In many ways, Pau Gasol is out of place as an NBA player. He's been blessed with the pre-requisite gifts of length, agility, and athleticism in varying degrees, but his mentality is different than 90% of the players who don an NBA uniform. The normal NBA player is aggressive by nature. Pau Gasol is not. The normal NBA player is typically masculine, with huge biceps and tree trunks for legs that allow the player to absorb contact and fly through the air. Pau Gasol is wispy by comparison.
The normal NBA player does much of what he does by instinct. Pau Gasol does not. Pau Gasol is a thinker, not a doer. That's not to say he doesn't do anything. Doers think and thinkers do. It's a matter of priority, and Pau Gasol's first priority is always to have his actions well thought out. This is why so many of Pau Gasol's opportunities with the basketball wind up the same. He'll catch the ball, turn and face his defender, and wait. He's thinking, analyzing the court, trying to determine which of the vast array of moves in his arsenal would be most appropriate for the situation. Many times, the most appropriate outcome is to move the ball elsewhere, and Pau Gasol is true to his analytical nature every single time.
There is another byproduct of Pau Gasol's thinking mentality, one that occasionally makes him a hard man to root for. Because he plays the game with his mind, and not with his instincts, Pau Gasol often plays without much emotion. In many ways, he's like a basketball computer. You can see other players play with tremendous effort in certain situations, but Gasol's effort never waxes, never wanes. When he gets beaten defensively, he doesn't show disappointment. When his teammates ignore him, he doesn't make a fuss. He's simply there, doing his job, all the time, never adjusting his effort or his usage, even if the Lakers might need him to.
You might spend a great deal of time watching Pau Gasol and think he lacks the fire that drives the greatest of players. You would be wrong. Pau Gasol has the fire. It doesn't burn hot like we see with Kobe Bryant, doesn't rise and fall like we see with Andrew Bynum, but it's there, eternally hidden below the veneer of his thinking man's persona.
I thought that fire might have been lost. Through the first quarter of this season, Pau Gasol has certainly seemed like a man without a flame. That's not to say he's played poorly. His averages are down across the board, in scoring, in rebounding, in shot attempts, but he has also devoted himself to the Mike Brown defense. Gasol's pick and roll defense has often been inspired this season, and though Andrew Bynum remains the key to the Lakers defensive plans, if I were to vote for a defensive MVP of this team so far, the Spaniard's would be the name on my ballot. The drop off in offense can be contextualized with the ascension of Andrew Bynum as an offensive player who must be fed. Increasingly, Gasol has found himself working from the high post, or even the perimeter, instead of on the low block. His shots have gone to Bynum, his position has gone to Bynum.
Ever the gracious teammate, Pau Gasol has let this transformation occur. In one sense, he is to be applauded, allowing Andrew Bynum the time and resources to develop into the game changing force he's always had the potential to be. But, in letting Bynum usurp him, Pau Gasol has catered to the storyline that he is a player who can be pushed around, who has no heart, who has no flame. I fell prey to the storyline myself. I had no particular issues with the way Gasol was playing this season, but I had issue with how resigned he seemed. It wasn't that he became the Lakers' third option, it's how complacently he accepted the title, almost as if he wanted to do it, to take less responsibility. I thought his near-trade had robbed him of his will, or that perhaps the ascension of Bynum as a second dominant personality was simply too much for the thinker in Gasol to compete with. I thought his flame had been quelled.
I'm happy to report I was wrong. The eternally hidden flame of Pau Gasol remains hidden, but it also remains burning. Over the past few games, Gasol has begun to assert himself in a variety of ways. He's taken more shots, he's scored more points, he's created more assists, but the most important assertion has come in other ways. He's attacking his defender instead of simply surveying the scene. He's mixing it up with his opponents instead of just standing in their way. And he's once again reminding his team, both in his play and with his words, that good things happen when the ball finds his hands.
In short, he's proven that he's not just going to be pushed aside by the more dominant personalities on this squad. Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant are both alpha males. They don't want to be fed, they demand it, and with both of them around, Gasol was left to fend for scraps. His place, his role, as third fiddle on the team isn't a problem. His complete acceptance of it, without the will to fight for his place, that would be a problem, but its a problem we don't have to worry about.
Pau Gasol still burns for greatness, in his own special way. Pau Gasol may be a thinker, but he can still do. He may be analytical, but he can still demand. He may be accustomed to simply taking what's given to him, but he can still fight. We rarely see the flame; it doesn't burn hot, it isn't visible. But the past few games have proven the flame is still there, burning beneath the surface and powering the gentle giant's actions.