Freed from Lakers Uncertainty, Pau Gasol Rediscovering All-Star Form, Attitude

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Freed from Lakers Uncertainty, Pau Gasol Rediscovering All-Star Form, Attitude
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OAKLAND, Calif. — After all the days, months and years of trying to block out what hurt his heart, Pau Gasol was the one bringing up all of the trade rumors now.

"I'm re-energized. I'm in positions where I'm comfortable and effective, so I make a lot of plays," Gasol said of his wonderful new life as a Chicago Bull instead of a Los Angeles Laker. "And the fact that my name is not on the trade block like it has been for the past three years, that's a factor that's overlooked.

"It's huge. It's huge not to have to think about that and have it in the back of your mind constantly. It's nice to have that type of security and comfort."

Playing like an absolute monster for the Bulls, Gasol can now tell the full tale.

To Gasol, it was draining and downright depressing to be shopped by the franchise he helped take to three consecutive NBA Finals, including two championships, changing everything about Kobe Bryant's legacy.

Now, though, Gasol knows how it feels to be cherished again. Tom Thibodeau pushes him to do more with his length on defense and trusts he is "as skilled a big man as there is in this league." A previously strong Chicago team depends on him for so much that Golden State coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday, "Gasol gives them a totally different dynamic."

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Gasol then put 18 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks on the Warriors, who were handed a 113-111 overtime loss to snap their 19-game home winning streak.

Empowerment arises from knowing you're wanted.

It's even more uplifting if you haven't been wanted for a long time.

So it is with a little awkwardness that Gasol returns to Staples Center on Thursday night to face the Lakers as a visiting opponent for the first time since leaving in free agency.

After all the pleasant-enough shrugs and convincing words ("My heart is here; my mind is here."), Gasol tried to brush off the effect the trade speculation had on him while a Laker, but we now know how much it hurt his pride and his game.

Come Thursday night, he will have some bitter with the sweet that he also remembers.

"There will be a lot of different emotions, I think," Gasol said.

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

He has heard from plenty of Lakers fans happy for his success this season, and he very much appreciates it. Gasol is well aware of the Lakers' ongoing spiral, and he's sorely disappointed that Bryant is missing both chances for them to be on the court together this season.

But when asked if he would endorse the Lakers organization to his All-Star center brother who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, Pau offered little reason to believe the fledgling Lakers are on Marc's wish list.

"Marc wants to win a championship," Pau said. "That's what he's looking for. That's what's most important to him. I don't know if you think the Lakers will be in a position to win a championship next year or not.

"But he knows what he'll be looking for as a free agent—or maybe he'll stay in Memphis because they have built a very good team already there with some very good pieces. He'll know what he wants, and he will be ready to make his decision."

It was Pau's 2008 trade demand to leave Memphis that got him to the Lakers in the first place (with the underrated rights to Marc going to the Grizzlies). So you can criticize Pau for not being loyal to his team back then. He also has to assume some responsibility for not giving the Lakers more the past three years when receiving a superstar's wage that topped out at $19.3 million.

Harry How/Getty Images

Yet the bottom line is that the Lakers handled the trade situation poorly, especially with someone whose No. 16 jersey they expect to retire on the Staples Center wall next to Bryant's No. 24.

No, it's not the Lakers' fault that their Chris Paul trade was blocked. But it would've been better for both parties if the Lakers settled for the next-best deal and still sent Gasol off for a fresh start.

For as much as he has been called physically soft, Gasol is so mentally strong that the Lakers overestimated his ability to play great through a truly rare trade limbo. It didn't help that one coach (Mike Brown) marginalized him for Andrew Bynum and the next (Mike D'Antoni) put him even further outside as the organization had to cater to Dwight Howard.

The net result was bad karma, poor health and the Lakers not getting anything better than financial savings offered in trades for Gasol last February, with general manager Mitch Kupchak saying no to all offers because none included "basketball components" for the big man.

That's how far Gasol had fallen.

He was an All-Star in 2009, '10 and '11. Then the Lakers' Paul trade appeared but disappeared in December 2011, and with the ongoing negativity in the air in L.A., Gasol was never an All-Star again—until this season with Chicago.

Harry How/Getty Images

Let's remember the disappointment at being included in that Paul trade basically drove Lamar Odom's career off the rails. The Lakers knew how fragile Odom was and rushed to give him away to Dallas for nothing—with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban now calling it "probably the worst move I have ever made."

When the moment came that Paul was officially traded to the Clippers instead of the Lakers, Gasol was notified in his car just outside the Lakers' training facility. Where you might've expected a big smile from one of the kindest people in sports, there was noticeable trepidation in his eyes that it didn't necessarily matter. Gasol still feared he'd be sent away.

It never did happen.

Pau Gasol Finds the NBA Fountain of Youth
Season Team Player Efficiency Rating
2007-08 Lakers 21.42
2008-09 Lakers 22.31
2009-10 Lakers 22.97
2010-11 Lakers 23.33
2011-12 Lakers 20.51
2012-13 Lakers 16.75
2013-14 Lakers 19.34
2014-15 Bulls 22.28

ESPN.com

Gasol, 34, can at least be grateful that it led to this season, when he is proving again he's "the type of player that I am."

A Hall of Fame player. Perhaps even a championship player again this season with the Bulls, who listen to Gasol in a way that the Lakers never could with Bryant always around.

Yes, Pau even has a little Kobe in him these days with the way he holds teammates accountable for defensive errors or mishandling his passes.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Gasol is only two years younger than Bryant, meaning you could see Gasol asking for heating pads for his knees midway through the fourth quarter and carefully stretching out those hamstrings before overtime. But on Tuesday night, after Golden State had grabbed momentum from Draymond Green's tip-in over Joakim Noah before the regulation buzzer, it was Gasol who set the tone by calmly nailing the first bucket of an overtime in which Chicago never trailed.

There have been a lot of moments this season that have seen Gasol flashing back to the past. But it surely isn't 2011. Maybe 2010, when the Lakers last won the NBA title.

Gasol is the only player from that 2010 championship team still in the NBA today. Bryant is out for the season again, and not a single other player besides Gasol is active just four years after their ultimate glory.

Then again, the time has moved slowly for Gasol.

The Lakers held on to him too long. Fortunately for Gasol, it wasn't past the point of no return.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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