At some point during what is still expected to be a deep postseason run, despite an inauspicious start in the form of a Game One loss to the New Orleans Hornets, Pau Gasol will play like the hyper-efficient, uber-smart, insanely talented seven footer that he is. Maybe it will be for a game, maybe a week. Maybe he'll do it for an entire series. If the Lakers do manage to patch up their holes long enough to reel in a third straight championship, there will undoubtedly be a period in which Pau Gasol is the best player on the team. People will see this and think "Wow, that guy is amazing ... he never gets the credit he deserves." They will see his efficiency, throw it up in comparison with Kobe Bryant's lack of the same quality, and come to a very logical conclusion that perhaps Pau Gasol deserves any individual accolades that come with being a part of a great team. This post is for those people. Please ingrain this message, and yesterday's game, in your memory.
Pau Gasol is a tremendous player, but he is not an MVP. Not of the league, not of this team, and not of his Saturday morning bridge game. This declaration does not come because Pau played terribly in yesterday's loss. He did, scoring 8 points on 2-9 shooting and pulling down only 6 boards in 38 minutes, but MVPs are allowed bad games from time to time. Bad games are inevitable. Every player, no matter his (or her) quality, has one every now and again. Derrick Rose went 5-21 and scored only 12 points (though he did pass out 10 dimes) in a Chicago Bulls loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 5th. Dwight Howard scored only 13 points on 4-9 shooting and 5-10 from the free throw line (though he did pick up 21 boards) in a Magic loss to the Golden State Warriors on March 11th. Kobe Bryant has bad games all the time. During the Lakers' most recent five game swoon, he shot 40% or below three times, and unlike the dudes previously mentioned, he didn't back it up with some impressive contribution in another category. Every player in the history of this game has had some bad outings. Bad is not the point.
Engaged is the point. Impactful is the point. When Kobe Bryant has a bad game, you know. You know because he launches 25 shots, and only makes 10 of them. You know because he turns the ball over 6 times. You know because he's trying to do too much, trying to recover his form. If bad games are running into a brick wall, Kobe does so with the intent to run straight through. Sometimes, most times, he fails, and hurts his team even more in the trying. Sometimes, he leaves a Mamba shaped hole in the wall and leads his team to victory by sheer force of will.
Pau Gasol's nickname should be Houdini, because when Pau has a bad game, it's like you never even knew he was there.
Pau was not alone in having a bad game yesterday. He had plenty of company. Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, the entire bench ... the Lakers had a fire sale on below average play. Gasol wasn't alone in getting embarrassed by Chris Paul. Derek Fisher owns the lion's share of that particular sentiment. Gasol's line was the worst, but, again, good and bad isn't the point. Effort is the point. When ABC's broadcasting team, who deals in hard hitting basketball analysis like I deal in Pulitzers, spends five minutes of airtime talking about how Aaron Gray would be a decent center if he were in better shape, and then puts together a montage of Gray repeatedly beating the Laker bigs down the floor, that tells you exactly how two journeyman bench players dominated the best froutcourt in basketball. Andrew Bynum gets a bit of pass, since we have no idea exactly how much his bone bruise is slowing him down or how much stamina he lost by having to sit out a few practices. Besides, with 13 points and 9 boards, he was the best big man in white yesterday, despite being hit with early foul trouble. Lamar Odom had just one rebound, but he was at least aggressive offensively when the ball found his hands.
When Pau Gasol found the ball in his hands, you could count on two things. First of all, it was a guarantee that Pau was 12 feet or more from the basket (which makes perfect sense since he spent much of the game being covered by 6'7" Carl Landry ... wait, no it doesn't). Second, you could bank on Pau not doing much with the ball. This was the template for Pau's offense:
- Receive ball 15 feet from basket.
- Turn to face defender.
- Stare into defender's eyes for five seconds to determine defender's psychological state. Use sense of smell to determine choice in breakfast food.
- Look around for open teammate.
- In the event no teammate is open, look around for guarded teammate.
- Shoot long jump shot.
Gasol had nine shot attempts in yesterday's game. More than half of them were taken from more than 10 feet away. On the season, Pau gets roughly 2/3 of his shots from close range. He took half as many shots (2) from 16 feet or further as he did from close range (4). He attempted three 3 pt attempts all season long. One of his nine shot attempts yesterday was from downtown. That should tell you everything you need to know about where Gasol was playing.
Pau Gasol's lack of MVP-ness isn't entirely his fault. There are three variables to the MVP equation: Skill, athleticism, and mentality. Pau is on the short end of two of the three. There's a damn good reason you'd never see Rose, or Bryant, or LeBron James just disappear from a game (please hold your 2010 ECF jokes till the end, please). When things just aren't working for those guys, they have the ability to make something good happen based solely on the virtue of their superior athleticism. Can't hit a jumper? Put your head down and attack. Athleticism is what lets the true superstars succeed when they don't have their A game. Pau is not a terrible athlete, but he's also not in the league's elite either. When Pau can't get things going, he's not physically capable of that "battering ram" success.
But the lack of mentality is what seals the deal. There are guys who have won MVPs without out-of-this-world athleticism (sorry to play the race card, but you know who these guys are). Dirk Nowitzki isn't a tremendous athlete, but when a game is on the line, he knows he can't be stopped. There are probably 20 guards in this league who are faster or stronger than Steve Nash, but Nash knows how to go for the jugular, whether he's the one applying the final blow, or setting up a teammate to do so with ease. These guys won't win races or slam dunk contests, but their tremendous skill and killer instinct allows them to succeed when their team needs it most. Pau Gasol is on their level skill-wise. It's the willingness to go into the fire, the belief in his own invincibility, which is lacking.
The moniker that gets thrown around to describe this quality (or lack thereof) is "soft". It doesn't adequately describe the situation. Make no mistake, Pau Gasol IS soft. He is weak. This isn't a point of opinion, it's a statement of fact. If Pau were to enter into a weight lifting competition with any of his peers, he'd get slaughtered. If you put him in a boxing ring with any of his brethren, he'd get crushed. But, over the past few seasons, and especially the past few playoff runs, he has repeatedly shown to be capable of compensating for his weakness, by playing with heart and resolve. When he wants to be, when he is willing, no lack of strength can prevent him from still dominating with his overwhelming skill and size and grace.
But the willingness is not there 100% of the time. I don't think other teams can force the willingness out of him, but sometimes, he just forgets to bring that aspect of his psyche to the table, and until that changes, I can never consider him to be the MVP of this team. Kobe Bryant, for all of his many faults, is always willing to put the team on his shoulders. One of his faults is that he is a little too willing to do so. Often, the results aren't good for Kobe or for the team. Sometimes, Kobe loses games for his team. Pau Gasol, on the other hand, is perfectly happy to let his teammates do the losing for him.