There's not a more maligned player on the Lakers than Pau Gasol. Fans—die hard and casual alike—question his toughness, call him soft (which is just a variation of the first thing) and typically use every poor performance as a reason to indict his character. The fact that he's underperformed in two straight playoffs has only fueled these perceptions further even though there's ample evidence (the 2009 and 2010 championship runs) that counter the idea he's not one of the best big men in the league.
In a way, then, there's no Laker with more to prove than Gasol.
Sure, Dwight Howard must show he's healthy and work to repair his image. Kobe must fight the perception that he's in full decline while also proving that he's willing to play nice and share with his star studded cast of new teammates. And Steve Nash must prove....well, Nash really doesn't have to prove anything. Everyone loves Nash.
Gasol, though, must show that he's up to the challenge of being great. His accomplishments don't carry over the way those other players of his caliber do, so every season is a trek across the proving ground of greatness for the Spaniard.
This season, I expect Gasol to play up to that standard. If you wonder why, you only need to look at how the Lakers' offseason has helped set him up for success.
First off, the Lakers acquired Steve Nash. Nash isn't only a pass first point guard that will help get Gasol the ball more often, but he'll do so in better positions to score. Gasol is an underrated pick and roll big man, showing an ability to both pop out for his jumper and roll to the rim for shots inside. Running this action with Nash will get him better looks more often.
Nash also gives Gasol (and the Lakers' other post-up threats) more space to work on the low block due to his ability to hit jump shots. Countless times last season, Gasol dealt with extra attention from the defense due to the Lakers' lack of perimeter talent not named Kobe Bryant. This upcoming season, that will change.
Howard's acquisition also helps Gasol. Many probably look at Howard and equate his presence to what Bynum provided. But in relation to how Howard fits next to Gasol, there are some important differences.
First of all, while Howard posts up a great deal (as Bynum did) he also spends more time moving around the floor than his predecessor. Often times Howard is moving to the perimeter and setting picks for guards, vacating the post in the process. Furthermore, when Howard dives to the rim, he does so with quickness and decisiveness which draws back-side help to take away his path to the rim. In most defensive schemes, it's the secondary big man (in this case, Gasol's man) who's responsible for rotating to a diving Howard.
Gasol will benefit a great deal from the attention that Howard receives and will be able to work more often in the creases of the defense—and in spots on the floor where he's most effective—than last season.
Beyond his new teammates, however, Gasol will also benefit from a shift in offensive philosophy with the (reported) pending hiring of Eddie Jordan. The former Wizard and 76er head man will bring the Princeton offense with him to Los Angeles and that change will further help maximize Gasol's game.
The Princeton O is a read-and-react system that requires the skills of smart, versatile players. They've typically been anchored by big men who can score from the high and low post while also possessing the acumen to distribute the ball to teammates from both spots. In a nutshell, this offense is one that caters to the exact skill set that Gasol offers.
Gasol should not only be featured more often, but he'll also likely be asked to play closer to the basket more often than he was this past season—a point that Jim Buss made earlier this summer to the L.A. Times before a shift to the Princeton O was even reported.
All of this, of course, should suit Gasol just fine as he's already shown flashes of playing to the form many expect from him. In the recently completed Olympic games, Gasol reminded the world of what caliber player he is—especially in the gold-medal game against Team USA.
In that contest, Gasol led Spain in points (24) and assists (7) while effectively proving to be the best big man playing that night. As you can see in the two clips below, he not only scored easily in the post, but also flashed some of that aforementioned ability to finish with authority in the paint off the pick and roll.
Gasol will always have detractors. Some will always choose to accentuate the parts of his game that play up the narrative that he's soft or not a great player. But, this season, you can expect he'll make it a lot harder for those critiques to ring true. Because while many focus—and rightfully so—at how the Lakers' additions improve them as a team overall, what shouldn't be lost is how much they also help Gasol.