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Maybe You’ll Miss Him When He’s Gone

Pau Gasol has one last shot at a ring

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first Pau Gasol highlight I ever saw was this dunk on Kevin Garnett, from his rookie year.

Pau was 18 games into his NBA career. It was December 2001, Grizzlies-Timberwolves, at the Pyramid in Memphis (now a Bass Pro Shops megastore). Pau caught the ball 19 feet out on the left block. Garnett — prime–Big Ticket KG — clamped down on him. He angled his body to force Gasol left, toward the baseline and the help man, the mailbox-shaped Gary Trent. Pau jabbed, then swept left, covering the distance to the rim in one dribble and three strides. He rose up and threw it down, two-handed, over Trent, with Garnett kind of dragging along in the wake. Two plus the foul.

Then Pau did something that was, though I didn’t realize it at the time, very un-Pau-like. Still hanging on the rim, he twisted around and looked at Garnett, like a conqueror admiring a burned city. Gasol dropped to the court, shoulder-checked KG, curled his index finger behind his ear (I can’t hearrrr youuuuu), and swaggered around the court. A victory lap on the way to the foul line. The look on Garnett’s face — part bemusement, part “this motherfucker” — should be framed and enshrined in the Smithsonian for future generations.

The quick summary of Pau Gasol’s career to date: puts up big numbers and (generally) helps his team win, all while being dismissed as soft and, later, too slow (probably fair). Gasol, without question, will be in the Hall of Fame. Yet, with the exception of a stretch that amounted to barely more than a year of his career, he has been largely shit upon. He’s the most unappreciated great player of his generation.

When Pau Gasol has answered his critics, he’s usually done so with a whisper. He put up loud numbers with the Grizzlies — 18.8 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 blocks, 21.6 PER — but barely anyone noticed. Pre–Grit-’n’-Grind Memphis was a basketball wasteland, where players toiled in “if a tree falls in the woods” obscurity. Pau’s play was drowned out by the background noise of three-straight first-round playoff decapitations. That’s also where he first received the Scarlet S for softness. The image of Pau Gasol, with all his paleness and lanky, narrow-shouldered finesse, as a walking six-pack of Charmin was (is?) so prevalent that even historic bust Darko Miličić felt comfortable dropping the S bomb on him, mere days after becoming Pau’s teammate. “Spain is not unbeatable. I like to play against Pau Gasol, he’s soft,” said Miličić ahead of EuroBasket 2007.

That Darko just didn’t understand Pau is plain. He’s not alone in that, though. Gasol has always been something of a curiosity.

Pau’s strengths ran counter to both traditional notions of positionality. “If you like [Dirk] Nowitzki,” said an NBA scout ahead of the 2001 draft, “you’ll love Gasol.” Which was the exactly wrong formulation with the precisely right result. Pau, at his peak, was caught between generational shifts. He was a finesse post-up player when the snarling low-post banger was still the ideal; his style of play literally contradicted the label “power forward.” And, as four-out small ball and the 3-pointer became the game’s sacred texts, Pau was stranded inside, an incredibly skilled and uncommonly cerebral apostate doorstop.

In February 2008, Memphis traded Gasol, at that time the greatest player in Grizzlies history, plus a second-round pick, to the Lakers for what appeared at the time to be pinecones on the dollar: Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittendon, two first-round picks, and the rights to Marc Gasol, then known only as “Pau’s brother.”

The first time the national NBA audience got an inkling that Gasol wasn’t just good, but capable of shifting the power balance of the NBA, was when Gregg Popovich lost his shit over the Lakers acquiring him.

“What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension,” said Popovich in February 2008. “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I’d like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.”

What “they” did in Memphis — besides trade the best player in franchise history for cap relief, i.e., tank — was lay the groundwork for the Grit-and-Grind era and six-straight playoff appearances. What they did in Los Angeles, as Pop foresaw, was find the missing piece to a championship team.

