Nice Guys Finish Last? Examining Pau Gasol’s Future in Purple and Gold

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

After another injury-plagued season with mixed results, it's time to ask: what's next for Pau Gasol?

Pau Gasol has always been the subject of sky high expectations as an NBA player.  As the number three pick in the 2001 draft, he immediately become the face of the franchise in Memphis. Despite winning Rookie of the Year and setting multiple records for the Grizz, he was never able to deliver on that promise. In a trade that cemented Mitch Kupchak’s status as one of the finest GMs in the league, the Lakers were able to acquire Gasol in 2008 for Kwame Brown, a few draft picks, and some loose change. Although the much maligned trade ultimately ended up being a win for both sides, Pau immediately became an integral part of the team, helping Kobe lead the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and two championships. Kobe finally had his #2 in Gasol.

As a Laker, Pau has been on All-Star teams, All-NBA teams, and even won a citizenship award in 2012. He’s cultured, engaged in the community, and one of the nicest guys in the L. Despite his excellent track record as a Laker on and off the court, Pau has also been a magnet for criticism. In a town where Kobe can do no wrong, Pau has been labeled soft, subjected to constant trade rumors, and blamed for things far beyond his control.  A long-time Pau supporter, I’ve often defended him against his critics, but have also entered each of the last two seasons hoping for a resurgence in his game.

Heading into the 2012-13 season, Pau had just dominated at the Olympics and looked every bit like a top 15 player in the world. Unfortunately, this momentum did not roll over and his campaign was hindered by a new coach, lack of chemistry with Dwight, and injuries. With Kobe injured and Dwight gone, it was even more critical that Pau emerge as THE leader of the Lake Show this season. Furthermore, he was set to become a free agent this summer at 33, likely playing for his last big money contract as an NBA player. Before the season, Pau said, "I have great motivation. It’s the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league."

Coming off career lows in points (13.7), field goal attempts (11.8), and FG%(46.6%), it seemed inevitable that Pau would bounce back. On the surface, his numbers did improve, turning in 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, and numbers in line with his career averages (despite a career low in minutes per game and missing 22 games due to injury). However, he also registered one of the lowest True Shooting percentages of his career (52.2%), which dragged his PER below 20 for the second straight season and second time in his career. Tellingly, his stats were virtually identical in Laker wins and losses, indicating a weak correlation between Pau’s performance and that of the team.

The eye test confirms the statistical mixed bag. Even after Howard’s departure, it was another year of failing to mesh with D’Antoni and his uptempo system, although there were sporadic stretches where Pau was dominant. Pau was visibly uncomfortable at times and repeatedly took to the media to complain about his coach. On the other side of the ball, Gasol has never been an all-world defender, but the lack of an elite rim protector next to him was evident. Teams that got into the paint ran layup drills around Gasol, whose defensive effort waxed and waned over the course of the season.

Coming into the season, Pau was one of the most likely players to be traded, either to bolster a fringe contender or because of his $19M expiring contract. It was easy to see the Lakers getting a first round pick or a package of young players in exchange for the All-Star. However, the Suns balked at the trade deadline and the Lakers never got any offers of real value for Pau, reportedly only receiving a second round pick offered for his services.

What does this mean moving forward? The Lakers are rebuilding and need to carefully manage their cap space, which makes Pau’s future a tricky subject. Pau now controls his own destiny as a free agent and will definitely explore his options around the league. Under the new CBA, there are always teams with cap room each offseason and it’s easy to imagine a real market for Pau. The Suns, Raptors, and even the Bulls (if they amnesty Boozer) could each pair him with a real center while benefitting from his veteran leadership and dizzying offensive skillset. Although it would take a hefty discount or Randolph walking, Pau could also return to Memphis to play with his brother.

Kupchak has called him a priority this offseason and Pau has made it clear that he’s not opposed to coming back, but doing so will require major changes (maybe a new coach?) and overtures from Kobe Bean Bryant. Whether or not the Lakers are willing to accommodate Pau remains to be seen, but it would be a mistake to let him soak up too much of their valuable cap space. I’d love to see Pau Gasol back for the right price, but Kobe’s gargantuan new contract really limits Kupchak’s flexibility and ability to reload on the fly. The Lake Show should simply let Pau walk rather than outbid another team and offer him a big deal or lengthy contract.

The trade for Pau was the watershed moment that finally allowed the Lakers to ditch their post-Shaq baggage and move forward as a franchise. Since coming to the Lakers, Gasol has fought in the trenches with Kobe and emerged victorious. Pau has been an exemplary teammate, a champion, and someone who deserves respect in Los Angeles. Regardless of where he plays next season, Gasol has earned his place in Lakers history.

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