In acquiring Pau Gasol, the Lakers made their front line more potent—but alsopoked a big hole in their defense
THE NEWEST Lakerarrived at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., just after midnight lastSaturday, looking very much like someone who had traveled 4,500 miles (fromMemphis to Los Angeles, where he passed his physical, to Washington, where theteam was) in the last 36 hours. But as Pau Gasol flopped onto a couch insidethe presidential suite, even the fatigue of a transcontinental flight couldn'ttemper his excitement. "I can't believe I'm here," said Gasol."Playing is really going to be fun from now on."
Acquired from theGrizzlies for the bargain-basement price of big man Kwame Brown, rookie guardJavaris Crittenton, guard Aaron McKie, the rights to center Marc Gasol (Pau'syounger brother, who's still playing in their native Spain) and two first-roundpicks, the 7-foot, 260-pound Gasol was not scheduled to suit up until Tuesday'sgame in New Jersey. But his consistent production—he averaged 18.9 points and8.8 rebounds in 39 games with Memphis this season, numbers just above hisseven-year career marks—has teammates beaming. "A guy like Pau," saysguard Derek Fisher, "elevates every player on this team."
Gasol, 27, givesthe Lakers (30--16 through Sunday) their most formidable post presence sinceShaquille O'Neal was traded in 2004, and makes them bona fide contenders in therugged Western Conference. Los Angeles will play Gasol alongside 7-foot,285-pound center Andrew Bynum (who is out at least another month with aleft-knee injury) and 6'10" small forward Lamar Odom in the most imposingfrontcourt in the league. "We definitely have some strength in the postnow," says coach Phil Jackson.
What Gasol doesnot do, however, is make L.A. the prohibitive title favorite. Thoughexceptionally skilled offensively, Gasol is a below-average defender at aposition where defense is at a premium. Over the last three seasons WesternConference big men have circled Memphis on their calendars, with AmaréStoudemire (30.3 points and 10.0 rebounds on 69.0% shooting), Dirk Nowitzki(26.6, 9.7, 48.2%) and Tim Duncan (19.6, 12.1, 56.0%) all lighting up Gasol."He's a little soft," an Eastern Conference assistant coach says."He will block some shots, but if you go at him and be physical, you canscore."
Odom's shift tosmall forward—what he calls his "natural position," but one that he hasnot played exclusively in five years—presents other challenges. He will have toguard quicker players as well as improve his own perimeter game; he was hitting22.4% from three-point range at week's end.
Finally, there isthe star factor. Kobe Bryant is the Lakers' leading man, and Gasol will have toaccept a supporting role. Sound familiar? Fortunately Gasol, who has never wona playoff game, has only a fraction of Shaq's ego and is unlikely to butt headswith the player he calls "the best in the world." Still, Gasol willhave to accept that for the first time in his NBA career the offense will notflow through him. "We have to be like Boston," says Fisher."Winning has to be our Number 1 goal."
Which is fine byGasol. "There are great expectations," he says. "It's the kind ofpressure I've been missing, and the kind I'm going to have from nowon."
ONLY AT SI.COMChris Mannix on where the Grizzlies are headed.
On second-year forward Rudy Gay, who was averaging 19.7points and 6.2 rebounds through Sunday and is now the Grizzlies' top threatafter the trade of Pau Gasol:
"His confidence has shot up this season. When youwatch him play, you can tell he's starting to believe he can be a player inthis league. He can score on people, he can break you down one-on-one and hecan go up in a crowd and rebound. Coach Marc Iavaroni wants to get up and downthe floor a little more, and that really suits Gay's style. If he adds apost-up game, look out."
NED DISHMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BRYANT AND GASOL)
INSIDE MAN GASOL (right) gives Bryant his best post player since You-Know-Who.
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (GAY)