The Los Angeles Lakers have the NBA’s most eccentric player starting at one forward position, a growing reality star coming off the bench and a 22-year-old center who looks like the Next Big Thing. They’re also led by Kobe Bryant(notes), one of the NBA’s brightest stars.
Somewhere into this mix fits Pau Gasol(notes), who just happens to rank as one of the game’s best power forwards, provided anyone has noticed. Gasol doesn’t deliver nearly as many sound bites as his teammates, but don’t expect him to complain if the spotlight has missed him.
“There are too many egos in this league,” Gasol said. “There are guys that think they are too good or this and that. When it comes down to it, it’s a matter of winning and what you can do to help your team win. That’s what it’s all about. If they recognize it, great. But if they don’t recognize it because they don’t see it, if they are more attracted to the flashiness of all the players, that’s fine, too.
“I’m aware of what I can do and what I do for my team. That’s what really counts.”
What Gasol has done is help transform the Lakers from first-round fodder into the league’s defending champions. It wasn’t until the Lakers acquired him midway through the 2007-08 season that they became legitimate title contenders. Gasol has again proven his value this season. The Lakers went 8-3 during the 11 games he missed with a hamstring injury, but never really settled into a flow. Since his return, they’ve won six straight games by an average of 17.3 points.
With Gasol back in the starting lineup, Lamar Odom(notes) has returned to the bench and given the Lakers’ reserve unit a much-needed lift. Never have the Lakers lost three consecutive games with Gasol, who is averaging 17.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
“Having him back in the lineup … obviously gives us another dimension,” Bryant said.
Bryant is the world’s most popular basketball player, Ron Artest(notes) said he used to drink Hennessy at halftime and Odom drew the spotlight for his express marriage to reality star Khloe Kardashian. There is also a growing fascination with young center Andrew Bynum(notes) as he develops.
Gasol? The only thing that stands out about him is his beard. What he does on the floor is often appreciated more in the box score than on highlight clips.
“He’s still underrated,” Bryant said.
As humble as Gasol might be, he is also quite confident in his game. Ask him about the game’s best power forwards, and he’ll offer a spirited debate on his own behalf. Measure the complete package – scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking shots and running the floor – and Gasol rates near the top. The fans, however, voted him just seventh among Western Conference forwards in balloting for last season’s All-Star Game. The coaches chose him as a reserve.
“I’m up there,” Gasol said. “I don’t think many people would deny me that. I’ll be happy to discuss that point. But if you look all around, statistics, even not being the main guy, no question about it I’m up there.”
Said Bryant: “Pau knows he’s a bad boy. He’s quiet, but he knows that no one can stop him down there. He’s fully aware of it. He plays with that confidence and he believes he is one of the best.”
Gasol’s accomplishments on the international stage have made the Spaniard one of his country’s biggest stars. “I’m probably one of a kind there,” he said. “Here, I’m one in a bunch.”
Looking back, Gasol’s time with the Memphis Grizzlies is a big reason why the spotlight means little to him. He was the Grizzlies’ star during the franchise’s only playoff appearances from 2004-06, but the team did not win a single postseason game in that span. Gasol was often labeled soft, and that reputation continued through his first season with the Lakers.
“It doesn’t matter how much spotlight you get or if you get any spotlight at all as far as being the main guy on one team,” Gasol said. “If it doesn’t translate to winning, it’s worthless. That’s the bottom line. Here, a lot of things that I used to do what I was in Memphis helped to raise my name and my status as a player. That’s helped the Lakers also be a better team. I don’t miss so much about being the guy.”
Yao to play this season?
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says he isn’t tempted to bring center Yao Ming(notes) back for a potential playoff run, even if he recovers quicker than initially thought. Yao is expected to miss the entire season with a broken left foot.
