by Allen Powell II

Two things are true about Pau Gasol, and anyone who disputes them has questionable basketball acumen. First, Pau Gasol is a tad soft, or, as some would say, “finesse.” Second, when properly motivated, Gasol is a beast.

Yes, those two assertions reek of cognitive dissonance. No, they will not be retracted.

NBA history is littered with “finesse” beasts. Some people, many of them Celtics fans, have accused Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of being “finesse.” Dirk Nowitzki has worn the “finesse” label for years, and even his recent ascent to the NBA mountaintop hasn’t completely shaken it. What about Kevin Johnson, or even Kevin Durant? Now consider the popular perception of David Robinson’s career.

There is this idea that if a player is a not a bruiser, if he prefers to shy away from certain types of contact or doesn’t always assert himself physically, he must suffer from a mental weakness. It is a popular conceit among NBA fans and is somewhat justified. Throughout the NBA’s history many have failed to make the most of their playing careers because they lacked the physical and mental toughness required to survive in a League populated by undeniably grown men. Fans are constantly searching for clues about who will be the next player to join that dubious club.

But, that’s where Pau Gasol becomes an interesting case. It’s true that NBA fans have seen him pushed off the block too often. They’ve been frustrated by Gasol’s flailing arms and putrid stat lines. Lakers fans annually bemoan his “finesse” play and have openly lusted for his replacement.

Yet, the most astute Lakers fans realize that the only reason their team has been a perennial contender is because of that lopsided trade that brought Gasol to Hollywood. Gasol’s ability to move in and out of the post, to be a willing and exceptional passer, to defend, and to crash the boards are in short supply in today’s NBA. Honestly, those skills have been in short supply in every era.

And Gasol is a proven commodity. Yes, he tosses out a few clunkers every year, but he has won Championships. Gasol has occupied the upper echelon of his position for years. He’s proven himself in tense moments far more often then he’s failed. While he’s getting older, there is no reason to believe that a steep decline looms.

But, those failures linger. That’s why SLAMonline voters have placed Gasol behind players who haven’t displayed his arsenal of skills, nor shown an ability to perform when the stakes are highest. These lists always prize potential and punish certain track records.

Most fans understand that Gasol was misused by Mike Brown last year, but some still blame him for his failures. While it’s likely that Gasol’s full array of skills will be on display this year with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard as running mates, many fans still doubt his ability to take advantage of the opportunity.

No matter what Gasol accomplishes, he has been branded as “finesse.” It is almost like he sports an embroidered “F” on his authentic jersey, and no matter what other accolades he may obtain, that brand will remain.

There is a certain injustice about Gasol’s position, but (here comes that cognitive dissonance again) there is also fairness. For better or worse, first impressions have always been lasting impressions. Why should the NBA be any different from real life?

Where should Pau Gasol rank in the SLAMonline Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Greg MonroePistonsC8
49Tyreke EvansKingsPG14
48Brandon JenningsBucksPG13
47Stephen CurryWarriorsPG12
46Ricky RubioTWolvesPG11
45Al JeffersonJazzPF14
44Anthony DavisHornetsPF13
43Serge IbakaThunderPF12
42Al HorfordHawksC7
41Ty LawsonNuggetsPG10
40Danny GrangerPacersSF6
39Tim DuncanSpursPF11
38John WallWizardsPG9
37Monta EllisBucksSG8
36Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF10
35Roy HibbertPacersC6
34Tyson ChandlerKnicksC5
33Eric GordonHornetsSG7
32Kevin GarnettCelticsPF9
31Manu GinobiliSpursSG6
30Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF8
29Marc GasolGrizzliesC4
28DeMarcus CousinsKingsC3
27Paul PierceCelticsSF5
26Andre IguodalaNuggetsSG5
25Rudy GayGrizzliesSF4
24Josh SmithHawksPF7
23Derrick RoseBullsPG8
22Joe JohnsonNetsSG4
21Steve NashLakersPG7
20James HardenThunderSG3
19Pau GasolLakersPF6

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.