Gasol feels burden of Bynum's absence, more mailbag items
Pau Gasol has been putting up MVP-level numbers so far this season
But he's also averaging 43.4 minutes per game, and it's starting to take a toll
Mailbag topics: Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Dwyane Wade, surging Spurs
While the sky falls daily upon the Miami Heat -- culminating Thursday in LeBron James' prodigal return to Cleveland -- the defending champs slog onward in relative quiet and calm. Much of the Lakers' slogging has been done by 7-footer Pau Gasol, who has turned himself into an MVP candidate by assembling the NBA's most impressive stat line of the young season: 20.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.
Gasol has averaged 43.4 minutes over his last five games in the absence of center Andrew Bynum, who has been increasing his workouts following summer knee surgery and could return by mid-December. Gasol has gone a weary 12-of-36 from the field over his last three games to corroborate his value: The Lakers depend on him to play at a high level, and when he doesn't, they lose. In Houston on Wednesday, Gasol tallied a season-low eight points on 2-of-8 shooting in 39 minutes. The Lakers were minus-13 when Gasol was on the floor, and they lost 109-99 for their fourth consecutive defeat.
"Pau's been playing such great basketball, and right now he just can't do it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said earlier this week. "He can't play up to the level of his capabilities because he doesn't have a guy who can give him relief minutes."
Can we agree that the 30-year-old Gasol has established himself as the NBA's best power forward? By the end of this season, he may yet threaten Dwight Howard as the best big man, period. No one of his size excels in so many ways as Gasol, who played stifling team defense against Howard in the 2009 Finals. In last year's Finals, Gasol's diversity was impossible to miss: He scored 69 points across three of the opening four games (while converting 27-of-33 shots), he blocked six shots in Game 2, and in Game 7, he fought all-out for 18 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass to create the extra possessions that enabled the Lakers' comeback. No one on the floor was more aggressive that night.
Gasol acknowledges that he didn't know how to play with such fire over his first six-and-a-half years in the NBA, with Memphis.
"I give more importance to the different areas of the game -- defense and rebounding -- that before I didn't so much," he said. "I was just relying on what was easier and more natural for me. But here, you need to pay attention to every little detail within the game to accomplish greatness and be able to beat the best in the end."
Said Jackson: "The drive that this team provides helps carry him to those spots. Before it would be frustrating for him to play on a losing team. But when he knows there's a lot expected of him -- it's a winning proposition and he came here to win -- every night's an effort, every night is a challenge, and he comes out every night to produce. I think that's what brings the best out in a player when they know they are in a competitive situation and they have to play well to win."
When Gasol asked to be dealt by Memphis, he was derided for not doing more to carry the Grizzlies.
"It really was killing me that I couldn't see growth, that I couldn't see improvement," he said. "I fought and worked hard to be able to do my part but at the same time make the team grow every year, but it wasn't growing. I lost a little bit of motivation and that's not what I'm about. I'm not about making money and putting up numbers. I'm about winning and being part of something special."
Gasol has displayed those priorities since joining the Lakers and helping them to two straight titles. He isn't the type to make the last-second shot -- neither is Howard (and neither was Shaquille O'Neal when he was a Laker) -- but he is, as a rival GM put it, "the best No. 2 player on any team in the league."
"That's not my goal, definitely not in this league," Gasol said of entering the MVP race. "What I try to do is to have my team be a champion at the end of the season in whichever way is needed. I'll just try to do my part in the way that I know how to do it. If another teammate is the MVP, that means that we probably have been the best team of the regular season, which is one of my goals; and then we're in a great position to have home-court advantage to the very end and trying to get to the championship. Which is my ultimate goal."
In other words: If any Laker is MVP, it's going to be Kobe Bryant. But he can't contend and the Lakers can't three-peat without Gasol alongside him.