Pau Gasol is not what most would call an alpha dog. Instead, he's long been known for his cerebral play and versatility. The question really isn't whether he can duplicate Kobe Bryant. It's about being there when it's needed.
In 2010, Gasol was called upon to step it up in a crucial Game 6 in the Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Spaniard answered the call, just missing a triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
With Bryant recuperating from Achilles surgery, Gasol not only needs to revert to championship form, he needs to be a leader. He needs to bring energy, production and his signature passion for the game.
Returning to center
Pau Gasol has often been called the most skilled big man in the game. In recent years, he's been increasingly pushed to the perimeter. When healthy, Andrew Bynum was the obvious low-post presence. Last season, Dwight Howard was the team's new focal point.
As the newly arrived head coach, Mike D'Antoni tried accommodating Howard and positioning Gasol further toward the wing. Sometimes late in games, Pau would be positioned on the bench.
Gasol and Chris Kaman will share the floor at times this season, often operating out of the Horns offensive set. Gasol, however, will most often be the one down on the block, with Kaman stepping out to hit his highly accurate mid-range jumpers. The Horns set was used to good effect at times last year, and is being featured again this season.
But what about the alpha dog?
There was a time when it seemed fashionable to call Pau Gasol soft. He's certainly never been an enforcer. That's not to say, however, that he hasn't been a dominant player in the NBA. Gasol has tremendous court vision, he's a gifted passer and, at seven feet and 250 pounds, he will back opposing players down. There's a difference between being soft and being versatile. During Kobe's absence, Gasol can assert his will by doing what he does well and assuming a leadership role.
There's another key component for the Lakers of course–Steve Nash. Once again though, the realities of age are an issue. Dave McMenamin recently relayed Gasol's concern about the 39 year-old point guard's health.
Given the situation, the team is developing an on-court identity without Kobe and Nash. Gasol is helping to fill the void. On Tuesday night in a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, he did a lot of little things right. With an ailing Chris Kaman sitting out, Gasol had nine points, six boards, two blocked shots and a dime. He also went one-of-two from beyond the arc, prompting the following from Kevin Ding:
Gasol recognizes the truth. For the Lakers to have any success this season, he'll have to stay closer to home. He'll have to own his position. Whether that translates to alpha dog remains to be seen. The Lakers do, however, need him now more than ever.