This is the next in our series of Player Report Cards, in which we evaluate and assign a grade to the performance of each member of the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Up today is Pau Gasol.
Pau Gasol has been a Laker for only two-and-a-half seasons, but in that time he's already established himself as one of the best forwards in franchise history. Consider first what the team has accomplished since the trade that brought him to Los Angeles: a regular-season winning percentage of 0.746, a playoff winning percentage of 0.687, three trips to the NBA Finals and two championships. Pau's arrival heralded no less than a new golden age in Lakerdom. Although it's impossible to say what the last few seasons would've been like without him around, we can safely assume the Lakers wouldn't have come close to scaling these same heights.
From the moment he joined the Lakers, Pau has been a near-perfect sidekick for Kobe Bryant. His skill set makes him an ideal fit for the Triangle offense. His post moves compare respectably to those of back-to-the-basket titans such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale. He has a smooth outside touch that makes him a threat out to 20 feet. He's a sensational passer for a big man. And he more than holds his own on the boards and has developed into a strong defender. In both of his full seasons with the Lakers, Pau has been named third-team All-NBA. In 2009, he probably should've been second- or first-team instead. Pau could retire tomorrow, and his trade to the Lakers would still go down as one of the great steals in sports history.
This past season started out slowly for Pau. In training camp he hurt his right hamstring, and then he tried coming back from it too quickly, which caused a recurrence of the injury and forced him to miss the first 11 games. In January he hurt his left hamstring, forcing him out another six games. When he was on the court, however, Pau was his usual productive self. He gave the Lakers 37 minutes a game during the regular season and 40 a night in the playoffs, holding down the fort inside amid Andrew Bynum's usual run of health problems and despite little help from frontcourt reserves not named Lamar Odom.
Pau's scoring was down a bit from 2008-09, owing to a modest drop in field-goal percentage. Whereas he shot 57% from the field in 2008-09, that number fell to a (still solid) 54% last season. Thanks to the number-crunchers at HoopData, we can see that the culprits were midrange shots: away from the rim but within 15 feet, Pau's accuracy was off 6-7% from the prior season. He made up for it in part with slight upticks in both free-throw attempts and percentage.
He also did great work on the glass. Pau collected over 11% of available offensive boards (a career high) and almost 23% of available defensive boards (the second-best rate of his career and his highest as a Laker). Rebounding was an important component of the team's success. The Lakers were pretty crap at shooting the ball and thus depended heavily on second-chance points. Conversely, on D they were among the league's best at limiting opponents' second-chance opportunities. Along with Lamar and Drew, Pau used his length and worked his ass off to make rebounding a big competitive advantage for Los Lakers.
His willowy build and cerebral bearing will prevent Pau from ever being known as a ferocious defensive stopper, but he's well above average on that end of the court. With his height and extendo arms, he swallows up undersized fours, as he did Carlos Boozer in the second round of the playoffs. He also became more of a shot-blocker this year. After swatting just one shot per 36 minutes in 2008-09, he blocked 1.7 per 36 last season with only minimal change to his foul rate. His ratio of blocked shots to personal fouls ranked eighth in the league. Of the top tier of power forwards in the game (a category in which I include Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire), Pau is the only one who rates as a plus defender.
Gasol set off a minor controversy in February after a loss in Memphis. It was the night Kobe became the Lakers' all-time leading scorer but needed 28 field-goal attempts and 13 free-throw attempts to get there. After the game, Pau said, "Obviously we're not making a concerted effort at pounding the ball inside," which many interpreted as a demand for more shots and some read as evidence of a simmering Kobe-Pau feud. Thankfully, that never came to pass and was probably never a real possibility.
Pau was merely surfacing an issue that everyone is aware of: that the Triangle functions optimally when the inside game is a point of emphasis. Nobody who's watched Gasol over the years can reasonably think of him as selfish or shot-hungry. The guy is a deft and willing distributor out of the post. No one on the team is better at the cross-court pass that sets up an open three-pointer on the weak side. If only the Lakers had had someone who could make a three this season, Pau's assist numbers would've been substantially higher. Anyhow, that little rhubarb came and went pretty quickly and was basically forgotten by playoff time.
The following must be recognized: Pau was awesome in the postseason. In the first round against Oklahoma City, he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds and sealed the series victory with a last-second tip-in in Game Six. In the second round against Utah, he cranked it up even more, averaging 24 and 15 and completely embarrassing Boozer. He began the Western Conference Finals by destroying Stoudemire in Games One and Two. Back in Phoenix for Games Three and Four, Pau struggled a bit on D, but in Game Five in Staples he threw up a 21-9-5 performance in a crucial Laker victory. Against the Celtics in the Finals, he straight took it to the frontline that tormented him back in 2008. For the series he averaged close to 19 points and three blocked shots a game and absolutely owned the boards. Across the seven games against Boston, he collected 46 defensive and 35 offensive rebounds. Insane.
Pau turned 30 last month. He's under contract with the Lakers for four more years, and it's reasonable to expect him to play at or close to his established peak for the length of his deal. He's not a guy who relies on superhuman athleticism, and he's not a huge dude whose knees take an unholy pounding just getting up and down the court, so if he takes care of himself and enjoys some decent luck on the health front, he'll have plenty more All-Star seasons ahead of him.
In the pantheon of Laker forwards, he's not going to catch Elgin Baylor, who played 14 seasons with the franchise and had an MVP-caliber peak that Pau can't match. Although I'd argue that Pau's performing at a higher level than James Worthy ever managed, Worthy's 12 years with the franchise mean he's probably safe in the number two slot. After that pair, however, Pau's next in line. Being the third-best Laker at any position is amazing stuff and should be good enough to see his #16 jersey hang from the Staples rafters someday.
Player Grade: I'm tempted to give an A, but I'm notching him down because of the games he missed in the regular season. Pau gets an A-.
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