It’s the pregame shoot-around of another game and another season. A tall bearded dude with unruly hair and deepening crow’s feet puts up easy jumpers with a deliberate rhythm. Teammates orbit around him like smaller planets, joking, enjoying his presence. Pau Gasol smiles back, a quiet leader, the yin to Kobe’s yang.
Take a good look, Lakers fans. The guy you’ve come to count on, the one who’s been alternately praised by management and dangled as trade bait, may finally be heading out the door.
It’s hard to fathom that Gasol at age 33, will enter free agency for the first time at the end of the season. The man from Barcelona has been with the Lakers since midway through 2007-08, by way of the Memphis Grizzlies. His career began with a rookie contract in 2001 and the extensions have kept on coming.
On Monday, November 25, an even larger free agent question was answered—Kobe Bryant signed a two-year extension with the Lakers. Per Sam Amick of USA Sports, Bryant will earn $23.5 million next season and $25 million for the second year of his extension. That would take him through his 20th season with the team.
Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles recently wrote about the special bond between Bryant and Gasol, the partnership that took them to back-to-back NBA championships and that ultimately led to Bryant’s moving forward in Gasol’s new book, “Life Vida”:
Bryant writes that "If I could choose my brother," it would be Gasol. That "he would have the highest basketball IQ in the league" and "you'd have to search and search and you still would not find another player in the history of the game with his skill set." That "if his organization ever let him down, he would hold his head up high" and "would not lash out or let himself become entangled in the drama."
Of course, the organization has let Gasol down in the past. In December, 2011, after failing to bring the Lakers one more championship, Gasol and Lamar Odom were traded away as part of the Chris Paul deal that never was. Gasol rebounded. Odom never did and his life has been on an uncertain trajectory ever since.
Gasol arrived in Los Angeles during a time of deep division and dissatisfaction. The Lakers had gone through the first Phil Jackson era which ended with three titles and a failed run at a fourth against the Detroit Pistons. Phil left and wrote a book, Shaq was traded, the roster was blown up and Rudy Tomjanovich took the reins for 41 games before spiraling into physical and mental exhaustion. The white-hot spotlight can be a bitch in L.A.
The Zen Master returned for another run and rifts were healed with Bryant, but there was still the matter of a team that wasn’t remotely built for a championship. Kwame Brown’s not gonna get you there and Andrew Bynum was still a baby—huge, talented and very, very raw. Enter Gasol, a player with considerable intellect and the skills to match. He was the perfect conduit for Jackson’s triangle system and sometimes abstract concepts.
You never knew with Kobe, as fiery and demanding a player as you'll see in a lifetime. But he appreciated commitment and he appreciated a knowledge and passion for the game. Bryant also appreciated having a teammate with the skill to help bring him more rings. Gasol did that. They formed a somewhat unlikely bond—one that grew even tighter once Jackson sauntered off one more time, and once Derek Fisher was dealt away.
There just weren't any of the old crew left after that, not except for Metta World Peace who arrived toward the end of the Jackson dynasty, and often operated in his own distinct (albeit useful) orbit. Now, even Peace has left, a casualty of the amnesty clause.
Last season may have been Gasol’s most trying with the Lakers, not that it was easy for anyone associated with the Purple and Gold. The season was a train wreck and is best left as a cautionary tale. Among the considerable wreckage was the fact that Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol were not an obvious tandem fit in Mike D’Antoni’s system.
Brief recap – Phil Jackson liked two guys down low. D'Antoni likes one guy, max, down low. Gasol found himself floating around the perimeter or sitting on the bench. The one person who could always be counted on to be a team player, was starting to speak out. Champions don’t like sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter.
Still, the bond between Bryant and Gasol remained. The team’s franchise player relentlessly plugged Gasol’s ability and talent. And when the dust settled and Bryant was rehabbing from injury and Dwight Howard had moseyed along to Houston, Gasol was still standing.
And lo and behold, Coach D’Antoni was singing his praises. If Gasol can bond with one of the most exacting players in the history of the game in Bryant, if he can impress a coach after such a trying season, then you too should appreciate him.
This is another uncertain season for the Lakers, a clearing of cap space and an audition process for a roster of wild cards. Bryant’s contract question may now be solved but what about the guy he would choose as his brother?
In Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ Blog, he writes about the economic challenges facing the Lakers. The team has just five players signed for next season, including Bryant. They also have six additional cap holds. It’s a bit of a complicated mess but at the most basic level, the team only has about $22.2 million to spend, without signing their own free agents. One thing seems pretty obvious—Gasol won’t be getting anything close to the $19,285,850 that he currently enjoys.
During the preseason, Gasol spoke with Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, about trade rumors, uncertainty, the coming season and naturally, whether he’d accept less money to come back:
Probably not, he said. You have to explore your options, but I would like to continue to play for the Lakers and maybe finish my career here. But you have to see the cards on the table.
Bryant himself took a pay cut to finish his career with the Purple and Gold but it's hard to argue the fact that there are fewer cards on the table now.
Free agency is one of the few tools a player has in shaping his professional path. The Lakers' starting center has some choices ahead of him. The same holds true for the Lakers—for all Gasol means to the team, he does after all have a lot of wear on his legs after 13 long NBA seasons as a starter. Plus the years in Europe—that’s where it all began.
Gasol is here now and for that, Lakers fans should be appreciative. After a slow start to the season, the three-time champion is playing well and leading the team in scoring and rebounds. There’s no longer the crowded paint issue that bedeviled the team during Howard’s brief tenure—the pairing of Gasol with Jordan Hill has provided a frontcourt symmetry that has been lacking since the Jackson years.
Gasol will get you points and boards, he’ll dish to the open man like few other big guys do. He’s cerebral, he writes poetic things and he leaves it all on the court—a big bearded sweaty mess and he somehow manages to add a sense of style and panache. He's the Lakers glue guy, a soulful sun in a sometimes cloudy sky, the good cop to Kobe’s bad cop.
At some point soon, Bryant himself will be back, this after suffering the worst injury of his career. And for a piece of time undetermined, the lone holdovers of a championship era will get together and do it again.
It’s another game in yet another season. The cold of winter approaches and Gasol is out there in his warm-ups, shooting lazy jumpers as teammates circle around. He shuffles his feet, shakes his head, gets ready for one more battle. Bryant sits and watches from the bench, ever closer to his return.
Enjoy it while you can, Lakers fans—these moments are fleeting and precious. Bryant will finish his basketball journey in Los Angeles. For Pau Gasol, the winding road may lead elsewhere.