Soft As A Rock?
Timing is everything. Mine sucks.
by Myles Brown / @mdotbrown
As featured in SLAM 149, Pau Gasol has his share of critics, but I thought it was time to revisit those criticisms. Given his performance this post season, I’ll obviously have to revisit that re-visitation. For now, here’s the feature if you haven’t read it yet…..
The clock was ticking towards the inevitable. Down by two with just seconds remaining in Game 1, the Grizzlies had all but lost. Michael Conley dribbled away in search of an opening, but with his path to the rim impeded, he judiciously flicked a pass to Shane Battier who rose and fired from three. Tracing through the air for what seemed like an eternity, the ball settled softly through the net and 24 seconds later, Memphis had upset the top seeded Spurs for the franchise’s first playoff victory in 16 years.
Meanwhile, 1400 miles away, their all-time leading scorer, defender and rebounder had begun his quest for a third straight title. Moments after the final buzzer sounded in San Antonio, Pau Gasol corralled a loose ball under the opposing basket and rushed up the Staples Center floor. Flanked by two guards on the break, he lofted a thirty foot lead pass over the defense to Shannon Brown for a layup as the first quarter expired. It was just a small sample of the multitude of skills the Lakers seven foot forward has to offer. Unfortunately, on this afternoon, it would be the only sample.
Los Angeles surrendered Game 1 to New Orleans in what may have been the worst game of Gasol’s playoff career. He was pushed, prodded and literally bloodied en route to just one basket in the first 47 minutes of the contest, finishing with a meager 8 points on 2-9 shooting. Flustered by an active defense, he missed open shots, was dazed by stray elbows, fumbled passes and seemingly lost all confidence around the basket. Late in the fourth quarter, Pau found himself isolated on the left block with only Jarrett Jack-who is almost a foot shorter-in position to prevent what should’ve been a sure two points. Gasol immediately posted, glanced over his shoulder….and passed out to the perimeter. It may have been the smart play in anticipation of a defensive shift, but the crowd still moaned with disapproval.
Yet even after the Lakers addressed the collected media, the rumbling hadn’t stopped. Their frowns of solemn contemplation and pacifying quotes of accountability left no one satisfied. As is the case with most upsets, after the shock is absorbed, blame must be assigned. So there it lied, underneath scattered references by fans and critics alike to his passivity and aversion to physical play: Pau played too soft. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of such. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time we’d heard it this month, Amare Stoudemire made sure of that. Just weeks before, Kendrick Perkins shared similar sentiments. They’re not alone. A basic Google search will reveal hundreds of articles, message board chats and YouTube videos, many of which feature the same unflattering nickname: Pau Gasoft. Not exactly clever, yet catchy nonetheless.
But is it true?
Pau Gasol is a mild mannered and thoughtful man. He’s a classically trained pianist with an insatiable love for the arts, preferring nights at the opera and Indie flicks to nightclubs and Xbox. At 18, he was enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona and now at 29, he is one of the few players who not only reads, but enjoys Phil Jackson’s fabled book assignments. Honestly, you can probably tell all of this simply by watching him play and no, that’s not an insult, either. Strolling towards the arena’s exit after that ghastly performance, Gasol hesitantly agrees.
“The way I grew up, what I’ve been taught, my interests and my culture, probably do have an effect on my style of game. So I guess it does [reflect my personality]. To me, it’s for the positive. I wouldn’t want to be any other way. I wouldn’t want to play any other way.”
More importantly, no one else can play this way. Basketball is indeed a contact sport, however for those in the trenches, the ability to avoid contact is vital. Scouts drool over the prodigious footwork and ambidexterity that enable effective counter-moves, for there are times even the most bullish players must evade brute force rather than barrel through it. After all, there are rules to this game. A reliable jump shot is another desirable trait; how else can one ensure the defense doesn’t simply collapse on every post entry? Such players open up passing and driving lanes, ensuring better looks for both themselves and their teammates. Now should that player also possess exceptional ball handling skills, he would be virtually uncontainable. With the right offense and teammates, a pivot this talented could conduct a mesmerizing symphony of movement; one that controls the defense instead of reacting to it. That offense is Tex Winter’s ingenious Triangle and those teammates are the Los Angeles Lakers. Their maestro is Pau Gasol.
This is by no means a slight towards Kobe Bryant, their undoubted leader whose legend grows by the day, but Gasol’s versatility is what makes the offense so unpredictable. When Pau has the ball in the high post, even he doesn’t know what will happen next. Entrusted to scan the court as both the facilitator and finisher, a nimble hook, a nifty drop step or a no look pass are all possibilities. So are the reverse pivot stepback jumper, drive n’ dish, and yes, even a violently emphatic dunk. He does it all. Gasol is the one who keeps the opposition from trapping Kobe every time up court, Gasol is the one who has enabled Kobe to rest those creaky knees and Gasol is unquestionably the one responsible for what may be the team’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance.
