In a season that had quite a few themes for the Los Angeles Lakers, we finally arrive to pass judgment on the player central to the most important one. The Lakers are Kobe Bryant's team, and they will most likely remain so until he hangs up his low-tops for good, but it is a title borne out of legacy and will power, and no longer because Kobe is the central piston in the Laker engine. That piston, at least last season, was Pau Gasol.
Just in case you aren't a car person, or are still too traumatized by the fact that Pixar finally made a bad movie to think in these terms, let me put it more clearly: Pau Gasol was the most important player on the Lakers roster last year. This isn't about shots or touches. The offense ran through Kobe first, just like it always does. The defense belonged to Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. Gasol's place in the team hierarchy, in all facets of the game, was unchanged from prior seasons. What changed was how important his role became. What changed is how reliant the team became on what Pau Gasol brings to the table. And in the end, what changed was the team's inability to deal with the fact that Gasol couldn't cook every night.
Pau Gasol was central to the team's performance, and the team failed miserably. It doesn't take an advanced level of cognition to come to the conclusion then that Pau deserves a lion's share of the blame for the season's flameout. For that reason, many of you were particularly looking forward to the review of Pau's season, I suspect out of some love of bloodsport, but you will most likely be disappointed if you were anticipating a bloodbath. After all, Pau Gasol had many labels over the course of this season; MVP Candidate, Possible Narcoleptic, Resurgent Force, Tired Ninny, Insecure 2nd Banana, and Tin Man (Wizard of Oz burrrrrn). But the final, and most apt, label given to the big Spaniard, the one that has stuck with him all offseason, is Scapegoat.
Pau Gasol did not have a great season, but he didn't have a terrible one either. He played terribly in the playoffs ... and was joined in that regard by the vast majority of his teammates. He failed terribly to live up to expectations ... which were created from a baseline that should never have been considered square one. It bears repeating: Pau Gasol did not change significantly in any way from this most recent season to the previous one. What changed is that the Lakers needed more from him than he was apparently capable of giving. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at the man's numbers (certain less important stats have been removed so that it can all fit).
No, of course not. What has us so angry at Pau is the inconsistency he displayed all season. His first six weeks were as good as any player in the league, which means he spent at least six weeks in mediocrity to maintain the statistical balance presented above. What has us so angry is the complete disappearing act he pulled in the playoffs, where his statistical performance is much more in line with what we'd expect from "The Man Who Is At Fault." Statistics are not the whole story. They never have been, and we're a long, long way from a time in which they might be.
But they are also not to be ignored completely. As we here at SSR have always done, the statistics must be married with what we observe. We observed Pau Gasol play like trash far too often, playing with what we perceived to be a lack of effort, a lack of confidence, and what we know was a lack of results. We saw him get beat to countless rebounds, play help defense that seemed more like help offense, and get caught flat footed. And the worst crime he committed was failing to exploit the only weakness to Dirk Nowitzki's game in a series in which Dirk was exploiting our entire team. We can surmise that Pau was tired, fatigued, insecure, distracted, but there is no point to making excuses, no point in hypothesizing. All we know about Pau Gasol is that he is a basketball player, and all too often, we saw him do so well below the standard he set for himself, that we set for him, especially when it mattered most.
But perhaps that standard was set too high. Perhaps we adjusted to "MVP Pau" too quickly to realize that it was a false hope. Pau Gasol failed this team, and because of it, the team failed to reach their ultimate goal. But even if Pau played to his averages, even if he rose to the occasion, would it have been enough? Would 20 and 10 have been enough to turn a sweep in defeat to a glorious victory? Personally, I doubt it. The Lakers failed at almost every turn against Dallas, a cataclysmic ball of fire that consumed all. In case you haven't noticed there aren't a whole lot good grades being parsed out this year, and that is because nobody lived up to the billing.
Does Pau Gasol deserve your ire? Sure. Does he deserve all of it? Not even close. Final Grade: B-
Sasha Vujacic.... F
Trey Johnson.... C
Joe Smith.... D+
Theo Ratliff.... D-
Devin Ebanks.... C-
Derrick Caracter.... D+
Luke Walton.... F
Shannon Brown.... C
Steve Blake.... C-
Lamar Odom.... A-
Derek Fisher.... C-
Ron Artest.... C+
Andrew Bynum... B+