It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment at which things went so terribly wrong for L.A. Lakers star Pau Gasol, because his trip from "hero" to "zero" has been a lot like a switchback trail down a mountainside. There have been occasional ascents and even some breathtaking views, but ultimately, the path has led inexorably downward.
Gasol's slip from the top didn't just start this season, either.
After coming over in a trade from the Memphis Grizzlies (more of a hijacking, really), Gasol anchored a pair of championship teams in L.A. His mix of size and skill put him in an elite group of truly game-changing bigs. But after a couple of disappointing seasons for his team and signs of individual decline, it became clear that Gasol's very best days were behind him.
And that was before this year.
Now firmly rooted to the bench and still lacking a clear role, Gasol may be at his lowest point of the season. But how did he get here? Let's review the surprisingly accelerating descent that has been going on this season.
Hope Springs Eternal
Technically, the Lakers' fortunes looked most promising over the summer, when the team added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to form a terrifyingly potent (on paper) Big Four. So we're fudging the whole "spring" thing, but you get the idea.
Anyway, Gasol was stoked.
Pau Gasol @paugasol
I want to wish the very best to my friend Andrew with his new team. On the other hand, truly excited about how great our team is! #GoLakers2012-8-10 21:01:00
And why wouldn't he be? His team had hauled in Nash and Howard within about a month of one another and he figured to be a major beneficiary. Logically, Gasol and Nash should have teamed nicely to form a pick-pop duo, and Howard would take virtually all of the defensive pressure off of him. It seemed like a win-win situation.
And at first, everyone was all smiles. Gasol opened the season with a 23-point, 13-rebound performance against the Dallas Mavericks and despite a 99-91 defeat, L.A.'s power forward looked primed for a big season in the Princeton offense.
But that optimism disappeared almost immediately.
Things Fall Apart
See what I did there with the "Spring" and "Fall" themes? Pretty good, right? Well, if you take the amount of self-satisfaction I'm currently feeling and completely flip it upside down, you'll get a pretty good idea of how despondent Gasol felt within the season's first week.
Steve Nash got hurt, the Lakers' defense was horrible and Gasol would go on to shoot just 41 percent from the field in the month of November. Oh, and Mike Brown got the axe five games into the season.
Things were not going as Pau had envisioned.
Mike D. to the Rescue?
When the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, Gasol did his best to stay positive, even though he was in the midst of a horrible stretch of offensive basketball.
But a new coach and system apparently weren't enough to alter the downward course of Gasol's year, and despite D'Antoni's backing, Gasol's name began to appear more frequently in trade rumors. D'Antoni addressed Gasol's struggles and the persistent calls for a move with Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News:
He's another seven-footer who can guard the rim and he's extremely smart. So there's no reason why he can't fit. Ideally, you'd want a guy like Jesse Owens who can run. But he's a big part of what we're going to do. I don't see how a player as smart as he is, as talented as he is and efficient as he is, doesn't fit in anybody's schemes. I got to reevaluate myself if I can't play with Pau Gasol. Come on. He's won two championships.
As supportive as all of that was, D'Antoni also addressed his decision to bench Gasol during the fourth quarter of a Nov. 23 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies by saying, "I thought I'd want to win the game."
In the contest in question, Gasol had scored just six points on 3-of-8 shooting in 27 minutes.
In addition to bouncing in and out of the lineup, D'Antoni's curious decision to use Gasol as a stretch-4 completely bombed. Nothing was going right for the once-dominant big man.
Don't worry though, things got uglier from there.
Bad to Worse
Creaky knees and a concussion caused Gasol to miss 13 of the next 25 games after the Memphis debacle, and since his most recent return on Jan. 17, the Spaniard has started just once.
It's a credit to Gasol's maturity and professionalism that he's handling D'Antoni's decision to bench him so diplomatically.
But in his quotes to the media on his new role, it's pretty clear that Gasol views his situation as less than ideal. He told Ken Berger of CBSSports.com the following on Jan. 28:
It's hard for anybody who considers himself one of the top players in the world to say, "OK, I'm OK with coming off the bench." It's a difficult situation that we've been dealing with here. The last few games have been great, and we're staying positive and we look forward to that to continue. But at the same time, we don't need any other distractions, any more negativity.
He's putting up a good front at the moment, but it's pretty obvious that the bench doesn't suit him.
The Back and Forth Continues
At present, Gasol and D'Antoni are engaged in an uncomfortably public relationship. After insisting he wouldn't complain about his role on Jan. 28, Pau has already made more statements following a fourth-quarter benching in Phoenix on Jan. 30.
Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com reported that Gasol said, "I'm a competitor, I'm a guy that thinks I bring a lot to the table, and not being on the floor is something that I don't like, I don't appreciate."
Naturally, D'Antoni fired back. McMenamin quoted him as saying, "Well, you know, 'all for one' didn't last (very) long, did it?"
The bickering doesn't seem to have an end in sight.
The Here and Now
In summation, Pau Gasol has gone from an All-Star power forward in a seemingly perfect situation to a sporadically used bench afterthought in just over three months.
His play has obviously declined, he's endured terrible injury luck, and his coach doesn't seem to have a clue about how to fashion a system that utilizes his still-valuable skills.
If the 2012-13 NBA season had a reset button, you can bet Gasol would be clamoring to press it. As it is, he's stuck in a pretty awful situation with no end in sight.
But hey, it could be worse. The Lakers could also be in the midst of the most disappointing season in modern NBA history. Man, that'd be terrible. At least that hasn't happened.