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Pau Gasol, once a king with Lakers, now just a pawn

Gasol was a major factor in two Lakers titles, then one bad stretch of games in the playoffs last season turned him into trade bait. But it hasn't diminished his professionalism or likability.

December 17, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Pau Gasol has helped the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals three straight years and win two titles, but he says he wouldn't be surprised if the team attempts to trade him again.
Pau Gasol has helped the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals three straight… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US Presswire )

Pau Gasol was working on his three-point shot the other day before we were scheduled to talk.

"We're exploring it," he says.

I'm not surprised the Lakers have given up on his toughing it out inside.

It wasn't that long ago the Lakers had given up on him all together, nearly banishing him to Houston.

That's what happens when you have a bad 10-game playoff stretch with the Lakers.

How soon everyone forgets. Gasol was the centerpiece of one of the all-time most lopsided NBA trades, helping the Lakers to advance to the Finals three straight years and win two titles.

If you think Kobe Bryant is unhappy now, imagine him still sitting on three rings if the Lakers hadn't acquired Gasol.

But now Gasol wouldn't be surprised if he gets tossed aside.

"If the right opportunity comes along," Gasol says, "they will take advantage of it."

As dominant as he is on the court, and as solid as he has been off it as a likable Lakers representative, it's amazing how three troubled weeks of basketball have changed the view of Gasol.

"I guess some people have given up on me now," he says with a grin. "I think if I had played at my usual level, it would have been unheard of to be traded."

Lakers management now passes along word there's only a slim chance Gasol will be traded.

"Slim," he repeats, and Gasol knows how that goes.

Things change, all right. The NBA is making it more difficult on teams like the Lakers that have spent money to build themselves into potential champions. They have serious payroll cuts to make in the next couple of years.

"I know there are financial considerations," Gasol concedes, now a pawn in trade talk.

The first chance the Lakers had to cut back, they did so, shipping out Lamar Odom. And Gasol's contract is a bigger burden under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Had Gasol reacted the same way Odom did, GM Mitch Kupchak says, he would have tried to find a new home for Gasol as well.

But Gasol is a pro, as well as being thoughtful, responsible, and admittedly a little apprehensive.

"I didn't know when I arrived the other day if someone was going to take me upstairs and tell me I was going somewhere else," he says. "It was awkward.

"Maybe it would have been easier to stay home and let things play out. But I have too much respect for my job and the opportunity I have in life and the rewards it provides. I wasn't traded, so my place was with my teammates."

Then the Lakers took another run at Chris Paul — Gasol most likely the trade bait.

"I'm sure I was," Gasol says, while remaining on edge even though the Clippers have acquired Paul.

"If it didn't happen this time, it might the next," Gasol says. And those who recall his troubled play in the playoffs know this is someone who struggles when he has things on his mind beyond basketball.

"I don't want the fun, the passion, the essence of the game taken away from me," he says. "But the game is turning too much to other things, the business aspect. Once you start letting that get in the way it can be hurtful.

"But I won't let that happen. I owe too much to my teammates, the fans and myself to do anything but play as hard as I can."

The playoffs got away from him, though, because personal issues weighed heavily. He says there were also unspecified "things within the team that weren't great either."

I mention his relationship with Kobe and the distance observed between the two last season, and he waves it off.

"You can observe all you want," he says, polite even when he rebukes. "People like to find differences between players and start stuff."

Private things, Gasol says, should remain private. And this is before TMZ goes public with a personal story about his teammate, and he's got that right. Private things should remain private.

"We're not robots," he says, while speaking of himself. "Things happen in our lives and we just have to do our best like everyone else when things don't go well."

It is one thing to know what must be done, another when you are the absolute pits in the playoffs. And he was awful.

He's grinning again. Why is it that everyone is always trying to rattle him?

"It takes a lot to get under my skin," he says, but not really. "I don't get all the credit when we win, and rightfully so because it's a team game. So I don't think I should get all the criticism when we mess up and I don't play the way I'm capable of playing."

It takes only a few seconds to advise him he's got that wrong. He's a great player and gets credit for being so. Along with it goes the expectation he won't be the absolute pits in the playoffs.

"That's a compliment and I'm flattered, but it's not fair," Gasol argues. "It wasn't like I was voluntarily not playing well. I was mad at myself."

I wonder when he gets tough on himself if he curls into a ball as he seems to do when other players rough him up. Or, so the criticism goes.

"Here's how I look at it," he says. "I picture myself losing my calm and just hitting someone out of the blue. From that day on then I'm a tough guy for doing that? Or, am I really just a dumb guy for doing that?

"I'm not going to be the dumb guy because I have enough weapons in my game to beat you. So that's what I'm going to do."

No matter where he plays this season.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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