Almost exactly three years ago, Mitch Kupchak and the Los Angeles Lakers executed a trade that permanently changed the landscape of the entire NBA. They traded a bunch of spare parts and the biggest bust in NBA draft history for Pau Gasol, a borderline All-Star with an endless bag of tricks to use in the post. The Lakers immediately became championship contenders, and have played a role in all three NBA Finals since the trade (playing the winning role in the last two). As Pau has developed, it has become clear that we are on a very slow collision course with the day when Pau Gasol surpasses Kobe Bryant as the most valuable player on the Lakers. It's a matter of time, quite literally; Kobe has had more of it (a lot more if we consider that Kobe started playing professionally before the age of 18). At some point, time will catch up to him. Gasol is younger by two years, and more importantly, he's played 5 less seasons. He will continue to ascend or hold steady as Kobe Bryant declines, and eventually their career arcs will meet, and then head in opposite directions (or at least, Gasol's decline will be far less steep than Kobe's for a while). Barring injury to Gasol, this progression is almost inevitable. But has it already happened?
It's not an opinion held in high regard within Lakers Nation. However, outside these friendly confines, there are certainly some who are on board with it. During last year's NBA Finals, there was clamoring that perhaps Pau was more deserving of Finals MVP than Kobe was. Gasol's hot start to this season had more than a few people thinking he was a viable candidate for MVP of the entire league, much less his own team. That league MVP talk subsided long ago, as Pau crashed back to earth after an amazing first month of the season, but despite Pau's recent struggles, people still look at him and see an ultra-efficient post scorer who's only "fault" is that he's not aggressive enough to keep up with his own teammate.
Is that enough to make him more valuable than Kobe Bryant? Let's take a look.
The MVP label requires a certain amount of definition. After all, the criteria for what determines the MVP of the league is different depending on whom you talk to. Some think it's the best player on the best team, the guy who is leading his team to a height that nobody else can reach. Others seek to answer the question of "If X Player wasn't there, how much worse would his team be", and the guy with the highest value is the MVP. For the rest, it's a sheer numbers game; the player with the best stats should be the league's MVP. In a team setting, the first option is moot. I think the second one doesn't really apply either, because with two great players on one team, it's impossible to tell whether Kobe or Pau would be capable of filling in the gaps were the other to miss time. So we're left with option #3, a simple numbers game. Here are those numbers.
On the season (to date) Kobe Bryant is averaging 25.4 points on 49.3% eFG. He's picking up 5 rebounds and 5 assists a game as well. He turns the ball over a lot, nearly 3 times a game, but he also does a good job of getting to the free throw line, with 7.5 FTA per game. Add it all up, and he's got a PER of 24.8. Pau Gasol is playing more minutes than Kobe (which should count in his favor). He's scoring 18.7 points per game on 52.5% eFG, and picking up 10.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. He too struggles with turnovers, but not quite as badly as Kobe does, with 1.9 per game. His PER tops out at 23.6.
Based on those numbers, it seems pretty clear to me that Kobe remains the Lakers best player, and therefore it's MVP. Really, this shouldn't be a surprise, because Kobe Bryant is (numerically speaking) playing at a higher level this season than he ever has in the Pau Gasol era. His shooting has increased vs. last season, and he's picking up rebounds and assists at a higher combined rate than he has since 2008. After his PER dipped dramatically last season (from the low 24's to just under 22), it has jumped back up to above his career average, the highest PER he has posted as a member of a contender since 2002-2003. Pau Gasol, meanwhile, is shooting the worst percentage of his Lakers career, and his rebounding rate is down compared to last year as well. He is still very good (for his position) at racking up the assists, and his strongest improvement this season has been to cut down on turnovers, but it's not enough. Numerically, Kobe Bryant is producing more (in less time) and therefore has more value than Pau Gasol.
Well, I'm glad we got that settled. There's just one problem ... buried within those same numbers is confirmation, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Pau Gasol's play is more important to the success of the Los Angeles Lakers than Kobe Bryant is. Let's revisit last year's NBA Finals MVP conversation. The concept that Pau Gasol deserved Finals MVP was borne out of the fact that, in the games the Lakers won, Pau was the more dominant force. Pau averaged 18 points and 13.75 rebounds per game on 45% shooting in the four Laker wins. In losses, he scored 19 points on 51% shooting, but his rebounding dropped dramatically down to 9.33 boards per game. Contrast this to Kobe Bryant, who was terrible in the Laker wins, scoring 27 points per game, but with an eFG of 39%. However, in the three losses, he scored 30 a game with an eFG of 54%, including scoring barrages in games 4 and 5 that were the only reasons those contests were competitive. Overall, both put up pretty strong lines: Pau came through with 18.5 points per game, 11 boards, and 3.7 assists on 48% shooting, and Kobe put up 28.6 points per game, 8 boards, and 3.9 assists on 45% eFG (Pau did not make any three pointers, so eFG is a fair comparison). Kobe's numbers (an extra 10 points on relatively similar adjusted field goal percentage, and only 3 boards less per game) certainly merited the MVP overall, but people remember how poorly he played in those Laker wins (including game 7) and question whether he is deserving. My response now is the same as it was then; when determining the MVP, losses count too.
