Pau Gasol's Renaissance Yields Long-Overdue NBA All-Star Game Start

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2015

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Pau Gasol had accomplished plenty over his NBA career before joining forces with the Chicago Bulls over the offseason.

Still, the four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA selection and two-time champion found one box he hadn't checked on his Hall of Fame-caliber resume. And hoop fans around the globe have now helped him fill it in.

At 34 years old, in his 14th NBA season, Gasol was named as a starter for the NBA All-Star Game. The 7-footer collected 974,177 votes, the sixth-highest total in the league and second most among Eastern Conference frontcourt players.

As icing on this overdue-but-sweet-as-ever cake, Pau and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol became the first brothers ever voted in to start the same All-Star Game. He recognized the significance of that distinction, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:

It's incredibly special. It's overwhelming. It's a huge honor. It's just beyond our selves, individuals, so it's a very exciting moment. Unforgettable, memorable, historical, you name it. You can use as many words and adjectives as you want.

So right now we're very thrilled, we're overwhelmed, and we're happy and thankful to everyone that supports us, the fans that have voted for us. Our teams, our organizations—so it's just a beautiful moment to live and go through as an NBA player.

Frankly, it's a moment that shouldn't have eluded the older Gasol brother as long as it did. But a lot of this comes down to timing, which explains why this never happened before and why it's taking place now.

Gasol found the perfect dance partner in the Windy City over the offseason.

"He came to Chicago because he wanted to be a key piece on a contender. The Bulls wanted him because they needed a consistent scorer in the frontcourt," wrote Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin. "Both sides have lived up to their end of the bargain, and it's resulted in a late-career renaissance for Gasol."

After some tumultuous seasons near the end of Gasol's six-plus-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers, he's back to playing a pivotal role on a team with championship aspirations.

He leads the Bulls with 11.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game and a 22.1 player efficiency rating. Both his 18.4 points-per-game scoring average and 48.5 field-goal percentage rank second on the team.

He looks worlds removed from the player who languished in former Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's perimeter-oriented offense. Gasol told reporters earlier this season that he feels "rejuvenated" by being back on a competitive team, per Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times, and his performances have demonstrated the same sentiment.

"He's played at an extremely high level the entire season," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Gasol, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "He's been strong on both sides of the ball."

It's been such a perfect fit between Gasol and the Bulls that it's almost strange to think how close these two came to never joining forces.

When Chicago went big-game hunting over the summer, Gasol wasn't the first name it chased. At the start of free agency, the Bulls rolled out the red carpet for New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony—the type of elite perimeter scorer it seemed the roster so desperately needed.

Gasol, meanwhile, had his pick of multiple suitors. The Bulls were a part of that group, but so too were the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported.

But fate intervened. Anthony opted to stay in New York, and Gasol pounced on the opportunity to join a team that needed his offense and could help hide whatever defensive ability he'd lost to Father Time.

Jul 18, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau (left) and general manager Gar Forman (right) pose for a photo with newly signed center Pau Gasol  during a press conference at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TOD

Something led Gasol to Chicago.

Watching his seamless transition to his third NBA team, one is tempted to think the basketball gods had a hand in this pairing. Gasol told reporters that his "instinct told [him] to pick Chicago" after signing his three-year, $22 million deal with the Bulls.

Call it good fortune, or exactly the opposite of what he had during his 13 seasons spent in the star-studded Western Conference.

As good as Gasol has been this season, it hasn't been his best. While his work on the glass checks in at a career rate, his scoring, assist and shooting numbers fall well short of doing the same. He had previously cleared 19 points a night three different times, averaged at least 3.5 assists on four occasions and shot better than 53 percent in four separate seasons.

But his problem—at least as it pertains to getting All-Star votes—was that his best days coincided with those of some of this generation's premier frontcourt talents. The fact he spent his first six-plus seasons with the small-market Memphis Grizzlies also didn't do him any favors in the popularity department.

Still, he would have had a tough time in any locale separating himself from the wealth of talent that existed along Western Conference frontlines. Take a look at the names selected ahead of him, and try to spot the weak link.

The Last 13 All-Star Starting Frontcourts Out West
2013-14Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love
2012-13Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard
2011-12Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum
2010-11Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming
2009-10Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Amar'e Stoudemire
2008-09Amar'e Stoudemire, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2007-08Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2006-07Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki
2005-06Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2004-05Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2003-04Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2002-03Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming
2001-02Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber

Gasol faced a steep uphill battle to knock any of those players from his All-Star pedestal.

The Spaniard came close, though, on multiple occasions.

Back when the league still separated forwards and centers on the ballots, Gasol finished third among West forwards in both 2012 and 2011. In 2011-12, Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Those look like All-Star numbers, but they weren't quite as strong as Kevin Durant's (28.0, 8.0 and 3.5, respectively) or Blake Griffin's (20.7, 10.9 and 3.2).

The prior season told the same story. Gasol's stats were a little better (18.8, 10.2 and 3.3), but fans flocked to the 27.7 points put up by Durant and 25.6 points coming from Carmelo Anthony.

Those were among the many near misses Gasol had over the years. He had three other top-five finishes at his position: fifth behind Durant, Griffin, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan in 2013; fourth behind Anthony, Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki in 2010; and fourth behind Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady in 2006.

The method of All-Star selection may have factored into Gasol's status as a perennial All-Star bridesmaid. In an exhibition setting where so much of the game is spent above the rim, fans flooded the rosters with high-flyers such as Durant, Griffin, Howard, Anthony and McGrady.

Duncan didn't fit that billing, but he'd racked up three world titles by 2006 and a fourth by 2010. Nowitzki was an NBA finalist in 2006 and riding a wave of nine straight seasons with 21-plus points when he got the nod in 2010. 

Gasol's credentials were strong enough to earn him All-Star nods in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011, but the picture didn't come together immediately. His Grizzlies teams never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. By the time he landed in L.A., he played second fiddle to Kobe Bryant, then slipped further down the list during Andrew Bynum's rise during 2011-12.

Coaches appreciated Gasol's basketball brilliance, but his ground-bound game of fancy footwork, pinpoint passing and soft shooting from the elbow proved a tough sell to casual fans.

DENVER, CO - MAY 04:  Fans display signs in support of Kobe Bryant (R) #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers as Bryant and Pau Gasol (L) #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers warm up prior to facing the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

But the fans are clearly buying Gasol's stock now. And why wouldn't they?

He leaves his fingerprints on almost every spot of the stat sheet. He ranks among the NBA's top 20 in minutes played, field goals, free throws, rebounds, blocks and points. For the analytical crowd, he sits 17th in PER, 13th in defensive win shares and 14th in total win shares.

His versatility is almost unrivaled. He is tied for first with 26 double-doubles. He's also on pace to become the first player to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks since Yao Ming in 2007-08.

"He adds a whole different dimension that we didn't have in the past," Bulls center Joakim Noah said of Gasol, per Friedell. "He's playing really good basketball for us, and he definitely adds a very different, unique, and good, very positive dimension to our team."

In other words, Gasol is playing like an All-Star starter.

This isn't the first time that's happened. But it's the first season in which the stars have aligned to give Gasol his well-deserved spot in the opening lineup.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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