More to the point, the Purple and Gold will have to decide whether or not to retire his number once his career comes to a close. Gasol’s free-agent status means his days as a Laker might very well be over.
In February, he wrote on his website: “My decision will be based purely on sporting considerations. It couldn’t be any other way. I want to be on a team with a real chance of winning a ring and where I can help to compete for it. I would like to win another championship. The financial side comes second at this stage of my career.”
If this is truly the end of this marriage, memories alone might not do Gasol justice. Raising his number to the Staples Center rafters might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s far from a lock.
History and Prestige Not on Gasol’s Side
It takes a lot for the Lakers to immortalize players in their stadium. And by a lot, we’re talking Hall of Fame credentials.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, have a look at the people who have been recognized through a banner hanging at Staples Center:
|JK||John Kundla||Minneapolis Lakers||Coach|
|Mic||Chick Hearn||L.A. Lakers||Broadcaster|
|13||Wilt Chamberlain||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|17||Jim Pollard||Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
|19||Vern Mikkelsen||Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
|22||Elgin Baylor||L.A. and Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
|22||Slater Martin||Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
|25||Gail Goodrich||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|32||Magic Johnson||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|33||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|34||Clyde Lovellette||Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
|34||Shaquille O'Neal||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|42||James Worthy||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|44||Jerry West||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|52||Jamaal Wilkes||L.A. Lakers||Player|
|99||George Mikan||Minneapolis Lakers||Player|
The banners feature the names of great luminaries who all played a big part in the history of the league.
For instance, Chick Hearn made the cut because of his longtime association with the franchise as a radio broadcaster. Indeed, Hearn was the voice of the Lakers for 37 years. He was responsible for play-by-play announcing from 1965 to 2002, which allowed him to call the games of every great L.A. Lakers player.
The names on those banners that belong to former L.A. Lakers, Hearn saw them all. Thus, he might be the most qualified person in Lakers history when it comes to judging players.
Baylor was once regarded as the greatest small forward in the history of the sport before the likes of Julius Erving and Larry Bird supplanted him. Baylor might be the Los Angeles Laker who started an odd and yet fascinating tradition in franchise history: L.A. would continue to give basketball a prototype it hadn’t ever seen.
Never one to be outdone, Wilt Chamberlain joined West and helped the Lakers win their first title since moving to Los Angeles during the 1971-72 season. Most would agree that Chamberlain is one of the 10 greatest players ever, by virtue of his gaudy career scoring (30.1) and rebounding (22.9) averages.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar succeeded Chamberlain in L.A. and became the league’s all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points. He helped the Lakers win five titles with the help of Magic Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard ever.
Magic was a 6’9’’ point guard who ran the break, threw exquisite passes, rebounded in traffic and scored late in games. Much like previous Lakers legends, we had never seen anything quite like him and probably never will. His charisma was out of this world, and it probably will never be duplicated.
Johnson’s retirement left a void in the City of Angels, but Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant collaborated to fill it. O’Neal was perhaps the most dominant player in league history during his prime years (2000 to 2002) with the Lakers, while Kobe’s brilliant career earned him comparisons to Michael Jordan.
Where does Gasol fit into all this? Tough to say. All of these former Lakers greats reinvented their positions in some cases and became some of the biggest names in the sport.
Gasol is still searching for his first career postseason win without Bryant. Indeed, Gasol was swept in his three separate playoff appearances with the Memphis Grizzlies.
What’s more, the San Antonio Spurs dispatched the Lakers in four games during the first round of 2013 playoffs, with Kobe missing the series due to an Achilles tear. Does that sound like a player whose number should rise to the rafters?
His track record in the league outside of the Lakers organization isn't stellar, but a prospective jersey retirement would focus on his Lakers accomplishments.
He’s been unremarkable as a leading man and lacks the impressive list of accolades of his Lakers predecessors. However, there is another side to Gasol’s story.
Bringing Lakers Back to Glory
Gasol rescued Kobe and the Lakers when he joined the franchise during the 2007-08 campaign.
Bryant had come off an offseason in which he questioned the Lakers’ direction and demanded a trade. His frustrations were the result of missing the playoffs during the 2004-05 season and consecutive first-round exits (2006-07).
Instead of ceding ground to Bryant’s demands, the franchise slowly worked at bringing Kobe back into the fold and then struck gold: It acquired Gasol via trade.
The transaction gave L.A. low-post scoring, a bit of playmaking and help on the boards. With Gasol, the Lakers went to three straight NBA Finals and won the title twice. Kobe hasn’t asked to be traded again since.
Saying that Gasol is the reason Kobe stayed in Los Angeles isn’t an accurate depiction of how things unfolded, but it’s not necessarily wrong either. Bryant’s displeasure with the organization was the product of the team’s inability to give him a roster capable of quenching his championship thirst.
Gasol’s arrival became Kobe’s refreshment.
The Spaniard quickly became the team’s second-best player and helped the Lakers reclaim championship glory.
With that said, it’s probably safe to say Gasol isn’t in the same class as Bryant or other notable Lakers legends. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy of his own banner.
Interestingly enough, the Lakers have been here before with Goodrich, Worthy and Wilkes. All three were terrific complementary pieces to the Lakers’ championship puzzle, and it earned them a spot in the rafters.
Goodrich led the title-winning 1971-72 Lakers in scoring and was immortalized in the rafters. He didn't redefine the point guard position, but his role on a championship team (his lone ring) earned him enough praise and recognition to be remembered at every home game.
Worthy helped the Lakers win three titles during the 1980s and even claimed the 1987-88 Finals MVP.
Worthy’s former teammate, Wilkes, was the second-leading scorer on two L.A. championship teams. An argument could be made that Wilkes and Worthy were either third or fourth (possibly fifth) in team hierarchy by virtue of the presences of Magic and Abdul-Jabbar.
Their contributions were recognized nonetheless given that they were crucial in helping Los Angeles reach the mountaintop.
Gasol is in the same boat.
In the post-Shaq era, Kobe and Co. were playoff failures prior to Gasol’s arrival. The Spaniard made all of the Lakers' pieces fit thanks to his back-to-the-basket skills.
In December 2012, Magic Johnson explained Gasol’s game to the Los Angeles Times’ Melissa Rohlin: “His game is catch it on the low block, face his man, one dribble left or right, he's in the cup, nice hook, nice move, because he's got great moves."
His low-post game combined with his passing makes him a fairly unique individual. Kobe recognizes what Gasol brought to the Lakers in terms of talent and demeanor and shared as much in the big man’s book, Gasol: Life/Vida (h/t Los Angeles Daily News): “He would have the highest basketball IQ in the league and play with versatility and tenacity. 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.”
The fact that two of the greatest players in the franchise’s history can be so complimentary of Gasol’s skills speaks to his importance with the team.
The Lakers mystique has always been directly correlated to their ability to win titles, and Gasol has done his fair share to enhance that mystique. He’s been the best big man for the Lakers since O’Neal, and that has helped produce success for a franchise that always has lofty aspirations.
No. 16 will rise to the rafters.