Pau Gasol: Still the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA?
Kobe Bryant fans will dig this offering from Shaun Powell at NBA.com, in part because it...
a) praises 24, generally.
b) questions LeBron's chances of winning a title with his supporting cast.
c) contains this sterling quote from Association legend Rick Barry regarding Bryant's play and leadership skills:
"You heard all the garbage about Kobe being so selfish," said Barry. "Those people had no clue. Kobe shows up every night and is a great competitor. He tried to do too much early on because he didn't have the confidence in his teammates. It made him look selfish, but he wasn't. Once Kobe got Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher back and Lamar Odom started playing the way he's capable of playing, he adjusted. He respected those guys. I was so happy for Kobe this season. I admired his professionalism and commitment."
All well and good. But what really caught my eye was the following, from Powell:
"...Kobe beat the Magic in the NBA Finals without the help of a megastar teammate (sorry, Pau), and while LeBron, the reigning MVP, has no reason to want to be like Kobe, he definitely wants to do like Kobe... What Kobe did was stick a finger in the eye of conventional NBA thinking, which says a team needs at least two big-timers to even dream about winning a title. You know: Michael/Scottie, Tim/Tony, KG/Pierce/Ray, etc. While the Lakers were certainly blessed with Pau Gasol and quality players who did what they do well, the achievement gap between the best and second-best on that team was wider than Eddy Curry. The Lakers orbited around the otherworldly skills of Kobe, who helped elevate his supporting cast when it mattered most..."
That the Lakers are built around Kobe Bryant is self-evident, as are his "otherworldly" skills. He deserved his Finals MVP and all the vindication that came with it. But while understanding that only one guy gets to drive the car, can we finally dispense with the notion that Pau Gasol isn't a top shelf shotgun companion? I'd like to think at this point Powell's opinion is more an outlier than mainstream, but just in case, I'll be clear:
Pau Gasol is an outstanding, upper echelon player, who played outstanding, upper echelon basketball throughout the season and through the playoffs.
It seems to me that rather than being elevated when it mattered most, last year Pau was all floaty and such from moment one.
In the regular season, he averaged 19 points a game (26th in the NBA, but his 12.9 shots a night were fewer than all but one of the guys ahead of him) on 56.7% shooting (fifth in the league), while grabbing 9.6 rebounds a game (8th). Fancier numbers back up his value especially well. Pau's true shooting percentage was the Association's fifth best at 61.7%. He was first in offensive rating (125.6), fifth in offensive win shares (10.1), tied for ninth in defensive win shares (4.3) and fourth in overall win shares (14.3, ahead of Kobe's 13.0). Gasol's PER (22.2) was 12th, sixth among frontcourt players. As for the playoffs, again Gasol was strong, registering double-doubles in 16 of his final 20 games, including nine straight at one point. At 4.4, his win shares total ranked fourth, (defensively, he was second) just behind Dwight Howard and within spitting distance of Kobe's 4.8.
Plus, he did great work on both ends against Howard in the Finals, and is undoubtedly one of the most skilled ball handling and passing bigs in the league. If his usage rate (calculated at 20.4% on Basketball Reference, 19.3 at ESPN.com, outside the NBA's top 100) wasn't so frightfully low, Gasol's raw numbers would look better and this conversation probably wouldn't need to take place.
With the possible exception the KG/Paul Pierce combo in Boston, Pau is as good a number two player as you'll find in the NBA. The notion that somehow he was just along for the ride or that he's not a "big timer" (certainly as much as Tony Parker is relative to Tim Duncan) is flat out wrong. Does Kobe's presence improve Gasol and make it easier for Pau to operate? Of course, but the converse is also true, as it was with Jordan and Pippen, Duncan and Parker/Ginobili, and so on. Just as it is in the eternal Kobe vs. Jordan vs. LeBron debate, greatness doesn't have to be a zero sum game.
Give Kobe all the credit he deserves, but it shouldn't come at the expense of those who helped him to a title. There's room on the awesome wagon for more than one guy.