Top 50: Pau Gasol, no. 14
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by John Krolik
In the 1990s, Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause had one of the great dynasties of the modern era. He had the greatest player of all time at shooting guard. Alongside of him was all-time second banana Scottie Pippen, who Krause had hand-picked from relative obscurity. The team was winning championships, setting records, dominating. But Krause was never happy. He never found the player he was looking for.
Krause was obsessed with big men-he believed the best teams were built around them, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary in front of his eyes. And he didn’t want just any big man;the perfectly competent and sometimes fantastic bigs the Bulls brought in, from Luc Longley to Horace Grant to Bill Cartwright to Dennis Rodman, never satisfied him. He constantly pushed Phil Jackson to make Toni Kukoc into the superstar Krause believed Kukoc would become, when in reality he was always best suited as a complimentary player despite his skills. Before Michael Olowokandi was drafted, he ran around the front office telling anyone who would listen how big of a superstar Olowokandi would become. He attempted to trade Scottie Pippen for the draft rights to Keith Van Horn, only to have MJ nix the trade. After Phil, MJ, and Scottie left, he attempted to build his new dynasty around rookie giants Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.
Krause was chasing a dream; he wanted to find a big man with true center size but the skills to change the game entirely from the pivot position, young and malleable, a giant who would dominate through unorthodox finesse rather than pure lumbering power, from a place most wouldn’t think to look. He was looking for Pau Gasol. And as fate would have it, Gasol now plays in Phil’s triangle with the best guard since MJ, on a team with one championship and more likely on the way.
Great big men are as important as they ever were, but at this time fewer of the league’s best big men’s greatest attribute is their post-up game. Three-quarters of KG’s shots were jumpers last season, and three-quarters of his shots were assisted. 65% of Chris Bosh’s shots were jumpers. 85% of Dirk’s shots were jumpers. 55% of Amare’s shots were jumpers last season, and while his post game has improved, most of his looks around the basket still come from the pick-and-roll or facing his man up. David West, 71% jumpers. Even Tim Duncan took 57% of his shots from outside the paint. Dwight Howard is certainly a beast inside, but it’s not a state secret that his one-on-one traditional post game remains a work in progress. There’s still, of course, Shaq, Yao, and even Al Jefferson, who are their own stories.
But more and more, the great teams in the league seem to be inching towards a Celtics/Magic/et al model, in which the power forward stretches the floor and does most of the playmaking while the center dominates the paint and does most of his damage on catch-and-dunks, rebounds, defending the rim, and the occasional overpowering move deep in the key, rather than a “twin towers” model where both the center and power forward are comfortable initiating offense from the block. This does, to a degree, make some sense; the hand-check rules make going around players easier, so shooting over them becomes something successful offenses are less likely to be built around.
None of this is meant to be an elegy for the post game-for proof that it will always be an effective weapon, one need look no further than Gasol’s teammate Kobe Bryant, who at 6-7 has developed perhaps the league’s most advanced array of mid-and-low post moves, which he uses to devastating effect. (And that’s before Kobe starting working with The Dream this off-season. Um, Holy Crap.)
But one-dimensional low-post players, who take the ball on the block, take 20 shots a game, and can’t make as much of an impact by stretching the floor, passing or moving without the ball, or on the defensive end, seem to be less and less present on the league’s elite teams, or even starting on decent ones-see the rise and fall of Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, and even Chris Kaman.
Then you’ve got Pau Gasol, the pivot man Evolved. Gasol, is, first and foremost, one of the league’s deadliest low-post scorers. He has a simple but devastating set of weapons from the block. He has a beautiful jump hook that he’s great at setting up with deep position, he’s confident with his left hand around the basket, he has a disgustingly fast back-to-basket spin move that leaves defenders wondering what happened, he’s comfortable facing up slower bigs and blowing by them, and he’s athletic, strong, and crafty around the basket when he finds himself out of position near the rim. All of this leads to huge dividends from the inside-60% of Gasol’s shots come from inside, and he made a ridiculous 64% of his shots from down there, a fantastic mark, with barely over half of those shots coming off assists. And with a 78% mark from the stripe last season, fouling Gasol doesn’t help matters much either. Despite the fact many still think of him as a soft player or a natural 4, Gasol is as much of a force on the block as any player in the league.