Pau helped the Lakers to three Finals appearances and two NBA titles. I asked a few Lakers-fan friends what they considered Gasol’s emblematic moment in purple and gold to be. Everyone answered the 2010 Finals against the Celtics, and specifically the final minutes of Game 7, when Pau posted up the Rasheed Wallace, and bully-balled him under the rim to ice the lead and the Lakers’ 16th championship. The Pau-preciation lasted into the beginning of the 2010–11 season, with Gasol averaging 22 points (on 55.8 percent shooting), 11.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists over the first month of the campaign. During that stretch, the Lakers were 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court.

In December 2010, one could credibly, unironically, totally-no-bullshit openly wonder if Gasol was one of the five best players in basketball. He finished the season averaging 18.8 points (on 52.9 percent shooting), 10.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists with a plus-minus of plus-6.5 and a 23.3 PER. The Lakers won 57 games that season but were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by a fire-breathing Dirk Nowitzki. Pau hinted darkly at offcourt discontent. The honeymoon was over. By June, the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets, was weighing Gasol’s trade value. In December, the Lakers dealt him to Houston as part of three-team trade for Chris Paul.

That trade never happened, of course, because: David Stern. But the damage was done. The remainder of Gasol’s Lakers tenure was an endless caravan of trade rumors: Gasol to the Timberwolves, to the Suns, to the Celtics, to the Bulls, and so on. “It’s hard for [Pau] to kind of invest himself completely or immerse himself completely into games when he’s hearing trade talk every other day,” said the usually remorseless Kobe Bryant. “I wish management would either come out and either trade him or not trade him.”

When Mike D’Antoni was hired as Lakers head coach in 2012, he preached the gospel of the spread offense, with small-ball hidden in his mustache. Gasol, who, over the course of his career, has taken the vast majority of his shots within 9 feet of the basket, was always going to be an impediment to floor spacing. An extra piece of furniture throwing off the feng shui. “I’m practicing more [long-range jump shots], just to be ready,” Pau said that November. But that was not Pau’s game, and by the following December, D’Antoni was ripping into him for not playing hard.

Pau Gasol signed a $22.3 million, three-year deal with a third-year player option with the Bulls in 2014, and the following two Chicago seasons were, largely, a disaster. Though, you wouldn’t know it from the box scores. His Chicago averages of 17.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and two blocks are basically in line with Gasol’s career numbers. He could still call down the velvet lightning against overmatched front lines. Peek underneath the hood, though, and the Bulls were a train wreck. It was a bad fit, with Gasol and the rest of the Bulls caught in a cold war between Chicago’s front office and head coach Tom Thibodeau.

This summer, the Spurs signed Gasol to a $31.7 million, two-year deal. Since the days when Pop was grousing about Pau joining the Lakers, the Spurs, with their open play and panoply of international talent, have seemed like the ideal home for the Spaniard’s heady, soft-spoken game. With Tim Duncan retired and free to roam the aisles of Old Navy in eternal, baggy-assed quietude, Gasol should slot right into the starting lineup. Yet, it’s hard not to feel as if it’s a move several years too late.

Gasol is 36 now. His mobility, always his hedge against his relatively thin frame, has eroded. His rebounding numbers, though still gaudy, are largely the result of him being 7-foot with go-go-gadget arms, always standing, statue-like, around the rim. He doesn’t rebound in traffic and rarely boxes out. Pau won two titles with the Lakers, yet, a year after the second, the team was looking to run him out of town. It’s a business, of course. But when Kobe Bryant is the dude decrying an expression of ruthlessness, that’s saying something. Pop will surely be unsentimental about moving away from Gasol if the Spaniard can’t produce. Father Time dunks on everyone.

“I’m continuing to grow, continuing to get older, continue to do well,” Pau told The Players’ Tribune last December. “At the same time, younger guys continue to come in, and they’re at a different stage. You look back, when you were that young, how different things were, and what was that like. It’s interesting … at some point, the young guys will take over and you will have to move on. That’s the law of life.”