Pau Gasol: Lakers Star Poised to Dominate Now That He's off Trade Block

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2012

It's the dawn of a new beginning for the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and most importantly, Pau Gasol.

Last season, the going wasn't easy for the star power forward. Yes, he averaged a double-double, but his 17.4 points per game was a career worst, and his PER of 20.51 was his worst since his rookie season.

Though such numbers would hardly be indicative of an off-year for most players, more was expected of Gasol, a four-time All-Star who had established himself as one of the most formidable forwards in the NBA.

Many began to attribute his statistical decline and diminishing value as a championship pillar to age. He was in his 11th season and pushing 32, after all.

But Gasol's struggles, his inability to exude dominance, didn't have anything to do with his age. It did, however, have everything to do with the environmental instability that surrounded him. He became the subject of numerous and incessant rumors, rumblings that had him leaving the Lakers and heading to a different team almost every week.

And the strain it put on Gasol was obvious. The points per contest still piled up, but weren't accumulated in the same confident manner we had come to know, come to expect and come to embrace. His shots still fell half the time, yet his consistency was waning. He still crashed the glass and played some defense, yet not with the same aggression.

Something was wrong.

Then came the playoffs. Though the postseason is far from pressure-free, Gasol at least knew he would remain in Los Angeles for the time being. The trade deadline had come and gone, and he had stayed. Surely this was the time for him to turn it around.

But Gasol appeared worse than ever. In 11 postseason contests he averaged 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds on 43.4 percent shooting, confirming the worst—the once prolific sidekick of Bryant had become a non-factor.

The Lakers were eliminated quickly but not quietly at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the rumors picked up once again, almost immediately.

Which brought Gasol right back to where this fiasco had started exactly one year ago—out of the playoffs and into the doldrums of the rumor mill.

After all Gasol had been through in Los Angeles—four-and-a-half years of basketball, two championships—this was how it was going to end; having officially hit rock bottom he was going to be thrown out of Los Angeles.

Then came the Nash acquisition, and not long after, the Howard trade. Neither transaction had cost the Lakers Gasol. He had survived.

Because with the additions of Howard and Nash came security. Gasol was officially off the chopping block and free to acknowledge the painstaking campaign for what it was. 

Which is exactly what he did when he joined XTRA Sports 1360 in San Diego with Steve and Judson:

It was something difficult to deal with but it’s done and over with. There was a lot going on. I managed it pretty well and I was able to put it on the side but it was an uncomfortable situation to be a part of.

And that's putting it lightly.

It's no coincidence the worst season of Gasol's career came on the heels of a summer that questioned his worth as a pillar amid a whirlwind of rumors. He was distracted; there was "a lot going on" and though he "managed it pretty well" it was still "an uncomfortable situation" for him to operate under.

How well would have Gasol fared if he had been freed from the shackles that became the Lakers trade rumor mill? How much of an impact could he have made had his abilities, had his value to the team and Bryant not been doubted? And how much of postseason history could Los Angeles had re-written if Gasol played up to expectations, the same expectations he failed to meet one year prior as well?

The Lakers would prefer not to dwell on it, because like Gasol's situation last season, it's "uncomfortable" to consider how much better both he and the Lakers would have fared under different circumstances.

But that's what this season is for—redemption.

With his immediate future in Los Angeles secured, and playing alongside a point guard who is master at the pick-and-roll, Gasol has never been put in a better situation to succeed. He already knows what it takes to play with Bryant, and balancing low-post responsibilities won't be much different from the time he spent alongside Bynum.

Simply put, this is Gasol's year. The year he can squelch the musings that suggest he is over the hill, that called for his roster spot for more than a year, that would have sent him to the Orlando Magic for Howard in a heartbeat.

Because as much as we attempt to rationalize a player's struggles, it isn't always an exact science. Not every player tapers off immediately upon turning 30; not every athlete's statistical decline is the result of injuries or enveloping frailty.

Sometimes it's because a player mentally, not physically, cannot function at his normal level. Sometimes he allows the impenetrable force that is supposed to be his psyche to become susceptible to factors beyond his control. Sometimes he just needs reassurance that where he is, is where he belongs.

And after more than a year of conflicting reports, teetering statistics and unrelenting speculation, Gasol has finally received such assurances; he finally has some peace of mind.

Which will ultimately prove to be the difference between the Gasol we saw last year and the dominant, re-invented superstar we watch help lead a championship-worthy crusade this season.