On one end of the spectrum is Gerald Wallace, the veteran former All-Star on a bad team who seems to grow more disillusioned by the day on a listing team. On the other end is Pau Gasol, just a couple of years removed from being one of the top five big men in the NBA, who has said all the right things as he and his team go through some early growing pains this season.
“It bothers me, frustrates me, but I’m going to continue to try,” Gasol told reporters Friday after he mustered nine points and 11 rebounds in a loss to the Pelicans. “We’re going to continue to try as a team, a unit. Don’t do it individually, but understand your responsibility within the team.”
Gasol was talking about his own offensive struggles, which are very real for the mediocre Lakers. At 3-4, the Lakers have knocked off the Clippers, Hawks and Rockets with a level of scrappiness not normally associated with one of the NBA’s winningest franchises, yet have floundered in convincing losses to the Warriors and Mavericks. Their lonely eyes turn to Kobe Bryant, whose return from a ruptured Achilles is still indefinite.
Through it all, Gasol, the player who should be carrying them, has been just another guy on the roster. He is averaging less than 13 points per game for the first time in his career and is shooting just 35 percent from the field. He engaged in a big-name pillow fight with Dwight Howard on Thursday, when the two All-Stars combined to shoot 6-for-20 in the Lakers’ one-point victory.
Yet while Wallace has harped on his confusion with his role as doubt starts to sink into his mind about whether the Celtics actually are trying to win, Gasol has shown every sign of buying in with the Lakers. And that has loads to do with why the Lakers are sort of a feel-good, interesting team to watch in this young season, while the Celtics are not.
Getting the players to fully commit to coach Mike D’Antoni‘s style and system was a struggle last season and a huge factor in why the Lakers were the biggest flop in the league. Howard now looks just as disinterested in Houston as he did in Los Angeles, suggesting D’Antoni might not have been the problem after all (while also making the job Stan Van Gundy did in Orlando to get a Howard-led team to the NBA Finals all the more impressive). The Lakers have the same record after seven games as they did last season, when they were far healthier and their schedule was less daunting. Context really is everything.
Look deeper than the scoring numbers, too, when evaluating Gasol. He is back to averaging double-digit rebounds and he has shaved three points per 100 possessions off his defensive rating from a year ago. In fact, in many respects he is having his best rebounding season of his career. He has collected 19.8 percent of all available rebounds, a league-best 35.8 percent of available defensive rebounds and his 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes is by far the highest rate of his career.
This is the definition of leadership that we feed to kids in youth sports and that college coaches espouse in their long-winded press conferences. The shots aren’t always going to fall, the defensive matchup sometimes will be lopsided, but things like rebounding and a positive attitude never need to take days off.
“I’ve got to be sharper,” Gasol told reporters after Pelicans forward Anthony Davis completely dismantled him on Friday. “I’ve just got to play a little smarter. I might not have all the speed and explosiveness that I used to have years ago, but I still have to use my experience and my fundamentals to be able to be effective every single night, regardless of who we’re playing.”
Yes, Gasol has not looked like himself lately, and he has looked downright awful at times. But he is a four-time All-Star and is far from over the hill at 33 years old. Nights like the one against Davis probably are not going to be the norm for him. While another aging big man, Kevin Garnett, struggles to find a foothold in Brooklyn, Gasol and the Lakers might just be finding out that it takes longer to get into a groove once a player starts approaching his mid-30s.
As the Lakers await Bryant’s return and tread water until this summer, when they hope to lure LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony westward, they continue to believe, realistically, that the playoffs are attainable. Such a goal would be laughable if Gasol were letting his struggles seep into the other areas of his game or expressed his opinions to the detriment of the locker room. That he so far has not is vital to understanding how the Lakers, with far less talent than they have had in recent seasons, are no walkover for even some of the league’s best teams.