Pau Gasol should benefit from European Championships
At nearly every moment Pau Gasol appeared to be gasping for breath, hunched over tugging on his shorts.
The Lakers' 2011 postseason for Gasol proved to be every bit exhausting. Exhausting from the bottled-up fatigue that followed him throughout the season. Exhausting from his constant frustration, waning confidence and inability to snap out of the cyclical pattern. Exhausting from his struggles in contesting Dirk Nowitzki's ridiculously difficult shots. Exhausting from the physical and bruising play that greeted him anytime he set foot in the paint. Exhausting from the fair and never-ending scrutiny on his poor postseason play. Exhausting from the unfair and never-ending scrutiny on his personal life.
Yes, it was one tiring postseason run for Gasol, who in the past has symbolized the Lakers' playoff excellence by guiding them to three consecutive NBA Finals. Instead, Gasol became the beacon for the Lakers' latest playoff unraveling, where he averaged a tepid 13.1 points on 42% shooting. But as much as fatigue and basketball mileage contributed to Gasol's uncharacteristically poor postseason shooting, the prescription for proving that the 2011 playoffs were simply an aberration shouldn't involve resting much this offseason.
No, the best cure involves getting up, returning to the basketball court and quickly changing his game around. Gasol made that first step when he appeared in the Spanish national team's first exhibition game Tuesday in preparation for the European Championships Aug. 31-Sept. 18 in Lithuania. When the time approaches, I plan to check in with Gasol regarding his play. But it's safe to say that part of Gasol's motivation for playing on the Spanish team goes beyond nationalistic pride. It also points to his hope the stint can springboard into a more productive and consistent 2011-12 season.
As Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said in May during his exit interview with the media, "Maybe it’s not a bad thing."
It actually will be a great thing.
It was during the 2008 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics that Gasol became a lightning rod for criticism, his "soft" tag growing by the minute because of his inability to handle the Celtics' aggressive play. He spent the entire offseason angry, put in more work in the weight room and emerged the next season with increased aggressiveness, refusing to back down from physical play. Once the 2009 NBA Finals hit, Gasol handled Orlando center Dwight Howard with tremendous success. This time around, Gasol will play in a setting where he mostly thrives and take out any frustration that's bottled up in him these last two months.
Recall the 2010 offseason. That's when Lamar Odom absorbed plenty of criticism for his inconsistent play, so much that former Times NBA columnist Mark Heisler reported that owner Jerry Buss had considered dumping his salary. Odom joined Team USA in the 2010 FIBA World Championships in hopes of turning his game around.
Odom credited his time there with helping him prepare for the mental fatigue that lay ahead. But that didn't stop him from playing with full intensity, so much so that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson singled him out as the only player on the Lakers to appear in training camp in full shape. Usually Jackson spends training camp needling Odom about his work ethic and conditioning, but not this time. Odom's leadership, hustle plays and dependable 7.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on Team USA gave him enough consideration to make the 2012 Olympic roster, at least enough for Coach Mike Krzyzewski to rave about Odom on the phone to Kobe Bryant, and it easily carried over with the Lakers. He became the team's most consistent player in the regular season and earned the league's Sixth Man of the Year award because of it.
Gasol can follow the same path because he would no longer need the time in training camp to get into shape. He would be more prepared to handle any increased workload thrown his way. That hardly proved to be the case last season. Gasol sat out of the 2010 FIBA World Championships while Spain finished in sixth place, opting for rest because of fatigue and injury concerns. Gasol may have benefitted from that long rest by storming out with Western Conference Player of the Month honors, but he quickly hit a wall in December because of the heavy minutes during Andrew Bynum's prolonged rehab eventually caught up with him. It's conceivable to think that Gasol would have to handle that again because of Bynum's extensive injury history. But playing a month of competitive basketball during the summer would make him more equipped in pacing himself and knowing how to navigate through the grind.
Then there's the confidence factor.
As much as Gasol pushed and pushed to end his prolonged struggles this past postseason, his self-assurance seemed irrevocably shaken. He continuously owned up to his shortcomings and provided rambling analysis on how and why he would improve things. But he remained passive on offense, avoided contact in the lane, mostly gave up on defense and left most of the rebounding duties to Bynum, Odom and Ron Artest. Both Bryant and Jackson initially called him out publicly but then avoided piling on the negativity. Neither approach worked.
Gasol no longer has to worry about immediately responding within a day's time while still battling his own frustrations. Now he has all summer to sort that out. But nothing will get rid of that faster than putting together a string of performances in a setting that plays to his strengths, playing a European brand of basketball. As much as the national team's performance is unrelated to how Gasol will mesh again with his Laker teammates or even Mike Brown's new system, playing for Spain completely relates to how he'll overcome the negative psyche that plagued him in the playoffs.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: A summer of European basketball, which plays to his strengths, should help rejuvenate Lakers forward Pau Gasol, shown on court with Lamar Odom this season. Credit: Charles Krupa / Associated Press
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol takes a shot over Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd and forward Peja Stojakovic in the first half of Game 4 of the 2011 Western Conference semifinals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2011