Shaq Goodbye, Pau Hello. (If Only It Was That Simple)

When Pau Gasol was drafted by the  Atlanta Hawks (and then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies), the NBA’s most dominant team was the Los Angeles Lakers. They had just won their second NBA title in 2001 by beating Allen Iverson and the 76ers in a thoroughly entertaining series. Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant player in the league and 22-year old Kobe Bryant had an inside-outside game that was unstoppable. Teams feared the Kobe-Shaq combo.

Paul Gasol’s rookie year ended with the Lakers in the Finals (again) crushing the Nets. Three titles in three years bestowed on the Lakers the title of “special”. There was a sense of privilege and entitlement. The two best players in the league were on the same team and it felt unfair. They were coached by the holy grail of coaches, Phil Jackson. But egos and immaturity will always be an enemy of the people. Things become absurd very quickly.

In 2004, Shaq was in an ugly contract stalemate with Jerry Buss, and Kobe Bryant was about to become an unrestricted free agent. Then the Lakers lost to Detroit in the Finals, a lackluster effort by all. One of the most dominant eras in Lakers history was about to be over. Dynasty kaput.

Teams win and then it gets blown up. Chalk it up to human nature and physics: what goes up must come down. Two years after being traded, Shaq won a title in Miami and everything he accomplished in a Lakers uniform and with Kobe was suddenly a distant memory. Kobe had changed too. He asked to be traded in the summer of 2007 but this time Mitch Kupchak quietly refused.

Bryant was still under contract and he had no leverage. While Kupchak preached patience, ruthless competitor Bryant began the season all in, hoping a trade was forthcoming. But the Lakers were surprisingly good. Derek Fisher was back and Lamar Odom, a piece in the Shaq trade, was hitting his stride as a player. Andrew Bynum, a lottery pick, was developing on schedule. Unexpectedly, the Lakers were a competitive team. In November 2007, Kupchak traded stretch-four Brian Cook to Orlando for Trevor Ariza. The Lakers were 7-4.

Before the trade deadline, the Lakers were 30-16 which was shocking to the league, and the Memphis Grizzlies were 13-35 and very ready to move on from Pau Gasol. Gasol had never won a playoff game for the Grizzlies and the fans were fed up. Gasol wanted to be paid as a face of the franchise but didn’t bring that kind of game in the postseason. Not enough dog in Gasol.

The Lakers had acquired Caron Butler in the Shaq trade and they flipped him in 2005 for Kwame Brown, an adequate center but nothing special. Once Gasol was available, Kupchak traded Brown for Gasol in what was considered one of the greatest NBA heists of all time.

In Gasol’s first game as a Laker on February 5, 2007, he had 24 points and 12 rebounds. Bryant had 6 points and 8 assists and the Lakers won by 15. The Lakers would finish the season 27-10. Bryant would win the MVP that year and the Lakers would lose in the Finals to Boston.

A year later, a driven Gasol and a committed Bryant only needed 5 games to win the NBA championship. Bryant had come full circle. The prevailing wisdom was he chased Shaq out of town so he could be the sole star. But now he had come all the way back. He had managed the bitter and now here was the sweet. Gasol was also redeemed. No one thought he had the heart to win a title.

In 2009, the Lakers returned to the Finals, trailed 3-2 to Boston, and forced a Game 7 at Staples Center. In Game 7, Kobe Bryant was hobbled with a bad knee but he and Gasol had 33 rebounds while the entire Celtic team only had 40 rebounds. Neither Gasol nor Bryant shot the ball well but scored a combined 42 points and played almost every minute of the game.

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We look at trades with an impatient eye. We look at trades and think they are about the moment but they are not. They are about what happens down the line.

The Lakers traded Shaq and Lamar Odom took his place.  Five years after the trade, Lamar Odom had 17 points and 10 assists in Orlando to close out the series against the Magic and win his first title. Kobe was so close to Odom that he left a preseason game at halftime when he found out Odom was in a nearby Vegas hospital.

The Lakers traded Shaq and Caron Butler took his place. They traded Caron the next year to Washington for Kwame Brown. Three years later, they traded Kwame for Pau Gasol. Gasol is responsible for two NBA titles.

NBA teams are forced to play the long game. When a superstar wants out they can’t compete right away. But if they make the appropriate trades, down the line, they may find another superstar walking through the door. Five years after Shaq, Pau Gasol was a champion.

So many things had to go right. The Lakers had to wait Kobe out when he wanted to be traded. They had to jump on the Gasol deal when he became available. They had to believe in Kwame in the two and a half years he was in L.A. They had to embrace Caron Butler and then let him go.

While the Shaq trade ushered in dark years, it also was a table-setter of what was to come. In hindsight, it all feels ordained. It is Pau who has been a stabilizing force for Kobe’s family in the wake of his death because of the brotherhood that was formed on February 5, 2008.

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Pau had some rough years in Los Angeles following title number two. He was forever dangled in trade talks. The Lakers thought they had a deal for Chris Paul with Pau Gasol going to Houston and Lamar Odom going to New Orleans. While Odom could not get over his inclusion in the trade (even after it was rescinded) Gasol was a professional and attacked his craft with a business as usual approach.

Gasol desperately wanted a third rings as payback for all the years the Lakers disrespected him. He thought Chicago and Tom Thibodeau was it. It wasn’t. Thibodeau was fired after Gasol’s first year. In San Antonio, Gasol took less money. But his was the gentleman version of ring chasing. The truth is Gasol only won when paired with Kobe Bryant.

In his latter years, Gasol was a shell of himself but then again he was taking the Vince Carter route. He gave the league what he had left in the tank. Don’t compare him to before.

But his before as a Laker was purely glorious.

Pau Gasol Regular Season (LAL) Points Rebounds Rebound % Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
2008-14 17.7 9.9 15.4% 117 104
Pau Gasol Playoffs (LAL) Playoff Games PPG RPG
2008-13 93 16.8 10.1

Before he retired in 2016, Kobe Bryant was asked who was the best passer he played with and Bryant didn’t hesitate. He said Pau Gasol, partly because of his height and the ability to see over the top, his unselfishness, and his talent. Add to that, Gasol’s ability to finish with his left and right, his array of post moves, and being a seven-footer in an increasingly small league.

The Lakers, who only retire jerseys of Hall of  Famers, are going to retire Pau’s jersey. Because he was one of the greats. A number 3 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, Gasol played the third-most games of his draft class (Joe Johnson, Tony Paker), the second-most minutes (Joe Johnson). He scored the most points, had the most rebounds, the third-most assists (Tony Parker, Joe Johnson), the second-highest ppg (Jason Richardson), the most rebounds per game, the most Win Shares, and tied with Tony Parker with the second most All-Star appearances (Joe Johnson).

When he retired it was a bittersweet moment. Kobe Bryant wasn’t physically present to honor his career, though Bryant, when alive, wasn’t shy about telling everyone and anyone how much he thought of Pau, the basketball player, and the person. “I’d very much like him to be here” Pau said. “But life is sometimes very unfair. He taught me how to be a better leader, better competitor, and what it meant to be a winner.”

Adam Silver honored Pau with this statement.

“What sets Pau apart is his tireless commitment to giving back to his native Spain and other communities around the world, which he continues to make a priority. We congratulate Pau on an outstanding career and thank him for being such a dedicated ambassador for our league.”

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