“There is a God!” Kobe Bryant exclaimed after the Lakers’ 105-90 victory over the New Jersey Nets.
The February 2008 game was Bryant’s first playing alongside Pau Gasol; a then-27-year-old phenom who had spent each of his first six seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies after a successful stint in the EuroLeague.
Having tasted marginal success under six different coaches in Memphis (the Grizzlies were bounced in the first round of the Playoffs three years in a row), Gasol reached new heights in Los Angeles. Replacing Shaquille O’Neal as Bryant’s go-to presence in the paint, Pau earned Championship rings in 2009 and 2010 and All-Star nods in the process.
Six long years later, Gasol enters the preseason under completely different circumstances. Gasol has since endured a messy break-up with the Lakers, and the Black Mamba has retired from the League, as has future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan (sans farewell tour).
Now 36 years old, and coming off a productive season with the underachieving Bulls, Gasol inked a two-year, $30 million contract to supplant Duncan in Gregg Popovich’s rotation.
Gasol’s move to San Antonio may not have generated the fanfare of other signings within the Western Conference, but was a pragmatic decision aimed at bringing home a third Championship ring. As Pau’s brother Marc implied, the Spurs will give Pau a better chance to win now than the Bulls.
Gasol’s minutes, of course, will be an X-factor in determining his value this season. Pau was featured at No. 34 on last season’s Top 50 list; a ranking that was rewarded with 11 boards and 16.5 points per game.
Popovich rests his starters more frequently than Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, though; Gasol’s 31.8 minutes per game could see a sharp decrease in 2017. LaMarcus Aldridge, for example, saw his court time diminish to a near career-low after leaving the Trail Blazers for San Antonio.
As Gasol alluded to after the signing, the opportunity in San Antonio was ultimately too good to pass up. What the 7-foot Spaniard will miss in playing time, he’ll make up for in a supporting cast. Flanked by Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker, Gasol won’t be tasked with shouldering San Antonio’s offensive load.
What’s more, under-the-radar free-agent signing Dewayne Dedmon should be a logical defensive choice to spell Gasol at the 5; the 27-year-old rim protector played a similar role behind Nikola Vucevic last season.
Gasol lamented the Bulls’ lack of “intensity and effort” toward the end of the 2015-16 season; that isn’t a complaint likely to resurface under Popovich.
If Gasol can avoid the injury bug and stay on the court for 70-plus games—a feat he’s accomplished each of the last two years—there’s no reason to think he can’t maintain his level of All-Star production in San Antonio.
While it’s difficult to envision any team usurping the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference title, the addition of Pau Gasol is a step in the right direction for the Spurs.
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.
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