Lakers Report Cards: Pau Gasol
Any Laker fan who goes through their DVR can find countless clips documenting Pau Gasol's lackluster showing in the playoffs.
There's the dramatic: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson berating Gasol and thumping him on his chest during a timeout in the team's Game 3 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. Gasol expressed frustration whenever Dirk Nowitzki nailed a difficult jumper over him; when his (Gasol's) shooting slump continued or when he missed a defensive rotation.
There's the execution: Gasol appeared passive on offense and avoided contact in the lane. He mostly gave up on defense. And he left most of the rebounding duties to Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest.
And there's the ongoing commentary regarding Gasol's poor play: He continuously owned up to his shortcomings and provided rambling analysis on how and why he would improve things. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson initially called him out publicly in a constructive manner and then avoided piling on the negativity. And then, of course, there were the persistent and strongly disputed Internet reports suggesting relationship problems involving his girlfriend, Bryant and Bryant's wife, Vanessa.
By the time the next training camp starts, whenever that is, the legacy behind Gasol's 2010-2011 season will boil down to a simplistic rendition of him single-handedly bringing down the Lakers in a four-game sweep in the Western Conference semifinals to Dallas and teammates promptly downplaying his struggles. Lakers guard Derek Fisher provided that framework in a spirited defense of Gasol in his exit interview.
"I wish we could have done something to make it better, not because we thought he was struggling and he was causing us problems," Fisher said, "but so we could've done something so that all that would've just shut up. If we had kept winning, there wouldn't be much for people to say."
Fisher certainly has a point about the unfair and inaccurate stories involving Gasol's personal life. Fisher also proved correct in clarifying there were other mitigating factors that led to the Lakers' postseason struggles, which, in my mind, included the team's situational attitude, Bryant's late-game struggles, Fisher's lacking clutchness, Lamar Odom's sudden inconsistency, Ron Artest's unpredictability, reserves' continual unreliability and Dallas' impressive play. But Gasol's poor play provided a trickle-down effect in plenty of other areas plaguing the Lakers, including poor defensive rotations and lacking size advantage. Gasol's poor grade doesn't just reflect his tepid 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting in postseason, as much as that is important with determining a players' worth to the Lakers. It also points to Gasol's sudden pendulum swing in performances throughout the season.
It appeared nothing would stop Gasol at the beginning the season, which he opened with the remarkable efficiency and consistency that has defined his game since he joined the Lakers in February 2008, spurring three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and back-to-back titles. He earned the Western Conference player of the month honors in November, averaging 20.3 points on a 54.1% clip, scoring at least 20 points in 10 of the 18 games and recording 14 double-doubles. His stat line of 28 points on 10-of-10 shooting and an eight-of-eight clip from the free-throw line in the Lakers' 117-89 victory Nov. 21 over Golden State marked the sixth time in Lakers history that a player secured a perfect shooting percentage when attempting at least 10 shots. And it appeared when he was ready to handle the heavy responsibility in filling in for Andrew Bynum's eventual 24-game absence while recovering from off-season surgery on his right knee.
But then Gasol suddenly hit the brakes. He followed up his statistically perfect performance against the Warriors by shooting below 50% in three of the next four games, contests in which he played at least 40 minutes, finishing up a month in which he averaged 39.7 minutes per game. Gasol acknowledged fatigue caught up to him, but it's head-scratching that played such a factor in his eventual sluggishness considering he rested all of last summer after three consecutive Finals appearances and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His increased playing time also didn't drastically exceed the minutes he logged in the 2009-2010 season (36.97). And the nine games he logged 40-plus minutes was partially offset by the four contests he played below 35 minutes because the Lakers' coasted to double-digit victories.
Still, that led to inconsistency. Even when Bynum returned to the lineup on Dec. 15 and assumed a starting role 12 games later, Gasol's play in December (16.3 points on 49%) and January showed that the reduced playing time didn't completely make up for the heavy lifting he performed during Bynum's absence. He appeared tentative, eager to cut corners on defense and generally passive whenever confronted physically. When Gasol's shot didn't fall, he rarely found ways to try to remain effective, and the drop in production severely hurt the Lakers.
That all changed once Bryant implored Gasol to be aggressive after hearing him lament about the team's lack of ball movement in the Lakers' 109-96 loss Jan. 31 to the Celtics. Gasol responded by scoring at least 20 points in five of the first six games in February, notching three double-doubles and shooting above 50% in all six games. The effort eventually statistically capped his most productive month of the 2010-2011 season in February by averaging 20.5 points on 59.2% shooting, numbers that are drastically different than the ones he posted in January, when he averaged 16.8 points per game on 50.8% shooting.
Once the playoffs hit, Gasol's aggressiveness eventually reverted back. He arrived late to Staples Center prior to Game 1 of the Lakers-New Orleans first round series, provided a passive eight points on two-of-nine shooting, six rebounds, zero offensive boards and poor defense on pick-and-roll plays and immediately prompted Bryant to call him out for his lackluster play. Gasol's aggressiveness improved throughout the series, but that proved as fleeting as the Lakers' quick unraveling to Dallas.
By no means should this soil Gasol's legacy with the Lakers nor should it mean the Lakers should simply trade him. Every on-court criticism directed toward Gasol about his 2010-2011 season, however, proves warranted and accurate. Surely, he may use this as motivation and immediately revert to his normal habits. But it should've never gotten to that point.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson got tough with some players, including Pau Gasol, during the Game 3 loss to Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Pau Gasol collides with Hornets center DJ Mbenga on a drive in the second quarter at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2011