I have this image in my head of Mitch Kupchak, sitting in his over-large bed at night, going through a mental checklist of his team as the season approaches. It goes something like this:
New Guys: Everyone seems to be fitting in nicely, I just hope they can gel with the core so that we can have a little more breathing room this year.
Sasha: I can't believe I paid him so much money, I hope he can come close to earning it this year.
Luke: See above + sympathy/concern regarding perenially bad back *
Brown: I'm glad he's back, but I hope he can play a bit smarter this year.
Lamar: Should start well having played over the summer. Hope he doesn't break down at the end.
Fisher: I don't even want to think about Derek guarding anybody right now.
Artest: I hope his mind is all there from the start, the guy has been partying for 3 months straight.
Bynum: %$^*ing knee surgery again, please don't take all season to get in the swing of things this time AB. **
Bryant: Another ^*&%ing knee surgery. Please, please don't break down this year, or next year ... or the next year
Pau: Ahhh (*a contented smile comes across Mitch's face as he dozes peacefully off to sleep*)
*Yes, Mitch Kupchak's mind tells itself to see above on it's own list. Mitch is all about efficiency.
**Does it really surprise you that Mitch's inner monologue is censored?
In the crazy, chaotic world that is the Los Angeles Lakers organization, Pau Gasol is the one person everyone can look at without a single ounce of concern or doubt. He is a superstar, possibly the best player at his position in the league. He has no problems with ego, no issue with the fact that, despite his pedigree, his ranking on this squad is clearly #2. And, surrounded by a team full of problems related to health, age, and over-obligation, the best part of thinking about Pau Gasol is to realize that he's healthy, well-rested, and still in his prime.
All of these signs point to the possibility that Pau Gasol will perform better than ever in the upcoming season. More importantly, the Lakers may very well need him to play better than ever if they are to keep the pace with the Eastern powers early in the season.
Role on the team: Substitute Superstar. Everytime someone mentions the recovery timetables of Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant, the news seems to be more and more grim. AB definitely won't be ready to play, and may not don a uniform until December. Kobe will play to start the season, but if the preseason games are any indication, he's a long way from being at his most effective. With those two lynchpins of Laker dominance limited, it falls to Pau to seize the moment and lead this team to a strong start to the season. Over the first few months of the season, the Lakers need to be Pau's team. He needs to do the heavy lifting. He needs to be the offensive focal point. He needs to demand the ball on a majority of posessions. Then, at just the right time (I'm thinking right around the All-Star break) for both team harmony and maximum performance, he needs to cede alpha dog status back to the Mamba.
Best Case Scenario: With Kobe limited and Bynum out, Pau places the team squarely on his rested shoulders and carries them to a strong start. Behind Pau's 26 and 12, the Lakers have the best regular season record, and in a shocking turn of events, Pau wins the MVP after unifying both the media's anti-Heat and anti-Kobe sentiment (after all, what better way for them to stick it to Kobe than to give his teammate an MVP trophy) in one place. The Lakers become the first team to have both the regular season MVP winner and the NBA Finals MVP winner without the same person winning both awards (Author's note: Research not done to prove this has never happened before.)
Worst Case Scenario: Pau fails to step up to the challenge of leading the team to start the season, prompting Kobe to try and turn it on sooner than we'd like, and come playoff time, Bryant breaks down. Alternatively, Pau enjoys his time as the team's focal point so much, he develops an ego too large to serve as second fiddle to Kobe, prompting the 2nd coming of the Shaq/Kobe feud, only this time with more equitable weight distribution.
What we expect: A big, big season. While I don't think an MVP caliber year is a plausible scenario, I do think this can be the season that Gasol firmly and clearly plants himself as the best power forward in the game. This seems like the type of season where everything can come together for Gasol to make the jump to the top tier of the league. He knows this system inside and out and he's comfortable in his own skin. His play against the Celtics in last year's Finals destroyed any last vestiges of the "weak" reputation he cultivated against those same Celtics in 2008. And, the circumstances surrounding his team require him to make the ascension to team leader and focal point, at least early on. All the dominos are in place for this to become the Year of the Gasol, the Spaniard just needs to step up and begin the chain.