Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Pau Gasol.
The 2007 offseason was one of turmoil for the Los Angeles Lakers — at least for a day or two. In an interview with Stephen A. Smith on 1050 ESPN Radio in New York on May 30, 2007, the team’s star shooting guard, Kobe Bryant, publicly requested a trade.
“I would like to be traded, yeah,” Bryant told Smith. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative.”
When Bryant was asked if the Lakers could do anything to change his mind, he gave an eery answer.
“No,” Bryant said. “I just want them to do the right thing.”
By the end of the day, Bryant had already walked back on his comments and said that he wanted to spend the rest of his career with the Lakers. But while Bryant didn’t force his way out of Los Angeles that summer, he did send a message to the team’s front office with his trade request: something has to change.
In the season before Bryant’s trade request, the Lakers went 42-40, which was good enough to sneak into the postseason as the No. 7 seed, but they didn’t make it past the first round, losing to the Phoenix Suns in five games. They were knocked in the first round the season before that, too.
The Lakers had an exciting piece in Bynum — the No. 10 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft — but Bryant was tired of waiting for his next shot at an NBA championship, and his trade request signified that. So, on Feb. 1, 2008, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak orchestrated a trade that netted Bryant a co-star in Pau Gasol, a skilled, Spanish big man on a lowly Memphis Grizzlies team.
Gasol’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for the Lakers, who lost Bynum to a knee injury in January. Prior to his injury, Bynum was one the most valuable players on the team, with averages of 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. That season, Bynum was the only player in the NBA to average at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in under 30 minutes per game, according to NBA.com.
With Bynum sidelined for at least eight weeks, the Lakers were in desperate need of front court help, and they got more than they bargained for in Gasol. Not only did Gasol make up for Bynum’s absence, but he gave the Lakers a playmaker in the high post that they didn’t have before, which opened things up for the team’s shot creators like Bryant and Lamar Odom. He also had a soft touch around the rim, and a knack for hitting midrange jumpers.
Gasol, Bryant and Odom carried the Lakers to an NBA-best record of 57-25, and after breezing through the Western Conference bracket in the postseason, they met the Boston Celtics in the Finals for the first time since 1987. Gasol had a good postseason up to that point, but he showed signs of struggle in his Western Conference Finals matchup with Tim Duncan. In the Finals, Gasol had another tough matchup in Kevin Garnett, and Garnett went at Gasol every chance he got.
As a whole, Gasol did a good job of defending Garnett, but the big difference for the Celtics in that series was how physical Garnett was compared to Gasol. The Celtics won the 2008 NBA Finals in six games, and Gasol was labeled as soft from that point on.
That label followed him to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he’d see Bryant in the gold medal game between the USA and Spain. Once again, Gasol underperformed in a big game, and Bryant made sure to let his teammate know that he was going to go into the 2008-09 season without any hardware.
Gasol came back from the summer a better and more physical player, and averaged career-highs in rebounds (9.6) and field goal percentage (56.7), the latter of which is still his career-high. With the motivation of 2008 behind him, Gasol helped Bryant left his fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy after beating the Orlando Magic in five games. In that series, Gasol averaged 18.6 points per game on 60% shooting from the field, and 9.2 rebounds per game.
With a championship-winning season under his belt, Gasol got some of the validation that he needed, but the only thing that was going to complete his redemption arc was a rematch with Garnett and the Celtics, and fortunately for him, that’s just what he got in 2010.
The Celtics took the Lakers to seven games, but the length of the series wasn’t a result of Gasol’s play. In the first two games of the Finals series, Gasol tallied a combined 48 points, 22 rebounds and 8 blocks — 6 of which came in the opening game. Gasol was ready for this series, and he showed it when the Lakers needed him the most.
In Game 7, Bryant was forcing things from tip-off because, like Gasol, the memory of getting blown out by the Celtics in an elimination game was fresh in his mind, and he was hungry for revenge. His shot selection nearly cost the Lakers the game, but Gasol was there to clean things up for Bryant, who carried his team in the Finals the year prior.
To be clear, Gasol wasn’t hitting shots at a particularly efficient clip, either. In the first half Gasol, shot 3-12 from the field. However, he did make an impact on the boards in the first half and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. When the second half rolled around, Gasol carefully chose his more carefully, but he got the majority of his points from the free-throw line because of how physical he played.
Gasol ended the night with 19 points. 18 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, and at long last, he got his revenge over Garnett and the Celtics.
For Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, the work he did for children’s health during his time in Los Angeles and the seven seasons he spent wearing the purple and gold, Gasol is a Laker worth appreciating. Hopefully, the Lakers show their appreciation for Gasol with a retired jersey in Staples Center, right next to Bryant’s.