season games six-plus seasons as a Laker, Pau averaged 17.7 points, 9.9 boards, 3.5 assists and about a block and a half per game. He racked up three All-Star and All-NBA nods and – hold on to your hats – led the Lakers in Win Shares in each of his first four full seasons in L.A. He finished top-ten leaguewide each time, topping out at second in 2010-11, when his career best mark of 14.7 trailed only LeBron.
Pau’s Lakers PER of 21.4 ranks seventh, behind those of Shaq, Mikan, Magic, Kareem, West, Kobe and Baylor. This, incredibly, is also his seventeen-year career mark, which is tied for 20th all-time among players with 1,000+ games played.
The numbers are great. The numbers also only tell a partial story. What they omit is the part about how – and I do not say this lightly – Pau Gasol saved the Lakers as we know them.
El Salvador de España
The Lakers entered the 2007-08 season as 150-to-1 longshots in the West, having spent the preceding summer listening to Kobe demand a trade and tell any outlet that was willing to listen that he’d played his last game as a Laker. Sure, by the time Pau arrived in February 2008, the Lakers were flying high, with a 30-16 record. It was also completely unsustainable.
I love the hell out of that team too – it’s not often Laker fans get a to root for a true “plucky upstart” – but Kobe, Odom, 20-year-old Andrew Bynum and a supporting cast of Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton, Vladimir Radmanovi?, Kwame Brown, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf and Sasha Vuja?i? was not consistently going to contend. A single better-than-expected campaign was probably not to going to quench Kobe’s competitive thirst, and turning Bynum into 34-year-old Jason Kidd to appease Kobe would have been (one man’s opinion) catastrophic.
Does Kobe’s stance soften? Does he stick around for some version of the final chapters that make him the most resonant athlete with a single city and fan base in American sports history? Maybe. Of course, in the continued absence of truly meaningful basketball…
Thankfully, we never had to find out.
Pau arrived in L.A. an in-his-prime (he was 27) star, fresh off a six-year stint in Memphis where he provided the Grizzlies’ first taste of anything resembling success. Though he’d been an undisputed primary go-to guy, Pau transitioned, seamlessly, into a completely different, incredibly challenging but equally vital role.
He was the perfect running mate for Kobe: an obscene arsenal of skills with the basketball IQ to match. Also – and this can’t be stressed enough – he had the innate unselfishness and emotional maturity to cede the spotlight, while earning the genuine respect one of the most demanding superstars in history.
Of course, this stuff really only wound up mattering because of the new banners.
The 2007-08 Lakers almost completed their Cinderella run. However, despite unexpectedly winning the Western Conference, the way in which they lost those Finals – a blown 20-point lead in Game 4 at home and total destruction in Game 6 in Boston – and the way in which Pau was overwhelmed by the Celtics’ front line were doubly disheartening.
That summer, smart (moderately intelligent, even) money would have been on Pau wearing the “soft Euro” label, well, forever. However, that narrative didn’t even survive a full lap around the calendar. Pau came back better than ever, improving both his postseason scoring and rebounding, averaging 19 points (on 61% True Shooting), 11 rebounds (3.5 offensive), three assists, two blocks and .222 Win Shares/48 (basically Magic’s career mark) in 46 games over two titles runs.
Most important, though, was that he found the very thing that was lacking in ’08, when it was needed most.
The Biggest Stage
This seems like a decent point to revisit Wilt. That Game 7 stuff above? Well, it, too, only tells a partial story. The two most important Game 7s of Wilt’s Lakers tenure both came in the Finals – in 1969 against Bill Russell’s Celtics, and in 1970 against Willis Reed’s Knicks. Despite making nearly 70% of his shots and grabbing 51 rebounds, Wilt scored 39 total points and was conspicuously upstaged by his counterparts. Twice the Lakers lost. And twice the first L.A. title was deferred.
In 2010, meanwhile, the Lakers, now reigning champs, again met the Celtics in the Finals. The Lakers lost three of the first five, and returned home, looking down the barrel of a second loss in three years to Boston. In Game 6, they got 17 and 13, with nine assists and three blocks from Pau, which, combined with 26 and 11 rebounds from Kobe powered the Lakers to a blowout win, and forced a Game 7.
That decisive game, played on June 17, 2010, belonged to Pau. He played over 42 minutes, scored 19, grabbed 18 rebounds, and was the only Laker starter with a positive +/-. That’s great. What echoes forever, though, is his fourth quarter exorcism of the Celtics front line. In that final period, he scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds (three of them offensive), handed out two assists, denied Paul Pierce at the rim with under two minutes to go, and then muscled in that layup to put the Lakers up six with 90 seconds left.
It’s a perfect moment.
It’s a moment worthy of its author, whose rightful place is among not only the greatest Lakers and greatest big men of all time, but simply the greatest players in the history of the sport.