Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pau Gasol Is Good Enough To Be Bad

It's very possible that Pau Gasol, key cog on two Lakers championship teams and one of the most skilled big men in the NBA, is simply washed up. He hasn't put up big numbers the past two years (although in 2011 he was Second Team All-NBA), and he's a 32-year-old center who's played a ton of minutes for his career and in the past five years especially. Just because teammate Kobe Bryant is doing borderline unprecedented things at his age and minutes level doesn't mean everyone will stay at such a high level. Gasol did look great in the Olympics this past summer, but a lot of guys have looked borderline unstoppable during March Madness (another fast-paced two-week tournament) and flamed out in the NBA. Two weeks does not a comeback make.

Pau Gasol makes a face

The Lakers are clearly weighing the possibility of a permanent Gasol decline as they look at potentially unloading him and other teams are surely taking notice, too. While it seems like the Lakers should just get Ryan Anderson because of course the Lakers will get Ryan Anderson, teams like the Hornets don't have a ton of incentive to unload cheap pieces like Anderson for an aging star like Gasol (and one and a half years of his mammoth contract). Even at his peak as a foundational player on Memphis, Gasol's teams weren't stratospheric. If a team is built around Pau Gasol it could make the playoffs, but not challenge for the championship, which is really the worst place for an NBA franchise to be.

All these factors are driving down Gasol's value, but I think he's suffering from a different problem. I think Pau Gasol might actually be too skilled. Gasol is dynamic as a back-to-the-basket player but he can also play, effectively but not dominantly, 18 feet from the basket. He has enough range to hit those KG-style jump-shots, slip some screens, and draw a defender out of the paint. He's also an above average passer for a big man, which further enhances his value away from the hoop. The problem is, while he's effective playing power forward, he's not nearly as good as he is playing center.

The Lakers, for their part, force Gasol to play this way because they have paired Gasol with other dominant big men who need the ball down low. But when those championship teams of a few years ago finished games, the closing lineup was nearly always Gasol and Lamar Odom, instead of Gasol and Andrew Bynum, which allowed Gasol to play as a true center. Last season, the Lakers jettisoned Odom and Bynum flourished into a great late-game scorer, but Gasol got lost in the lurch.

Gasol is probably not at the caliber of Dwight Howard or Bynum with his back to the basket so it makes sense that the Lakers would choose the latter over him to play down low, but also because Howard and Bynum have no semblance of an outside game. In that way, Gasol has to be the player who shoulders the added load, and while he can do this, it significantly lowers his level of play. This is truly the paradox of Paul Gasol: he's good enough to be adaptable, but not quite adaptable enough to always be good.

Any team that trades for Gasol shouldn't expect the beast we saw this past Olympics, but if Gasol is moved I hope the team that trades for him doesn't try to make him something he's not. Let him be a center, and not an amorphous big man who's expected to do a little of everything. I think at this point he may be under-valued, and a team should take a chance on him. If he really is washed up, next year his contract becomes an enormous expiring trade chip. I hope, because he was such a delight to watch operating out of the post, that he's not.

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