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
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Luol Deng Bulls SF 8
49 Andrew Bogut Bucks C 7
48 Ray Allen Celtics SG 9
47 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 6
46 David West Hornets PF 15
45 Kevin Martin Rockets SG 8
44 Andrew Bynum Lakers C 5
43 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 11
42 Lamar Odom Lakers PF 14
41 Gerald Wallace Blazers SF 7
40 Brook Lopez Nets C 4
39 Joakim Noah Bulls C 3
38 Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 13
37 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 12
36 Eric Gordon Clippers SG 7
35 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
34 Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 6
33 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 11
32 Al Horford Hawks C 2
31 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 9
30 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 10
29 Josh Smith Hawks PF 9
28 Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 5
27 Tyreke Evans Kings PG 8
26 Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 6
25 John Wall Wizards PG 7
24 Danny Granger Pacers SF 5
23 Monta Ellis Warriors SG 4
22 Joe Johnson Hawks SG 3
21 Paul Pierce Celtics SF 4
20 Steve Nash Suns PG 6
19 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
18 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 7
17 Chris Bosh Heat PF 6
16 Kevin Love TWolves PF 5
15 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 5
14 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 4
13 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 3

• 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.