Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pau Gasol's Leaving Lakerland, Eventually

"That's where I'm going?" (Gary A. Vasquez/U.S. Presswire)

Mike Brown is the most recent casualty of the Los Angeles Lakers' post-Phil Jackson era. He joins Shannon Brown, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom, who all played different roles in helping the franchise win back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010.

The number of hard feelings that each one carries from his means of departure varies. Brown, for instance, declined to pick up a player option that would have kept him in L.A. last season and found a bigger payday with the Phoenix Suns. He had a say in the way he left, unlike Fisher — who nearly became a three-time Laker this fall after being traded to the Houston Rockets in March — and Odom, one of the league's most talented sixth-men who was flipped for a mere trade exception after being included in the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade that never happened due to a David Stern veto.

Even considering the boot Mike Brown received after coaching fewer than 80 regular season games, Pau Gasol has had the roughest road out of Southern California. The worst part, obviously, is that Gasol is still clad in purple and gold.

By the numbers, the Spanish big man was the Lakers' second-most productive player in 2011-12 behind (who else?) Kobe Bryant. In the championship years, too, Gasol was an important weapon for Jackson's juggernaut.

New philosophies have not been kind to him, though. New additions Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were supposed to make things easier by drawing more attention, allowing Gasol to shoot mid-range jumpers and work on his three-point range.

That's not quite how it's panning out.

Howard started slow while still recovering from back surgery earlier in the year and Nash suffered a small fracture in his left fibula when he knocked knees with Portland Trailblazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard in the Lakers' second game of the season. Mike D'Antoni, who claimed the head coaching position shortly after Brown's firing, implemented his trademark offensive system, which minimizes Gasol's role on the court by moving away from his strengths. As a result, his minutes have waned as Antawn Jamison has gained favor and, thus, playing time.

Currently, Gasol is benched while his knees rebound from tendinitis. His view from the bench is clear. He can see not only the teams entering Staples Center, but also the cities of Atlanta, Minneapolis and Toronto — the homes of three franchises rumored to have interest in acquiring Gasol. The Raptors are said to be the Lakers' most likely trade partner, but their projected package of Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon does not contain the shooter needed in Los Angeles. Same with the Hawks, as Josh Smith is their only relevant asset in this situation. Timberwolves general manager David Kahn has made more than his share of mistakes in the past considering Minnesota's roster, but swapping Kevin Love for Pau Gasol would be foolish in any capacity due to age, if not Love's cemented star status on a small market team.

That is without namedropping Odom, Paul, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic — other players that would have moved in the Stern-stopped four-team trade that would have landed Gasol in Houston at the beginning of last season.

Ever the soothsayer, Bryant recently weighed in on his teammate's quandary:

"Put your big-boy pants on. Just adjust. Just adjust. You can't whine about it. You can't complain about it."

To his benefit, Gasol has not complained about it. Not even when Rockets radio announcer Craig Ackerman co-opted Bryant's quote into what might end up being the greatest call of the season. Gasol's been benched, asked to play more minutes at center rather than his preferred power forward spot, been dangled over the trade scales and seen regimes change.

No complaints.

All signs point to Gasol being the first casualty of the Lakers' D'Antoni era, though. Soon, maybe, Gasol will find himself in a spot where he is expected to be more vocal; to be a leader; to not play second-fiddle; to be Pau.

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