“He is healing better than the doctors expected,” Morey said. “Frankly, he’s going to be healed probably before the season is over. But the smart thing is to take it real slow with him, obviously. It’s really important to our future. Everyone is going to do the right thing and take it slow. The doctors think that it’s going well. He had a surgery similar to [Cleveland center Zydrunas] Ilgauskas’ surgery. There are multiple changes that have been made. All of them are doing very, very well.”
No help from Kobe
“I clearly know, but I’m not saying nothing,” Bryant said. “That’s something that I had to do.”
So what did you do?
“I figured it out,” Bryant said. “That’s something that [James] needs to do. I won’t give him advice.”
Did James call you for advice on O’Neal?
“I won’t give him none. I’ve given him enough already.”
Paul adjusts to new coach
Scott “was my guy, that was coach, someone I had been with since my rookie year, someone who gave me a chance to do what I’m doing,” Paul said. “But it’s long gone now, and me and coach still talk and will always have a great relationship.
“[With Bower] it’s more than just a basketball relationship. I don’t know how to explain. If my family has an event during the summer, he’ll probably be there. He’s like family to me and always will be.”
Paul’s relationship with Bower has helped them move past Scott’s firing, and will be important now that Paul is close to returning. He played only one game under Bower before spraining his ankle.
“The biggest thing with Chris is he wants to win,” Bower said. “We discussed the situation candidly as two grown men. He understands what was done. No one has to agree or disagree with it. We all understand the situation. He’s driven by winning and what he wants to accomplish.”
Next great import?
Donatas Montiejunas’ name isn’t easy to pronounce, but NBA fans might want to remember it.
The 7-foot-0, 215-pounder is projected to be the top international prospect in the 2010 NBA draft. One NBA international scout compared the Benetton Treviso forward-center to Dirk Nowitzki(notes) and Andrea Bargnani(notes). NBA scouts become enamored with the Lithuanian when he had 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists in the World Team’s 97-89 win over the United States in the 2009 Nike Hoop Summit.
“He has all the skills and the tools in the world,” the scout said. “People are questioning his toughness and mentality, but he’s a 7-footer who can shoot it, can pass it, is athletic and can get steals. He has all the basketball components.”
Among the other international prospects to watch are: forward Jan Vesley, forward-center Tomislav Zubcic, swingman Tomas Satoransky, forward-center Kevin Seraphin and guard Edwin Jackson.
The National Basketball Players Association plans on appealing Twitter-related fines levied against Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire and Charlotte Bobcats center Tyson Chandler(notes). Stoudemire and Chandler were each fined $7,500 for the posting of messages on their Twitter accounts during games, which is in violation of NBA rules. "Our view is that any Twitter policy must be the subject of collective bargaining, especially if it involves any form of discipline," said union spokesperson Dan Wasserman.
Although Stoudemire said an assistant posted the message and Chandler said his message was automated, the NBA is not backing down.
“The players need to be aware to be accountable for their Twitter page,” NBA spokesperson Tim Frank said. “If Tweets go on a page during a game, they’ll be accountable for it.”
The New York Knicks have been dangling forward Jared Jeffries(notes), hoping to clear more salary-cap space for next summer. ……The Denver Nuggets are continuing to look for a reserve big man. …While the Golden State Warriors are still limited by injuries, a source said they aren’t actively looking to add another big man and are hopeful center Andris Biedrins(notes) will return from an abdominal injury soon within the next two weeks. …The Los Angeles Clippers are optimistic that injured rookie forward Blake Griffin(notes) will make his season debut at the beginning of 2010. …An NBA scout said that there will be nine future NBA players on the floor during Saturday’s North Carolina-Kentucky showdown. …Kiki Vandeweghe makes his debut as the New Jersey Nets interim coach on Friday. “The poor guy doesn’t know what he’s getting into,” said Doug Moe, Vandeweghe’s former coach with the Denver Nuggets. “Kiki is one of my favorites. I think the world of Kiki and wish him well and hope he does well. It’s a tough situation, but there is no way to go but up, right?” … Former Hornets coach Byron Scott is expected to take a job with ESPN as an analyst.