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Gasol makes Lakers title contenders

Sometimes, everyone struggled to understand how intelligent, how sensitive, Pau Gasol could be with the Memphis Grizzlies. People tried to peg him soft and unmotivated, a sense that he played with too little stimulus once coach Hubie Brown and winning basketball had come and gone out of his life.

He’s his own man and does his own thing.

He’s been desperate to be liberated out of Memphis, out of the losing.

Once, a Grizzlies official remembers walking past a martini bar in Memphis and noticing Gasol sitting on the patio, wearing a too-tight T-shirt, easily too small for his torso.

“What is that?” a familiar face said to Gasol, laughing.

Gasol shrugged and smiled, his indifference delivering an unmistakable message: He didn’t care that he looked out of place, out of style, in Graceland.

He is smart and sophisticated and needs a challenge to find motivation. His trade to the Los Angeles Lakers delivers him an alliance with an intellectual peer in Phil Jackson, a triangle offense perfect for his talent and a chance to be a champion.

Here comes a perfect cog for the Lakers, the perfect getaway for Gasol.

“He’s going to be the player who actually gives Phil books to read,” one former Gasol coach said Friday afternoon. “I think Phil Jackson will be very entertained by Pau’s quirky kind of intelligence. Phil will be a great influence on him.”

Around the league, the reaction of executives and coaches was unanimous: What a nightmare for us. When reached with the news, one Western Conference executive said simply, “Are you kidding? (Expletive) me.”

For everyone else, this is pure gold. Suddenly, David Stern sees stars in his eyes, an improbable change of fortune that makes a Los Angeles-Boston NBA Finals a genuine possibility again. Mere months ago, the idea would’ve inspired doubled-over laughter. The Western Conference is no longer purely property of San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix. The New Orleans Hornets are running roughshod and now the Lakers have leaped back into contention.

For this season, anyway, the rehabilitation of Andrew Bynum’s knee is everything for the Lakers. He was expected to return in mid-March, but there’s belief in the league that Bynum's timetable could be pushed back deeper into the regular season.

Between now and then, Gasol is a bridge to hold the Lakers into playoff contention. Beyond that? He complements a championship cast with diverse skills and a high basketball IQ. Somehow the Lakers stole him for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and two first-round draft picks.

Gasol ought to cement Kobe Bryant as a Laker for life.

As it turned out, Bryant didn’t need to go find a championship team contender.

It came to him.

“My first thought was with Kwame and Javaris," Bryant said Friday, and yes, you had to laugh a little. Rest assured, Kobe’s first – second, third and fourth – thoughts were with Kobe. Mitch Kupchak has delivered a supporting cast for the short and long run, a lineup and bench that thrusts the burden of proof off the GM’s desk and back onto Kobe’s leadership.

Even Bryant understood the truth, saying, “Now it’s time to walk the walk.”

To see the way that this trade had energized Bryant, you just needed to see him drop 46 points on the Toronto Raptors in a 121-101 victory on Friday night. He had just played 47 minutes on Thursday in Detroit, and it still looked like Kobe could go hard forever. He’s born again.

“It says a lot about the organization and its commitment to winning,” Bryant said.

And what does it say of the Grizzlies? Well, it says that they’re bleeding financial losses, desperate to strip payroll and make themselves more attractive for a potential buyer. They’re shopping guard Mike Miller throughout the league too, sources say, and it’s just a matter of time until they’ve stripped themselves to the core. Essentially, they’re the Vancouver Grizzlies again.

It seems hard to remember that Gasol reached the playoffs three times in Memphis because his team was swept three times. He isn’t a franchise player and perhaps the beauty of this trade is that he no longer needs to play the part. The Lakers don’t need him to defend centers, and they don’t need him to be the leader.

Even so, his international résumé has shown that when surrounded with talent, Gasol can perform under pressure. Spain has been one of Europe’s elite teams for years. Go back to the Athens Games in 2004, when Gasol was unstoppable with 29 points against a Team USA frontcourt of Tim Duncan, Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire. Spain lost, 102-94, because its guards couldn’t stop Stephon Marbury.

At 27 years old, Gasol is past foot injuries, past the losing, and should be stepping into his prime. “He won’t have any problem in the triangle,” his ex-coach said. “He’s a great passer, but being a great passer in the triangle means getting the ball to the little guys. (Lamar) Odom is a good passer, but he tends to hold onto the ball too long. Pau can see the plays.”

One more thing that no one should underestimate: In Los Angeles, Gasol will find the comfort of Spaniard companionship. There wasn’t that eclectic European population in Memphis, and that’s much of the reason Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace traded for his best friend, Juan Carlos Navarro.

“Spaniards will seek him out on the road and he is so important in the culture, so divine to them,” the coach said. “They couldn’t get to him so much in Memphis, but they will in L.A., and that will make his transition so much easier.”

Pau Gasol leaves Graceland and everything changes for Los Angeles and the Western Conference, for Kobe and Commissioner Stern. Hurry back, Bynum. The Lakers are chasing a championship again.