This column was originally published in May of 2020, but we are republishing it in the wake of the news that Pau Gasol is retiring today, and that the Lakers plan to retire his jersey. Original story follows.
The barrier to entry for getting a jersey retired by the Los Angeles Lakers is incredibly high.
Only ten players have had their jersey number retired in franchise history (11 numbers total, due to Kobe Bryant’s two). All ten of them are Hall of Famers. The majority of them won multiple titles with the Lakers, and they weren’t just along for the ride — every player was a multiple-time All-Star, and the majority made multiple all-NBA teams.
There seems to be a general consensus among Lakers fans that Pau Gasol will be the next Laker to have his jersey retired by the franchise. Gasol was a beloved member of a two-time title-winning team. He was the second-best player on both of those teams, and he was one of the best big men in the league while with the Lakers. He will undoubtedly be a Hall of Famer, so he seems to meet all the criteria for earning a spot in the rafters.
But again, there is a high standard for being honored by this franchise, and it’s worth considering how Gasol stacks up in comparison to the players whose jerseys are already hanging. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the existing retired numbers. Bryant has been split into two players for ease of comparison.
Lakers Retired Jerseys
|Kobe Bryant (8)||10||8||8||3|
|Wilt Chamberlain (13)||5||4||1||1|
|Elgin Baylor (22)||13||11||10||0|
|Kobe Bryant (24)||10||10||7||2|
|Gail Goodrich (25)||9||4||1||1|
|Magic Johnson (32)||13||12||10||5|
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33)||14||13||10||5|
|Shaquille O'Neal (34)||8||7||8||3|
|James Worthy (42)||12||7||2||3|
|Jerry West (44)||14||14||12||1|
|Jamaal Wilkes (52)||8||2||0||3|
The “average” retired Laker spent about 10.5 seasons with the team, was an All-Star eight times, made six all-NBA teams, and won 2.5 titles as a Laker.
Gasol spent 6.5 years with the Lakers, earned three All-Star nods and made three all-NBA teams, and won two titles in the purple and gold. I’d argue that Gasol deserved at least one more All-Star berth while with the Lakers (in 2012), but even then, Gasol’s resume pales in comparison to the almost ridiculous standard set by the luminaries who have played for the team.
But let’s be realistic: no one is trying to put Gasol in the same sentence as Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, or even Shaquille O’Neal. Even within the retired jersey pantheon, however, there are levels, and Gasol clearly belongs in a lower tier than the one-name greats in Lakers history. Gasol is more in the range of Gail Goodrich, James Worthy, Wilt Chamberlain and Jamaal Wilkes.
Gasol averaged 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game as a Laker, a consistent double-double presence whose numbers are slightly muted by his mishandling during Mike D’Antoni’s tenure. His scoring is right in line with those four aforementioned Lakers (Goodrich, Worthy, Chamberlain and Wilkes), his assist numbers are better than even the smaller players, and his rebounding is only eclipsed by Chamberlain.
The important characteristic each of those players share is that none of them were the best player on a championship team. Worthy does have one Finals MVP, and Gasol was probably a better candidate for that honor in 2009 than most people remember, but they were all second bananas at best. That’s noteworthy, because no one would ever argue that Gasol’s value exceeded that of Bryant during his tenure. Fortunately, the Lakers have no problem honoring multiple players on the same title teams. This team is used to properly appreciating stacked rosters.
The 1960s Lakers (who never actually won a title) are represented by West and Elgin Baylor. The 1972 team featured West, Chamberlain and Goodrich. The Showtime Lakers have four players immortalized including Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy and Wilkes, while the 2000s three-peat is represented by Bryant and O’Neal. It stands to reason that the 2009-10 back-to-back champs would deserve a second number in the rafters, and that would have to be Gasol.
In a sense, the reason that No. 24 is retired is because of Gasol. Without him, Bryant is a solo act on the Lakers, collecting meaningless scoring titles and first-round playoff exits (even if he rescinds his trade demand, which may not have happened had Gasol not come aboard). Gasol came to Los Angeles and immediately elevated the Lakers into a championship-worthy team. Numerous tales have been told of his instant chemistry with Bryant. As a result, Gasol earns his place in a long and storied tradition of big men being traded to the Lakers and bringing them to a new level, like Wilt and Kareem before him.
The Lakers’ championship runs are littered with outstanding Gasol moments. His boxout on Mehmet Okur against the Jazz in 2008, his crucial offensive rebounds in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, and his putback against OKC to win the 2010 first round series. There’s the entirety of the 2009 Finals, when Gasol was the best big in a series that had Dwight Howard, or how he took the challenge of containing Tim Duncan in the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
The story of the Lakers franchise is incomplete without Pau Gasol. The team’s most recent string of success came directly because of Gasol’s ability to accept a supporting role and turn a good team into a great one. That is the only kind of team the Lakers historically care about. Failing to honor Gasol would be failing to recognize what made those 2008-10 Lakers work. Whether or not Gasol finishes his career in Los Angeles with a victory lap, he has to have his jersey retired. He is an irreplaceable part of this franchise’s lore, and deserves to see his name in the rafters with all the other stars who made this team so special.