But of course, Gasol is so much more than just a low-post player, and that’s what elevated him into a crucial part of a championship team. He’s fabulous playing the high-post, which of course makes him invaluable in the triangle. He’s an outstanding passer for his size-only Brian Cardinal (?), Boris Diaw, Lamar Odom, Jared Jeffries, and Andrei Kirilenko had better assist ratios at power forward than Gasol, and all of them had worse turnover rates. (Among players listed at center who played significant minutes, only Ronny Turiaf, Brad Miller, Jeff Foster, and Al Horford had better assist ratios, and all of their listings at center are far more questionable than Gasol’s, with the possible exception of Horford. And again, all of their turnover rates were worse.) And Dirk Nowitzki, Antonio McDyess, and Darius Songalia were the only big men who posted a better shooting percentage from midrange than Gasol’s 46%.
Gasol also runs the floor incredibly well for his size, and was a key to the Lakers’ deadly fast-break; among teams that made the playoffs, only the Nuggets had a faster-paced offense, and that was only by a hair. That skill certainly came in handy for the Lakers when Gasol was there to catch Kobe’s amazing pass in a two-for-one situation in the crucial game 4 of last year’s finals.
That does, of course, lead to somewhat of an elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Gasol’s effectiveness; the fact that the rest of the league’s big men don’t have Kobe Bryant on their team. Kobe does, of course, make life a lot easier for Gasol-Gasol doesn’t have to take bad shots at the end of the clock, defenses can’t load up against him, and he’s the recipient of plenty of weak-side dunks thanks to Kobe’s unsurpassed ability to find big men with passes from impossible angles in traffic, often from mid-air. It just can’t be denied that playing with Kobe Bryant makes other players better-Kobe even managed to make Kwame Brown look halfway decent for a few years.
But while it would be silly to pretend that playing with Bryant hasn’t helped Gasol tremendously on the court, the degree to which Gasol has seamlessly blended his game with Kobe’s to give the Lakers one of the best offenses ever does deserve some praise. Gasol’s versatility has been key in helping him become the league’s best beta dog. (Spoiler alert: no player with a player higher than him on this list on his own team is ranked higher than Gasol. If I end up mysteriously disappeared for divulging this, so be it.)
When Gasol gets the ball in the high post, he’s a good enough passer to find Kobe cutting to the basket or left alone for a three. When Kobe’s driving, Gasol has the hands and hops to catch and finish around the basket, and the range to step back and keep the floor stretched. When the defense tries to key in on Kobe, Gasol can take the ball on the block and punish the single coverage or rotate it back out to Kobe on the weak side if they do bring a double. And of course, Gasol is smart and humble enough not to start demanding the ball, going for his own shots, and keeping Kobe from doing his thing if he’s feeling it. It’s rare to see two great offensive players who are versatile enough not to have to give something up when they’re playing with each other, but Kobe and Gasol have managed to do just that, to the tune of a ring.
The only thing approaching a caveat when it comes to Gasol is the fact that, despite his listing, he’s a very, very good power forward, but a downright special center. He is a player who’s at his best offensively down low, and prefers to work from the inside-out. The stats bear this out-Gasol played twice as much center as power forward last season, and his PERs jumped from 21 to 26 when he played center. The Lakers also played much better as a team with him at the 5, averaging 10.4 net points per 48 minutes to 6.0 points per 48 when he was at power forward. In the playoffs, this split got even more pronounced. He played three times as much center as power forward in the playoffs, and his PER jumped from 14.0 to 26.0, with the Lakers’ net points per 48 going from 1.2 to 10.2.
However, while he certainly did more than an acceptable job against Dwight Howard defensively in the finals last season, he’s somewhat of a tweener defensively. He can get out on the pick-and-roll pretty well and has good length and size inside, but he’s not quite strong enough to mark the league’s most hulking centers or quickest power forwards. And of course, the Lakers are invested in the development of Andrew Bynum, a hugely promising young true center. Between Gasol, Bynum, Odom, and Artest, someone is going to have to sit during crunch-time (unless Kobe plays point, which could well work and would be kind of awesome), and even a frontcourt of Gasol, Bynum, and Odom would have trouble keeping the floor spaced without a true three-point threat. But overall, having too much talent is a good problem to have, and there are few people better suited to figure out those problems than Phil Jackson, Kobe, and Gasol. I’m not sure how exactly it will work, but I’m fairly certain that it will, if that makes sense.
Pau Gasol may well be a vision of what the dominant post players of the future will look like-the same beautiful set of moves from the block and mid-post, and someone who will gladly destroy single coverage if he gets it, but also someone quick and versatile enough to make the pass, step out and hit the jumper, or run the floor on a fast-break when the increasingly drive-and-kick nature of the game demands it. Of course, Gasol might just be so good that we won’t see another like him for a long, long time.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.