All anyone seems to remember is the first. The Lakers immediately returned to the Finals after acquiring Gasol in 2008, where they promptly ran into a brick wall. At least it looked like it, the way their bodies were scattered about the floor. The Boston Celtics made quick work of their rivals, primarily thanks to their stifling of Gasol, who was clearly overwhelmed by a rabid Kevin Garnett. Determined to never be pushed around again, Pau spent his first summer in the weight room.
He returned the following season noticeably bigger and even more efficient, averaging career highs in both rebounds and shooting percentage. The Lakers cruised towards another Finals appearance, where this time he would be the aggressor. In the 2009 Finals, Gasol not only held his own with Dwight Howard, he neutralized him, denying position and scoring effortlessly on the other end as the Lakers won their first championship without the ‘other’ Superman.
Though hobbled by injury in 2010, Pau averaged another career high in rebounds and nearly doubled his blocks per game before the rematch with his snarling nemesis. Garnett entered the Finals with every intention of bullying Gasol yet again, but found it far more difficult. The Spaniard roundly outplayed him, particularly in the finale, in which Garnett was out rebounded by Gasol 18-3.
Bigger, stronger, just as fast, and now a back-to-back Champion. Yet Gasol is consistently reminded that labels aren’t removed as easily as they’re applied. Despite grabbing more rebounds, blocking more shots and playing 200 more minutes than any other Laker, in addition to finishing second in scoring and assists, Pau’s tenacity is still questioned. Sometimes by his own teammate.
After a February loss to the Celtics, Kobe offered up a quizzical assessment of Gasol. “When I’m out there being aggressive and doing my thing, he needs to follow suit and just be just as aggressive which is hard for him because it’s kind of against his nature.” Bryant said.”Even when he was in Memphis and he was the go-to guy, he was always very nice. Very white swan. I need him to be black swan. Be an asshole sometimes.”
First of all, Pau Gasol is in the All-Time Top 100 in both offensive rebounds and free throw attempts. He placed 5th and 12th in those respective categories this year. Such numbers aren’t given away, but earned in the paint, where all the supposed tough guys are. Such dependability should never be considered indicative of a need for aggression. Regardless, what Bryant may fail to realize is that the beauty of the white swan isn’t only in its fluid proficiency, but its consistency. The white swan’s steadfastness and malleability is what makes the black swan’s fearless freelancing so captivating. Two black swans could never co-exist. Or hasn’t he learned that lesson aleady?
Speaking of, what if Pau actually was black? Would we view him any differently? Granted, some of the frustration with Pau’s game may stem from our expectations of today’s big men in comparison to the back-to-basket behemoths of yesteryear, however much of it existed before he ever set foot on an NBA court. Plainly put, some of it is outright xenophobia, an open disdain for any player who honed his craft outside of our shores. Such knee jerk evaluations are eerily similar to the ethnocentrism African-Americans suffered under for their innovative play during the league’s formative years.
Another mild mannered Laker great, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, happens to agree.
“I think he bears the burden of the European style of basketball, which isn’t as physical as American basketball. When they learn the game, it’s like a shooting game. For Americans, when they learn the game, it’s like a war in the paint. But he’s really given us a consistent performer at power forward. When we need him to play center, he can play center. He’s been invaluable. He’s pulling down rebounds, scoring for us, playing defense. There’s nothing soft about him, he’s a very effective player.”
So it’s time for us to re-evaluate our own hardened notions of what ‘soft’ really is. Pau isn’t an immovable object like Andrew Bynum. He doesn’t sneer or casually shirk off injuries like Kobe. He doesn’t manhandle opponents or kiss his biceps like Ron Artest. What he does, is play the post as efficiently and admirably as anyone in the Association, night in and night out. What he does brought Showtime back to Los Angeles. Poor outings such as Game 1 aren’t the norm for him, just scraps of evidence for our own confirmation bias.
It’s doubtful any of this will change, but thankfully, neither will Pau.
“I’m not absolutely sure why certain things happen or are said. But most European players are labeled right away, no matter what they are or what they do as not being physical or tough. You have to fight through that. It doesn’t matter if you play twenty or two hundred games physically, if you play that one game that is not the greatest, then you’re going to be labeled. But it is what it is and you can’t let that affect you. You have to be who you are, play hard and bring to the table what you bring to the table. Many European players are here because they deserve to be here and the teams want them here. They earn a paycheck like everyone else, playing the way each individual knows how to play.”
Clearly agitated, he continues.
“I work hard. I think so far, I’ve had an amazing career and I’ll continue to work hard, continue to produce and be the player that I’ve always been. But I’m not trying to be somebody that I’m not and that’s the bottom line. I think I’ve been very successful in my career and sometimes those players that open their mouths, they wish they had my career.”
We wouldn’t be leaping to any conclusions in assuming that this statement probably applies to Perkins and Stoudemire, both of whom were vanquished by Gasol in last year’s Championship run. It wouldn’t be surprising, as this year’s playoffs move forward, to hear some one else question Pau’s fortitude either. But should Gasol end this season with another impressive performance and ring on his resume, we can only hope such skeptics dare to ask themselves the obvious question:
If he’s so soft, yet dominates the way he does, what does that make you?