Los Angeles Lakers: Why Pau Gasol, Not Kobe Bryant, Has Been the Team's MVP
After reading that Pau Gasol has eclipsed Kobe Bryant as the Los Angeles Lakers' most valuable player, you might say one of three things:
1) "I totally agree, no argument there!"
2) "Ross, you should be thrown out of the highest window possible, and land in the Republican Caucus for such blasphemies."
If you fall into category two, it's extremely weird that you know my one phobia. If you fall in categories one or three, then this article is for you.
Pau Gasol came to Tinseltown on February 1, 2008, in what may be the most lopsided trade in NBA history and has changed the complexion of the league. Since his arrival, the Lakers have reached three straight NBA Finals, winning the last two.
Seems pretty valuable to me. But more valuable than the Mamba?
The Interwebs are alive with MVP talk, even though it's only a couple weeks into the season, and many an analyst has the Big Spaniard near the top. While he may not be the NBA's MVP at this point, he certainly has the edge for Los Angeles.
Yes, that includes the Clippers.
But how did it get this way? The four "Y's," my friend.
For many people, an Al Harrington elbow to the ribs side and a contest (if what Harrington's doing can actually be called "contesting") from a defender would be enough to affect this shot.
For Gasol, it just makes him more comfortable.
The Lakers big man is one of the most efficient in basketball. While John Hollinger of ESPN would need his mathematically ridiculous PER system to agree, the proof is in very basic statistics.
It's not exactly fair to compare Bryant's and Gasol's shooting percentages due to the location of their shots, but note that when Gasol shoots, he makes them count. He's increased his shot attempts by four this year, and thanks to a shooting clip well above his career average, he's made one thing very clear to his teammates:
"If the ball ends in my hands, there's a great chance we will score."
Bryant is taking two more shots a game than the Spaniard, and knocking down one less. Yes, the injury has a lot to do with it, but there's no doubt Bryant isn't as reliable as he once was.
Luckily, this isn't 2005. Otherwise, he'd be counting on Kwame Brown.
Maybe it's hard to tell how important Gasol's versatility is when he was playing a team that starts only four guys.
No, Milicic didn't count.
Regardless, the Lakers struck gold thanks to the big man's flexibility. As of late, the power forwards in the NBA have slimmed down to more of an athletic swingman-type and cannot be asked to defend the bigger centers in the league.
Don't believe it? Ask the Hawks how to guard Dwight Howard with Josh Smith and Al Horford. Oh right, they can't.
With Andrew Bynum out (as usual), Gasol has slid over to the center spot and handled his business. Once labeled soft, Gasol can battle with the best players down low, while also using his footwork to stay in front of the more fleet-footed players on defense.
His impact, however, may be bigger on offense. Gasol has one of the most automatic (and ugliest) 15-footers in basketball. If Gasol looks like he's going to fire away, the opposing center has to come out, drawing him away from the glass.
Which explains why Lamar Odom finally looks like the Lakers made a good trade for Shaq.
Yes, that's not a word. But to describe Gasol, it's perfect.
The Lakers love having big men who can pass out of the triangle, and Gasol is the exemplar. The center is second on the squad in assists, something that very few teams in the NBA can say.
In fact, if it continues throughout the year, that's something very few teams in the history of the NBA can say.
Three factors stick out about Gasol's passing ability. First, he doesn't turn it over. His 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio is third on the team, and his turnover numbers are the second-lowest of his entire career.
To put that into comparison, that's better than Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant (.6), an MVP choice of many analysts, and Bryant (1.7).
Second, his presence on the court is crucial. As stated before, he spreads the floor by dragging the center out of the lane. This allows for off-the-ball movement to create uncontested shots closer to the hoop for his cutting teammates.
Third, he makes it look pretty. Ever see Dwight Howard go no-look through three defenders?
Not since high school.
While Gasol hasn't played an entire 82-game season for the Lakers yet, it's clear the when he's on the floor, Los Angeles knows exactly what they are going to get.
For some reason, Gasol really doesn't have off nights. In all but three games this year, he's shot over 50 percent from the field, and he's never dipped below 17 points per outing, even in blowouts. The same thing happens on the glass, as only twice has he missed double digits in total rebounds.
No other center is that reliable. None.
The key, however, is his minutes played. With Bynum and Theo Ratliff both hurt, Gasol is averaging the second most minutes of his career, which can often strain a player, or make them take it easy. Not Gasol, who has improved on his career marks in every single statistical category, except blocks.
Even there, however, he still leads the team.
It's nice to have someone who hits the floor every night and there's no concern about his performance. Other Lakers haven't been as steady: Bryant sometimes comes out and misses 20 shots and Odom sometimes comes out like he's wearing the wrong jersey.
Let's make this clear for all of you people who still are giving No. 2 responses.
Is Pau the Lakers' best player? No.
Is Pau the Lakers' most clutch player? No.
Is Pau the Lakers' go-to guy? No.
But is he the Lakers' MVP? Yes.
Imagine this team right now if you took off Bryant. Yes, the scoring would certainly drop, but does anyone think that, with the plethora of scoring guards and crazy talent (read: Artest, Odom and Barnes), the Lakers would suddenly fall out of the playoff picture?
It seems unlikely.
Now take Gasol out. His injury, plus Bynum's and Ratliff's, makes the Lakers one of the smallest teams in the NBA. Would Derrick Caracter start at center? Certainly no free agent signee can fill the gaping hole.
In fact, even when Bynum and Ratliff return, missing Gasol would create an extremely crowded lane and put a lot more pressure on Bryant to facilitate and score. While he definitely can do it, do Lakers fans really want the Mamba playing 40 or more minutes per game just to keep the team afloat?
For entertainment value maybe. But a simple dose of common sense says that's just stupid.
So while the Lakers may still be Bryant's team, the most valuable piece at this moment is Gasol. Not to take away from KB24's integral place in L.A., but through the first 11 games, the Spaniard has been the biggest contributor.
And for Lakers fans' sakes, let's hope he keeps it up. If the play continues even when his teammates get healthy, the West is theirs for the taking.