Lakers forward Pau Gasol looks on during the team's regular season… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
If Pau Gasol's feelings were hurt a year ago when the Lakers tried to trade him to the Hornets for Chris Paul, his subpar performance last season is easier to understand.
But when trade rumors were revived around midseason, Gasol should have been fired up by the vocal public backing of Kobe Bryant, who lobbied for management to keep the 7-footer. Instead, Gasol finished with an average of 17.4 points per game, solid but a career low for him. His 50.1% shooting percentage was his worst in eight seasons and his playoff numbers — a meek 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists — were down too.
Gasol came into this season knowing he's valued and wanted, so wounded feelings are no excuse for him anymore. But like the rest of the 1-4 Lakers, he's struggling to adjust to a new system and new teammates, and the results haven't been pretty for them or for him.
Gasol is averaging 13.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists and was two for nine Wednesday in a 95-86 loss at Utah, the Lakers' last road game before opening a six-game homestand against Golden State on Friday. This is the team's chance to establish home-court presence — and Gasol's opportunity to find an effective balance between his new role as a facilitator outside the post and his potential to dominate with his skills, vision and superb passing.
The Lakers always seem to be surrounded by drama and they usually feed off it, but that's not the case now. They've already been tested by Dwight Howard's gradual return to form after back surgery, Steve Nash's exiting the lineup because of a broken leg bone, and Kobe Bryant's playing through a sore shoulder, all contributing factors to a rocky start that has fans fuming.
Patience has been the team's mantra, but Gasol said there's passion behind it.
"It seems like there's been a lot to deal with, like there's been quite a bit going on, but we do need to be consistent in improving and keeping that sense of urgency at all times," he said after the team's practice Thursday.
"I think we're in a position that it's going to be there. We need it to function at our best. And it doesn't have to translate to stress or frustration or too much pressure. It's that healthy tension that keeps you on edge."
Against Utah, Gasol said, the Lakers got frustrated early "because we think we should be ahead from the beginning, and it's not going to work that way, especially in tougher courts against tough opponents."
Of himself, he said he didn't get many opportunities in the second half.
"I have to make myself more available, maybe, and attack the glass to get those offensive rebounds and just find ways to get myself going and be productive offensively too," he said.
Becoming more assertive would be a good start, because he has seemed lost so far.
"He's played well for us in stretches this year, just like everybody else has," Coach Mike Brown said. "Nobody has played at a high, high level every time they stepped on the floor for us."
One element, at least, has remained constant for Gasol: He still has Bryant's support, and there's no underestimating the importance of that.
"It's a new system, it's a new world for him, which is very different," Bryant said. "A lot of his value comes in the fact that like a James Harden when he was in Oklahoma, he's a player that can do so much but that sacrifices it for the betterment of the team. So you still have a player that's insanely talented who's willing to kind of take a step back for the group. That's tough to find."
It's time for Gasol to step up, even if that means being a few steps further removed from the basket.
"That's probably not something that benefits my game, but again, we all have to sacrifice," he said. "We all have to make a commitment here and it's all about the team functioning well and team success. And if that means the team is going to have a better chance to win and be strong, I have no problem adjusting to that and trying to be effective from outside too."