For all the talk of Kobe Bryant legitimizing the comparisons to Michael Jordan, of Phil Jackson standing a single game away from owning more championship rings than fingers, of Ron Artest’s career redemption, and of Boston's Big Three cementing their place among Celtics legends, everyone has forgotten about Pau Gasol.
Until joining the Lakers, Gasol was rarely mentioned among the league's top power forwards.
Amar’e Stoudemire was a better scorer. Tim Duncan was a better winner. Dirk Nowitzki had more range.
Three postseasons later, Gasol stands four quarters away from accomplishing something that none of those players have even had the opportunity to attempt.
A second consecutive NBA championship.
Gasol, playing in his third straight NBA Finals appearance, was never looked at as a Hall of Famer before now. Even Gasol’s performance in last year’s Finals against the Orlando Magic hadn’t elevated him to such elite status.
But being the second best player on a repeat championship team has to put you in the conversation. Doesn’t it?
It’s not that the Hall of Fame always gets it right. In fact, they often don’t.
If you haven’t heard the murmurs that Allen Iverson, owner of the third highest scoring average in NBA history, might be denied a Hall of Fame spot after his eventual retirement, you’ve been hiding under a rock.
The Hall’s blatant snub of five time NBA champion, defensive stalwart, and rebound maestro Dennis Rodman was even worse. Denying Rodman will forever taint the Hall’s selection committee.
But what excuse would they have to exclude Gasol if he does win tonight?
Nowitzki is considered a surefire Hall of Famer, but are his career stats of 23 points and eight rebounds per game so much better than Gasol’s 19 and nine?
Both Nowitzki and Gasol have received harsh criticism for their playoff performances, Nowitzki for not winning an NBA title, Gasol for disappearing in critical games.
Gasol did little to shed that criticism with his lackluster output against Boston in Game Five.
Though Gasol managed a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, his low scoring numbers on a night when the Lakers desperately needed offense, threatened to make Pau a scapegoat for the series.
One big W and a near triple-double later, Gasol’s back on track.
Some might ask, “what if the Lakers win and Gasol doesn’t perform as well?” Others might discuss, “what if the Lakers lose and Gasol delivers a great game?”
History rarely remembers games, especially ones of this magnitude, in more detailed terms than wins or losses.
If Gasol drops 30 points and 15 rebounds in a Laker loss, his 2009 Championship ring would still give him a leg up amongst most of his contemporaries. But it won't be enough to put him in a “Greatest of All Time” category.
If Gasol drops 11 points and eight rebounds in a Laker win, then LA would remain unbeaten in every full season they’ve played with Gasol.
Their single postseason series loss with Gasol would be contextualize; people would recall that he wasn’t fully acclimated to the Lakers and was without the help of his front court running mate, Andrew Bynum.
This single game really has that much importance.
The Bulls-Jazz Finals series never extended to a Game Seven. And though Malone and Stockton’s legacies may have hung in the balance of the decisive Game Six, Jordan’s didn’t—not when he still had the opportunity to take the next game.
In fact, it's hard to remember exactly when so many legacies have hung in the balance during a single game.
For my vote, Gasol should be near-guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame with a win tonight, especially if that win comes with a big performance.
If not, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get another shot at a second ring, and he’ll always be the second best player on the-dynasty-that-almost-was, which would be nothing short of tragic.
Which destiny awaits Gasol?