NBA Sunday: The Pau Gasol Gamble


In the most Tim Duncan way possible, the greatest power forward of all-time left the game the same exact way he survived within it. Unassuming, unpretentious, meekly and quietly, Tim Duncan’s announcement was delivered via email (just like I had predicted). There would be no season-long retirement tour, no gifts from past competitors and no public softening of the competitive spirit and fire that had many believing that the Spurs would somehow find a way to win the 2016 NBA Finals.

With Duncan stepping out of the picture, all eyes in San Antonio immediately turn to the man who has been employed as his replacement—Pau Gasol.

With Gregg Popovich, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard pushing forward as the franchise’s key figures, what will become of the mighty legacy of the Spurs?

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Since being selected with the third overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, the unassuming Pau Gasol has had a lot to prove. At the time of his drafting, the European big man had not yet earned a reputation across the NBA as being a tough competitor who was willing to bang with some of his bigger and stronger American counterparts.

A quick look at some of Gasol’s European predecessors reads like a “who’s who” of European draft busts: Jérome Moïso, Aleksandar Radojević, Frédéric Weis, Radoslav Nesterovič and Mirsad Türkcan among them. Although Nesterovič did play 12 seasons in the NBA, he was never more than a marginal center who failed to live up to the expectations that were thrust upon him. And when Gasol was drafted in 2001, Dirk Nowitzki was still coming into his own. When it’s all said and done, Nowitzki and Tony Parker will certainly go down as being among the best European players in NBA history, if not the best international players, period. But Parker was selected with the 28th pick in Gasol’s draft class while Nowitzki was selected with the ninth overall pick in 1998.

So, in many ways, when Commissioner David Stern called Pau Gasol’s name as the third overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, most people thought that the Vancouver Grizzlies had lost their mind. On the eve of the draft, the Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks agreed in principle to a trade that would eventually send Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley to the Hawks for a package headlined by the rights to the third overall pick.

At the time, Abdur-Rahim was coming off of his fifth professional season wherein he had amassed some impressive career numbers: 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He joined Bryant Reeves as being the pillars for the expansion Grizzlies and, unlike Reeves, failed to disappoint. So it was quite surprising to learn that, as the franchise planned its relocation to Memphis, the Grizzlies thought that highly of Gasol to roll the dice on him by dealing away a player who had emerged as a franchise cornerstone and certainly appeared to have superstar potential.

Ultimately, Abdur-Rahim would go on to have a fairly mediocre career. Make no mistake, 13 years in the league is nothing to sneeze at, and neither are career averages of 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but Adbur-Rahim’s lack of postseason success and lack of impact leaves a legacy that will be mostly remembered as unfulfilling.

So, the truth is, from day one, Gasol entered the NBA with pressure and expectations thrust upon him. For a long time, he has been wrongly labeled as being soft. Without Gasol, Kobe Bryant’s legacy would have turned out a lot differently because there is no way that Bryant wins championships in 2009 and 2010 without the Spaniard.

Still, through it all, over the course of his 16-years in the NBA, the six All-Star selections, four All-NBA team selections, two championships and Rookie of the Year Award, Gasol always was and always has been a player who simply laced up his sneakers, played his best and loved his teammates.

Go ask Gasol questions about himself and his contributions and he will change the subject. Ask him questions about his gifts on the basketball court and he will shrug his shoulders. Ask him about why he’s being labeled soft and he will raise his eyebrows and tell you that he’s not sure.

All Gasol wants to do is all he has ever done—play at the highest level.

So please, with that in mind, name one player that would have been a more appropriate replacement for Tim Duncan.

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Shaquille O’Neal made the low box his office. Back to the basket, O’Neal would catch an entry pass from Kobe Bryant as Derek Fisher would cut across the strong side to set the Triangle into motion. O’Neal commanded attention from all five defenders and ultimately delivered perfect passes to his teammates. There is simply no way that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers ever fulfill their potential without O’Neal becoming a master of the triangle.

The same can be said of Gasol.

With Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum often playing at his side, the Kobe-Pau Lakers enjoyed a decisive size advantage over the gross majority of their opponents. The main issue with them, however, was that Bynum couldn’t pass as well as Gasol could, while Odom wasn’t nearly as effective at posting up. Almost by default, with his versatile skills, Gasol had to develop into a point forward for the Lakers, and he did so brilliantly.

Perhaps a step slower today, the 36-year-old has made a career out of employing and utilizing a vast skillset that includes the ability to pass better than just about every other center in the league, as well as having an unusually consistent midrange game that beautifully augments his ability to finish in the post and around traffic. Defensively, he always has and always will struggle against other big men who can put the ball on the floor and make him move in space. However, if one tries to post up against Pau Gasol or out-hustle him for a rebound, they are in for a long fight.

Back in 2012-13, Gasol famously clashed with Mike D’Antoni. Gasol’s season-long pouting and public feuding with his head coach yielded the lowest scoring season of his career: 14.6 points per game. At the time, most believed it spelled the end for the 32-year-old Gasol, but back to back seasons as a member of the Chicago Bulls proved otherwise. In the two seasons since his departure from Los Angeles, Gasol gave Tom Thibodeau and Fred Hoiberg magnificent seasons, with each of them resulting in an All-Star berth.

In 2014-15, Gasol averaged 19.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while last season, his 18.7 points and 12.5 rebounds were augmented with an astonishing 4.6 assists per game. As the years have progressed, he has become a more reliable shooter from midrange, evidenced by last season’s conversion rate of 45 percent on shots from further than 10 feet from the basket.

Truth is, after famously clashing with D’Antoni and becoming a punching bag for the frustrations of Kobe Bryant and Lakers fans, Gasol probably felt like he needed a change of scenery. That brought him to Chicago.

After two years there, after witnessing the organization’s handling of Tom Thibodeau and the infighting between Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, especially after the Bulls failed to qualify for the 2016 playoffs, Gasol probably wanted to go somewhere that was all about basketball.

Suddenly, an email came; Tim Duncan was gone and the San Antonio Spurs had a hole in the interior. With the same skill set as Tim Duncan, mastery of a motion-heavy offense and a 16-year career that features multiple championships, again, we ask a simple question:

What better fit could there have possibly been for Pau Gasol than the Spurs?

Simple questions often have simple answers. This one was no exception.

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Most of the NBA already has the Golden State Warriors being fitted for their championship rings. It’s worth remembering, though, that it took even the Miami HEAT one year to tinker with their lineup, rotations and egos before they would emerge as champions.

And yes, in 2011, it was Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks that scored the most improbable of upsets over James and his HEAT. The more stable, more consistent franchise emerged the victors.

This coming season, the Spurs will be hoping for a similar result. It might be a long shot, but betting against Gregg Popovich isn’t usually a wise decision. And, whether he reminds you of it or not, in the case of Pau Gasol, over the course of his 16 years in the league, he has proven that you shouldn’t bet against him, either.


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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.

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