LOS ANGELES — This era of the most disloyal loyalty you’ll ever see is nearing its end. Pau Gasol’s chances of still being a Los Angeles Laker after this season are next to nothing.
And yet there he was Sunday night, the team leader still—same as he has been throughout this Kobe-less season featuring uncommon team unity but highly inconsistent Pau production.
With Kobe Bryant and maybe Steve Nash set to come back to the team in its next practice Tuesday, Gasol tried but failed in the role of star player he isn’t quite suited for anymore. He missed 12 of 15 shots and watched from the bench as an inspired fourth-quarter rally against Portland fell just short, then said postgame he would have an MRI on his sore right ankle Monday.
Gasol, 33, had an MRI on his left foot a month ago—a muscle strain possibly from compensating for the torn plantar fascia in his right foot last season—and it’s all very unsurprising considering how big men late in the their careers consistently suffer lower-leg woes.
Gasol already has chronic tendinosis in both knees and was off his feet for three months of the summer because of regenerative procedures on those knees. That poor offseason prep made it unrealistic to think Gasol could carry the Lakers during their early-season time waiting for Bryant to be ready.
This is how it is with Gasol—so many layers to the truth, so many complications masquerading as either excuses or explanations. Even on one of his worst nights there was legitimate reason to praise him for his contributions, because his flexible and friendly ego has very much been part of the harmony these flexible and friendly Lakers have built without Bryant or Dwight Howard.
“He’s definitely the leader of this team right now,” Lakers forward Jordan Hill had said about Gasol a couple of weeks ago.
If Sunday night turns out to be the last game the Lakers play before Bryant returns from his Achilles tear, it was an appropriate one: entertaining and unpredictable with regard to which no-name player would step up (Robert Sacre!)…while Gasol doesn’t come close to earning his paycheck.
When you are the seventh-highest paid player in basketball (not counting the amnestied ghost of Gilbert Arenas), you either figure out a way to make a consistent difference or you deserve to be criticized as overpaid—which is unquestionably what Gasol has been through these three years of his extension.
Long before Bryant got this latest controversial extension, the Lakers gave Gasol an extension in part as reward for past contribution. That’s why Gasol is making $19.3 million this season—more than LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul—having received a massive $57 million extension in December 2009 before the second of Gasol’s two title runs with the Lakers.
Bryant’s pricey new deal is just another reason why Gasol is not expected back with the Lakers. He has had nine lives as a Laker already, the 2011 nixed trade for Paul at the top of the list but also Gasol escaping the 2013 humiliation of the amnesty waiver only because the Lakers couldn’t get Howard to stay.
Gasol is finally out of outs now, there being no logical reason for the Lakers to invest in him this summer rather than a younger player who could be part of their future. It makes this season for Gasol especially interesting to observe.
Since the championships were won, Gasol has struggled to find his place, deferring too often to Andrew Bynum and Howard, disappearing in the postseason. Mike D’Antoni no doubt marginalized Gasol to prop Howard up, but even now Gasol remains uneasy with the fit.
Despite D’Antoni in preseason hyping Gasol for nightly triple-doubles as the anchor of the Kobe-less offense, Gasol was still saying late Sunday night that the D’Antoni offense simply isn’t one that is “going to put me in the post” time after time.
Gasol said he goes on his own volition to the post at times to get better scoring chances—exactly what Bryant has urged Gasol to do for years—but one noticeable moment when Gasol did that Sunday resulted in him unable to create a decent shot against solo defense from LaMarcus Aldridge.
Gasol’s best games in the D’Antoni pick-and-roll offense have seen him get hot early by hitting jumpers after electing not to roll to the hoop. His passivity in rolling is partly tied to his poor conditioning from his lack of offseason workouts, and he has always been one to pace himself early in seasons anyway.
His effort on defense so far this season has been especially limited, and his 41.9 percent field-goal shooting is by far the worst of his career. (For some perspective on how bad that is, it’d almost be the worst of Bryant’s career; he shot 41.7 percent as a rookie.)
Being in a contract year and having responsibility during Bryant’s absence wasn’t enough to bring out Gasol’s best, with the same old excuses and explanations of his body and the system not being quite right. Now that time is quite possibly over, with Bryant maybe playing Friday in Sacramento and certainly taking post touches away from Gasol in the future.
Gasol has always been better as Bryant’s support than as the go-to guy, so the rest of the season should actually be more comfortable for Gasol. But when we soon look back on Gasol’s uniquely successful and dissatisfying tenure as a Laker, we’ll have to remember plenty of bad along with the greatest goods.
These 18 games this season for Gasol without Bryant are yet another failure.