However, the lesson to be learned is that a great game from Kobe does not necessarily equate to overall team success. This season, that dynamic has become exaggerated by the stunning disparity in Pau Gasol's play between wins and losses. Check out the win/loss profiles I've created below. All of these stats are minutes-adjusted because both Kobe and Pau play significantly increased minutes in Laker losses.
|Kobe Bryant||In wins||In losses||Pau Gasol||In wins||In losses|
|Points/36 min||26.8||27.4||Points/36 min||19.7||14.3|
|Shots/36 min||19.7||22.9||Shots/36 min||13.9||11.7|
|FT/36 min||6.8||6.2||FT/36 min||4.8||2.6|
|Assists/36 min||5.3||5.4||REB/36 min||10.4||9.4|
|TO/36 min||3.1||3.3||TO/36 min||1.6||2.2|
In Kobe's profile, we can definitely see a certain amount of hero complex. In games the Lakers are losing, he scores more points, but he does so less efficiently. In fact, he increases just about everything. If the Lakers are down, he shoots more, doles out more assists, turns the ball over more; the only thing that doesn't increase is free throw attempts, but those stay close enough to the same as to not read too much into it. By taking more shots and garnering (slightly) more assists, we can see Kobe is working harder in losses than he is in wins. Fault him if you don't particularly like his strategy in these losing situations if you wish (and we've already gone into detail about whether the loss is causing the profile, or the profile is causing the loss), but his motor is unquestionable.
By contrast, Pau's profile couldn't be more different. His numbers are dramatically down across the board. The dips in his shooting % mirror Kobe's almost exactly. Both his points and shot attempts are down considerably as well. However, the three statistical categories that paint the clearest picture in my mind are the free throws, rebounds, and turnovers, because these three stats are the best approximation of Pau's effort level. His shot attempts decrease in losses, but that could be explained away by observing that, perhaps, Kobe is taking those shot attempts away from him in an attempt to play the hero. But the possibility of a Kobe-centric offense does nothing to explain why Pau is grabbing 10% less rebounds, turning the ball over 27% more, and getting to the free throw line 46% less(!!) despite his shot attempts only decreasing by 16%. If anything, it gives greater credence to the idea that Kobe sees his team in need of rescue and does his best to get the job done. He can see when Pau is struggling, settling for 15 foot jumpers instead of attacking aggressively, or getting bullied into turnovers on the block. When he sees it, hero mode becomes the only option in his mind.
The problem is that hero mode doesn't usually work. Just like in last year's Finals, even if Kobe plays spectacularly, it does not often equate to victory unless he has company. That doesn't mean Kobe should be held at fault for trying to will his team to victory, because most of the time, he does so because all the other options have already failed. However, it does paint a clear picture that Pau Gasol's performance is of far greater importance in determining the overall success of the team.
Kobe Bryant is the undisputed leader of this team; he is the alpha dog. As such, when the team as a whole does something worthy of glory, he will get the first slice, and that slice will be the biggest. That's not just how basketball works, that is how the world works. And Kobe's status as the alpha dog on this team will not change for a long, long time. Hell, based on the apparent will power of the two players involved, it may never change. There will probably come a time when Pau Gasol ends up a better overall basketball player than Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers will remain Kobe's team well beyond that point. However, the time when Pau Gasol's play has a greater influence on whether the Lakers win has already arrived.
If Pau plays well, the Lakers usually win. If he doesn't, they struggle. Pau has struggled quite a bit lately, and only a slew of poor opponents have kept the Lakers win-loss record respectable. With a much tougher road to travel from now until the start of the playoffs, the Lakers clearly need Pau Gasol to kick back into gear. If he does, the Lakers remain one of the favorites in the race to obtain their third straight NBA championship. If he doesn't, all the doom and gloom which have surrounded the team through this underwhelming regular season may actually come to pass. Pau Gasol is the single most important factor to consider in evaluating just how far this Lakers team will go.
Just don't make the mistake of equating that importance with value.
All stats created with the asssistance of basketball-reference.com
Editor's Note: We re-bumped this to the front page because yesterday's Melo drama demoted this piece to the side stage.