Pau Gasol marched into London’s Olympic Stadium on Friday night hoisting his country’s flag and ferrying its expectation of a basketball podium finish on his back.
The Spaniards arrived at the global apogee of hoops tournaments with devastating cohesion, interior capaciousness and depth—even with an ACL tear sidelining Ricky Rubio and injuries limiting the explosiveness of Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez—that towers over every other nation in these Olympics except the United States.
Anything less than a silver medal should qualify as a disappointment for a team with a menacing, domineering frontline that would look massive in an NBA where the Miami Heat just re-imagined the championship blueprint, often operating with no true center and no seven-footer.
LeBron James, the human freight train, made it all possible for undersized Miami. The self-proclaimed King is doing it again for the favored Americans.
Yet across the pond, with a worldwide audience watching, after James led Team USA’s 28-point thrashing of France, Gasol posted 21 points and 11 rebounds for Spain in a 16-point victory against China where size mattered.
His brother, Marc, became an All-Star and a mammoth matchup problem for Memphis Grizzlies’ opponents. The younger brother even swished one of his signature feet-bolted-to-the-floor jumpers.
Spain’s opening triumph versus the Chinese remained too close for comfort until the fourth quarter. Rubio’s absence deprives the squad of its best ball hawker and maybe its best overall perimeter defender. A healthy La Pistola could have made more of a difference when a trio of guards decided to spray the Spanish giants with contested jumpers.
Yi Jianlian led with authority and athleticism as he rarely has in the pros, tallying 30 points and 12 rebounds.
Yet as much as a dynamic bench, a cadre of NBA-level contributors and the addition last summer of Congolese forward Serge Ibaka make Spain the probable toughest challenger in Team USA’s path, there is a truth that becomes more evident each time Sergio Scariolo’s unit takes the floor: Pau Gasol remains one of the planet’s best basketball players.
He has been unreliable and unassertive in the Lakers’ previous two transient postseason stays, but he has also been underutilized.
Saturday in London, he again made a case for a trade, but not the one most expect Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to execute.
Mike Brown does not have to go, but his offense must.
Late in the first quarter, Gasol spun past Yi and Wang ZhiZhi for a dunk that bordered on angry. He tossed in a spinning hook shot and ran the floor with a purpose.
He is undeniably the most complete post player in these Olympics and still has rare court vision for a seven-footer.
He turned 32 this month, but he can still play an integral role on a title team. With apologies to Jose Calderon, Sergio Llull and even Rubio, Steve Nash will be the best point guard with whom Gasol has ever shared a court.
Nash can orchestrate lay-ups and dunks for teammates that foes never see coming, even as he approaches 40.
Whether a squad that finished in the league’s bottom five in pick-and-roll usage can accommodate a floor general who subsists on that basic play is a prescient question.
How Brown hides Nash’s porous defense is another. His man-to-man coverage, suspect from the start of his career, has not aged well.
Then again, there isn’t a point guard alive who can consistently stymie Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker anyway.
How and where Gasol fits in the Lakers’ 2012-2013 picture are the tallest questions, and his continued ascendancy with Spain suggests his place should be a prominent one.
Can Brown afford to keep misusing such a skilled interior asset?
Gasol sometimes refused to take the keys to the offense from Bryant last season, pressing the Black Mamba into his polarizing role as Mr. Shoot It All. Bryant, though, also failed to relent control of L.A.’s steering wheel on nights when his touch had abandoned him.
Kupchak, however, has a more compelling reason than perceived passivity to dangle Gasol in trade talks. The collective bargaining agreement ratified by owners and players last fall promised a reckoning for the biggest spenders, and even the NBA’s version of the New York Yankees, is not immune to the implications of a more punitive luxury tax and tightened sign-and-trade restrictions.
The Lakers dealt Lamar Odom because he was disgruntled after David Stern vetoed an exchange that would have jettisoned him to New Orleans, yes, but he was gone anyway.
With Nash aboard, Jerry Buss is on the hook for a $90 million payroll, not including tax payments.
Odom’s $8 million salary, when coupled with his dwindling production amidst a revealing second-round exit, no longer fit in the Lakers’ plans. He turns 33 this November and was not going to parlay his vital role on two consecutive title teams into an extension. Anyone who believed that was possible is delusional.
The moment Kupchak dumped Odom for a trade exception that eventually helped pry Nash from the Phoenix Suns, Gasol became the next Laker in line to feel the fire beneath his feet.
Bryant backed his Spanish teammate last week with a quote from an interview session in Barcelona that crossed the pond faster than a fleet of fighter planes.
Gasol gave No. 24 a compelling reason to stand firm with that stance Saturday against China.
Bryant, who continued his long-distance shooting slump versus the French, gave himself a compelling reason to rekindle the magic of a partnership that made the Lakers an unbeatable juggernaut.
In a twist that would have sounded laughable and preposterous four years ago in Beijing, when he returns home to suit up in purple and gold, James and Kevin Durant won’t be there to bail him out when he misfires.
Phil Jackson never asked the Spaniard to anchor L.A. the way he did Memphis. Gasol was not built for that burden, that level of sole responsibility.
Having someone as lethal and confident as Bryant on which to lean was the best thing to happen to his career. The benefits, however, went both ways.
Bryant needed Gasol’s sans-pareil skill to draw defensive attention and make life easier on the perimeter.
The Lakers won important games sans Andrew Bynum. They floundered without Gasol.
Brown’s offense was supposed to feature L.A.’s frontline the way the San Antonio Spurs used Tim Duncan and David Robinson in a twin tower configuration.
Instead, Gasol and Bynum regressed, even after disenchanting final seasons under Jackson’s tutelage, and were not used enough to make their size matter on a championship level.
Gasol carried Spain’s flag in Friday’s parade of nations, still enveloped in trade rumors and still derided for his role in consecutive second-round exits. Saturday, he lifted Spain to victory in its group play opener.
Perhaps he can carry more as a Laker, too.