In acquiring Pau Gasol, the Lakers made their front line more potent—but also
poked a big hole in their defense
THE NEWEST Laker
arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., just after midnight last
Saturday, looking very much like someone who had traveled 4,500 miles (from
Memphis to Los Angeles, where he passed his physical, to Washington, where the
team was) in the last 36 hours. But as Pau Gasol flopped onto a couch inside
the presidential suite, even the fatigue of a transcontinental flight couldn't
temper his excitement. "I can't believe I'm here," said Gasol.
"Playing is really going to be fun from now on."
Acquired from the
Grizzlies for the bargain-basement price of big man Kwame Brown, rookie guard
Javaris Crittenton, guard Aaron McKie, the rights to center Marc Gasol (Pau's
younger brother, who's still playing in their native Spain) and two first-round
picks, the 7-foot, 260-pound Gasol was not scheduled to suit up until Tuesday's
game in New Jersey. But his consistent production—he averaged 18.9 points and
8.8 rebounds in 39 games with Memphis this season, numbers just above his
seven-year career marks—has teammates beaming. "A guy like Pau," says
guard Derek Fisher, "elevates every player on this team."
Gasol, 27, gives
the Lakers (30--16 through Sunday) their most formidable post presence since
Shaquille O'Neal was traded in 2004, and makes them bona fide contenders in the
rugged Western Conference. Los Angeles will play Gasol alongside 7-foot,
285-pound center Andrew Bynum (who is out at least another month with a
left-knee injury) and 6'10" small forward Lamar Odom in the most imposing
frontcourt in the league. "We definitely have some strength in the post
now," says coach Phil Jackson.
What Gasol does
not do, however, is make L.A. the prohibitive title favorite. Though
exceptionally skilled offensively, Gasol is a below-average defender at a
position where defense is at a premium. Over the last three seasons Western
Conference big men have circled Memphis on their calendars, with Amar�
Stoudemire (30.3 points and 10.0 rebounds on 69.0% shooting), Dirk Nowitzki
(26.6, 9.7, 48.2%) and Tim Duncan (19.6, 12.1, 56.0%) all lighting up Gasol.
"He's a little soft," an Eastern Conference assistant coach says.
"He will block some shots, but if you go at him and be physical, you can
Odom's shift to
small forward—what he calls his "natural position," but one that he has
not played exclusively in five years—presents other challenges. He will have to
guard quicker players as well as improve his own perimeter game; he was hitting
22.4% from three-point range at week's end.
Finally, there is
the star factor. Kobe Bryant is the Lakers' leading man, and Gasol will have to
accept a supporting role. Sound familiar? Fortunately Gasol, who has never won
a playoff game, has only a fraction of Shaq's ego and is unlikely to butt heads
with the player he calls "the best in the world." Still, Gasol will
have to accept that for the first time in his NBA career the offense will not
flow through him. "We have to be like Boston," says Fisher.
"Winning has to be our Number 1 goal."
Which is fine by
Gasol. "There are great expectations," he says. "It's the kind of
pressure I've been missing, and the kind I'm going to have from now
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