Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol has been the player most likely to be traded for the majority of the 2012-13 regular season. But according to teammate Kobe Bryant, Gasol's latest foot injury will force the Lakers to finally appreciate the seven-footer's talent and impact.
Bryant has never wavered in his support for Gasol, despite his career-worst season. And his blind faith offers an interesting insight into their relationship—especially when contrasted with Kobe's relationship with Dwight Howard. He has been far less sympathetic when it comes to Howard and his struggles with injuries and consistency.
And while both players have found difficulty blending into Mike D'Antoni's system, most of Bryant's criticism has been hurled in Howard's direction.
Some people may chalk it up to Bryant's familiarity with Gasol and the fact they have been to three NBA Finals and won two championships together. Or it could just be that Bryant recognizes that Gasol is a better fit with the Lakers' current roster.
Maybe Bryant realizes the future of the Lakers franchise rests with Howard's decision in July, but he is more interested in winning right now, and Gasol gives the Lakers their best chance.
Howard is stronger, more athletic and powerful than Gasol, but Gasol is longer, more skilled and nowhere near as mentally fragile as Howard, despite the controversy that always seems to be swirling around him.
Gasol's versatile skill set is also more compatible with the free-wheeling style of point guard Steve Nash, and his passing ability makes him even more of a threat when he's in the paint.
I'm not sure if Howard's injuries or his emotions have prevented him from being the dominant figure that most Lakers fans envisioned when he was acquired, but if you peel away Howard's physical abilities, there is little substance left to his game.
Howard is an average player with his back to the basket, he doesn't pass well out of double teams and he has no scoring ability outside of two feet from the rim. His entire persona and reputation was built on his physical domination in the paint, but there is no guarantee that his body will ever allow him to perform at that level again, and it's too late to actually learn how to play now.
The only argument I have ever heard against Gasol when compared to Howard revolves around his age and perceived softness. But it's not like Howard has been a brick wall lately, and Gasol has proved there is still plenty of talent left in his body.
And Kobe knows this.
It's no coincidence that the Lakers looked their best right before Gasol was lost for the next six to eight weeks in a win over the Brooklyn Nets,. It's also no coincidence that Bryant called on Howard to assume a sense of urgency in the wake of Gasol's injury.
I'm not sure if Howard has the heart to rise up to Bryant's challenge, and I'm not convinced that Bryant isn't aware of this.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak may be sold on Howard as the future of the franchise, but I'm not sure that faith extends to Bryant. He may have other motives behind his constant poking and prodding of Howard in the media, or he could simply be trying to point out that the Lakers' best post player is currently sidelined with a serious injury.