by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25

Poor Pau Gasol. How quickly people forget.

Not long ago the silky Spaniard was on top of the world. The Los Angeles Lakers’ and Kobe Bryant’s savior in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals victory over the villainous Boston Celtics, Pau had officially overcome his soft Euro label by manhandling Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins throughout that series. He was no longer the talented but flimsy post player who couldn’t handle a shove in the back without acting like he was nailed by a sniper. He was a man and one that was unquestionably among the NBA’s elite players.

That was until Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood happened to Gasol. For whatever reason (post-breakup depression, Kobe drama, shock that his once-pudgy little brother was dominating him stat wise in the playoffs, ill-timed slump, sudden evaporation of confidence), old Pau showed up for the Western Conference Semi-Finals last season.

You could actually make a sound argument that the version of Pau Gasol we witnessed against the eventual NBA champions last April was much worse than weak, whiny Pau. We caught a glimpse (and hopefully we never see it again) of defeated Pau. And that is a shame.

Gasol’s numbers last season were more or less identical to those from his watershed 2009-2010 campaign. Points per game were up to 18.8 from 18.3 and rebounds per contest were down to 10.2 from 11.3, but overall, during the regular season the NBA All-Star was his reliable self (reliable being the key word: after struggling with injures during his “good” year, Pau did not miss a single game last season).

But of course no one, especially spoiled Lakers fans (this guy included), honestly cares about regular season production. Members of the Association who have earned their spot in the pantheon of NBA elites (which Pau certainly has done: multiple All-Star games, two-time NBA champion absolutely qualifies) are judged, fairly or not, by playoff performance. Unfortunately for the 11 year veteran, the most recent sample always sticks which is why our image of Pau Gasol heading into the summer, into the lockout, and into what should be the season is so horrendous.

That is why I am pleasantly surprised Pau was ranked 13th in SLAMonline’s ranking of the NBA’s Top 50 players. I don’t think Pau deserves to be punished too severely for a series that obviously snowballed quickly on him.

Let me be clear. Pau was bad. I mean, unspeakably bad in those five games. Not just on offense, where he couldn’t get deep position most possessions, settled for mediocre position and awkward fadeaways during others, and looked completely lost no matter what was going on.

On defense, Dirk Nowitzki burned Pau to a crisp. Not that that’s a crime (Dirk made every breed of defender thrown at him look silly during his mesmerizing postseason run), but after finally developing the killer instinct and physicality that was missing from his game for so long, Pau gave Dirk absolutely no resistance.

Like asking which came first between the chicken and the egg, I’m not sure whether Pau’s defensive ineptitude fed his offensive struggles or if it was the other way around. But in either scenario, Pau’s real issue vs the Mavs was trying to play championship-caliber basketball with his brain wound tighter than a drum.

The cure for that would be a long summer of rest and distance from the game. Though I’m sure he won’t ever forget his performance in last season’s playoffs, I fully expect Pau to use that experience to make him a more motivated and dangerous basketball player. He’s too good and too smart of an athlete not to.

Whenever the season actually begins (at this rate after Christmas), New Lakers coach Mike Brown has plans of implementing a similar offense in Los Angeles to the one the Spurs ran while he was an assistant in San Antonio with Tim Duncan and David Robinson manning each block. With Andrew Bynum serving as the “Admiral” to Pau’s Duncan in a scheme that may accentuate each player’s skills better than the Triangle ever did, we could be in store for Gasol’s best season yet.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6
25John WallWizardsPG7
24Danny GrangerPacersSF5
23Monta EllisWarriorsSG4
22Joe JohnsonHawksSG3
21Paul PierceCelticsSF4
20Steve NashSunsPG6
19Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF8
18LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF7
17Chris BoshHeatPF6
16Kevin LoveTWolvesPF5
15Rajon RondoCelticsPG5
14Blake GriffinClippersPF4
13Pau GasolLakersPF3

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.