While growing up rooting for the Showtime Lakers I was an admittedly spoiled — and somewhat delusional — basketball fan.
Don’t get me wrong, watching the team win and, well, lose as much as they did (remember, those teams went 5-4 in the NBA Finals) left me with a healthy appreciation for how hard it was to be the last team standing, and all that went into a title-winning season. But rooting for that team also exposed me to an alternate reality not available to most fans; to an environment in which so many of the players were, to put it simply, overqualified for the roles they were playing on those teams. And in many ways, it set unreal expectations for how an NBA roster should actually look under more normal circumstances.
In Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team had not just one, but TWO players who were good enough to be league MVPs and the best player on a champion. And then in James Worthy, they had a third player who was drafted #1 overall in his draft, was easily good enough to be a top option on a playoff team (a la Dominique Wilkins), and who won a Finals MVP in his own right, but was arguably the team’s third option on any given night.
In a way, it wasn’t fair. They consistently had players — both star and role players alike — who, in other situations, would be asked to do more, but on the Lakers were slotted into roles where doing less was both part of the job description and a key ingredient to helping the team win at the levels they did.
After the short lull of non-contention that came in the post-Magic/Showtime era, the Lakers were again blessed to have a team that was centered around players who were, at the most basic level, overqualified for their jobs.
In Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers possessed a duo who were both clearly capable of being the best player on a championship-level team, and would prove as much during their time together. Both could dominate for extended stretches, and because their games were so complementary, they could also be the foundation of a team that was greater than the sum of its parts.
And while those Shaq/Kobe Lakers didn’t have their version of James Worthy, it didn’t much matter to their overall success. They ran off three consecutive championships over the course of a half-decade run that, just like the Showtime Era before it, set the standard for winning during the time that they were teammates.
And so, over a period of 25 years, with 13 trips to the Finals and eight championships, these two eras of Lakers basketball spoiled fans by giving them teams that defied the normal way NBA rosters were built.
In the summer of 2007, the Lakers looked unlike any of the previous teams fielded with Dr. Jerry Buss as the principal owner. The organization had made consecutive playoff appearances with Kobe Bryant as their top player, but the roster around him had not congealed in a way that could elevate it to contender status.
Gone were the days of the two previous eras; in fact, it was almost the opposite of what had been established as normal. Instead of having players overqualified for their roles to form a contender, the Lakers had several players asked to fill spots a bit too outsized for their abilities.
Lamar Odom was an uber-talented forward who could do anything on the court, but his fill-in-the-gaps game was miscast into the role of a true No. 2 player on a team hoping to contend. Further, players like Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum, Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Brian Cook, Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar, and Mo Evans had talent and could fill rotation spots, but none were slotted correctly on a team with aspirations to make a deep playoff run.
Dispirited and tired of falling short, Kobe famously asked out. And if it wasn’t for his no-trade clause artificially deflating offers coupled with Dr. Buss’ unwillingness to make an unfavorable deal conspiring to keep Kobe in Los Angeles, he might have gotten his way too. Alas, a summer of turmoil turned the page into a season that none of us would soon forget.
With Kobe back in tow and Andrew Bynum fulfilling the potential he’d not yet put together before that season, the Lakers became one of the surprises of the early season. They raced out of the gates and planted their flag as one of the teams that looked like it could have real staying power as a playoff team, until it all looked to come crashing down when Bynum suffered a knee injury that would cost him the rest of the season.
Things again looked lost. Until they weren’t.
Pau Gasol was selected with the 3rd overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft out of Spain. A skinny and rangy big man, Pau possessed heaps of talent and skill, and deployed both deftly as an anchor for the Memphis Grizzlies. Pau wasn’t able to turn the team around by himself, but when paired with other quality players, and led by Hubie Brown (and later, Mike Fratello), Memphis went from doormat to a 50-win team that competed for the playoffs in a stacked west.
But, after the team couldn’t break through and get out of the first round after three consecutive postseason appearances (getting swept each season), the team went back into rebuild mode and saw their win totals crater to the levels that allowed them to draft Pau in the first place. Between those playoff failures and the shifting direction of the organization, Pau’s reputation as a player who could carry a franchise was under fire and his time with the team was ticking toward a close.
And so it was.
On Feb. 1, 2008, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, trading Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc Gasol, and two future first-round picks to Memphis.
Pau, the top player for a franchise spiraling downward, would join a Lakers team long in search of a secondary star to complement Kobe and slot the rest of their roster into the roles that best matched their ability. A more perfect union couldn’t have been scripted if the Hollywood execs who littered the STAPLES Center crowd wrote it themselves.
To say that Gasol fit perfectly would be an understatement. Taking to the Triangle Offense like a fish to water, Gasol’s first game with the team was a 24-point, 12-rebound, 4-assist clinic on 10-15 shooting in a double-digit win on the road.
Gasol slid into the pivot as the perfect frontcourt partner to Odom, and opposite Kobe and Derek Fisher as the impeccable pinch-post operator — slinging passes, pitching handoffs, setting screens, and scoring over and around hapless defenders who didn’t quite know how to keep him from getting to his spots or force the ball out of his hands.
Beyond the tactical fit, however, was the natural way he reset the framework of the team and harkened back to the eras before, when Lakers rosters were constructed around players whose natural greatness slotted everyone into the appropriate roles for their individual success.
Pau, may not have been a “No. 1” on a title contender, but he’d certainly carried a franchise before he came to the Lakers — to say nothing of his import to his home country as the top player on the Spanish national team. Gasol’s experience and understanding of how to play as a fulcrum of a team while playing an unselfish — or more appropriately said, generous — style of basketball fit perfectly next to Kobe, allowing both to play to the best version of themselves in ways that enhanced already great players.
Pau also slid Odom to a third — and when Bynum eventually returned, a fourth — option who was never tasked with carrying any specific burden, but was allowed to branch out and spill into any aspect of the game that might need his particular majestic touch or influence. Odom’s selfless game proved simpatico with Pau’s similarly giving nature, forming the type of beautiful bond that sprouted fruit born in the form of 4-5 pick-and-rolls, no-look shovel pass dimes, and fastbreak ballets orchestrated out of grab-and-go’s where either party could perform any of the variables to make the play sing.
And, of course, on down the line it went. From Andrew Bynum to Derek Fisher, to Trevor Ariza or Ron Artest, to Luke Walton, Farmar, and Sasha, every Lakers role player benefitted from sliding down or to the side into an adjacent role where they needed to do just a little bit less than what would otherwise be required if Pau were not there.
And the team benefitted for it. To the tune of two championships. Just like the teams from the eras that came before. And none of it would have been possible without Pau.
As Pau takes his rightful place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the memories of his time with the Lakers overwhelm me. From his instant partnership with Kobe, to the vetoed trade and subsequent return to the team, to his last hurrah as the group transitioned from title contender to a team holding on trying to make one last run, I remember the competitiveness, skill, class, professionalism, and the dignity he carried himself with throughout it all.
Most of all, though, I remember Pau helping to bring this team back from the depths and restoring it to the heights of championship basketball. He didn’t do it on his own, but history has taught this Lakers fan that none of the great players did either. And that lesson is one I’m happy he was able to reinforce for me one more time.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.