Listless Pau Gasol Bailing on Los Angeles Lakers When Team Needs Him Most

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Listless Pau Gasol Bailing on Los Angeles Lakers When Team Needs Him Most
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES  Pau Gasol has missed three of the past five games with an “upper respiratory infection.”

That’s the nonspecific term generally associated with the common cold, minor viruses or bacteria. In any case, the glorified sniffles diagnosed by a doctor have caused Gasol to be so physically devastated that he has missed games over a span of—wait for it—nine days.

He missed the Los Angeles Lakers’ Dec. 21 loss to the Golden State Warriors. He missed the Lakers’ Sunday night loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

And he’s missing the drive to compete, much less the will to win.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Considering Gasol’s impressive medical school background, I am very much hoping he comes forward Monday with an announcement that his personal research—generously funded by the Buss Family Trusts in the amount of $19.3 million this season—has led to his discovery of a new virus strain for the common cold. Alas, we know Gasol has not found a cure.

It is by now a lost cause to believe he will ever find the pure drive to compete the way he did in Game 7 against Boston.

Gasol has put forth efforts only sporadically as sole team captain in this mostly Kobe Bryant-less Lakers season, but the complacency could be seen long before. That’s why I wrote even while the 2012 playoffs were ongoing: “Kobe and Pau: It must be the end of their era.” At the time, I must admit I had no idea this unspeakable infection might already be lurking in Gasol’s body, sapping him of focus and aggressiveness.

The 2013 playoffs featured Gasol trying to win without the injured Bryant and saw his career playoff record without Bryant advance to...0-16. Seriously. Gasol has lost every single playoff game he’s ever tried to win without Bryant leading the way.

At least Gasol showed up last spring, and that’s why he received a nice ovation from nostalgic Staples Center fans and the memorable shoulder hug from Bryant on the bench as the sweep by San Antonio was being finalized. Gasol played through an upper respiratory illness earlier this season—and even though he wasn’t at his sharpest, one of the results was that inspiring Lakers victory over Dwight Howard in Houston.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But Gasol isn’t showing up now, and it’s inexcusable. The 76ers snapped a 13-game road losing streak against the Lakers, whose postgame locker room with a really tired Nick Young and newly injured Xavier Henry reeked of irrelevance more so than any previous time this season.

The deeper issue of whether the Lakers should tank or try this season is besides this point. They are absolutely committed to winning and trying to make the playoffs, and when Gasol isn’t, it’s a terrible affront to these young, hungry teammates who with him built that refreshing post-Dwight chemistry and cultivated the promise of a feel-good, underdog Lakers season.

The clear connotation now is that Gasol is taking the easy way out, just as he has in barely moving on defense and settling for all those jump shots instead of rolling off picks on offense. Gasol’s limitations have been increasingly visible this season, and now it’s easier to hide them than risk further embarrassment at less-than-full strength—especially when he’s looking forward to one last fat contract in free agency this summer.

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Yes, it’s always dicey to question the legitimacy of a player’s health absence, but considering Gasol was able to hit the weight room at Lakers shootaround Sunday morning before still skipping the Lakers’ loss Sunday night, it’s pretty safe to say he’s not hospitalized with his throat closing shut on the far end of that infection spectrum.

Gasol supporter Phil Jackson also used to wonder about the 7-footer sitting when he could stand—and that was when Gasol was in his prime. So there is some history here. Plus, please note that we’re talking about Gasol dragging it out under a coach with whom he unquestionably does not connect in Mike D’Antoni.

Whereas Gasol did not show up at Staples Center on Sunday night, forgotten man Steve Nash did, still taking the smallest steps forward on what he wishes will be a worthwhile comeback from his complicated nerve problem. You don’t think Nash would jump at the chance to down those antibiotics and get out there ASAP if his only risk was coughing up some mess? Nash just wants to try.

Endings in the sports world are rarely happy. They still shouldn’t be embarrassing.

There was a fan in the stands near the media seating actually wearing a No. 16 Lakers jersey at the game Sunday night. Can’t imagine how that guy felt.

But the guy making more money this season than LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul and leaving the real No. 16 Lakers jersey unworn out of misplaced pride should feel even more ashamed.

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