Mike Brown, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and the dynamics of right and wrong

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
6:55
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Pressed, poked, and prodded six ways to Sunday on the issue following Wednesday's win over the Clippers, Mike Brown delivered the most articulate expression of his vision for Pau Gasol we've heard this season.


Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire
Pau Gasol played very well throughout Wednesday's win over the Clips, and was particularly dominant in the first half.


"I personally don't think Pau is an every possession block guy. Not because he can't do it, but just because he's so skilled. If you keep putting him on the block time after time after time, I think defensively they're going to get a rhythm. They'll put a smaller guy on him, they'll get into his lower back, and they'll push him out further and further and further. So what you have to do is keep them guessing, and you keep them guessing by isoing him at the elbow sometimes. Bringing him up for a jumpshot at the elbow sometimes. Playing him in the pick and roll so he can pick and pop for a shot, or make the pass to [Andrew Bynum] ducking in on the backside. Then you put him on the post. So I think he's so versatile, that's why you move him around more than anything else. Andrew, he's a guy you put on the block all the time. They're two different types of players. Pau, as time goes on, will understand that because he'll see the benefits of being moved around because guys can't lock in and just try to beat him up all night on the post, play after play after play."

Brown is correct. Gasol really is too versatile to keep in one spot, particularly on a team no longer sporting Lamar Odom, but still featuring Bynum. Pau has always moved around the floor and performed a wide variety of functions. It's a perfectly solid strategy, one used well last night in his totally dominant 17 point first half. Gasol was effective attacking the glass, in the post, at the elbow, and high on the floor putting the ball on the deck and driving. His role, whether as scorer or facilitator, was large.

Gasol was correct. Beyond the ubiquitous questions of offensive balance and commitment to inside-out play surrounding the Lakers for the last few seasons, too often during the first 19 games Gasol has been marginalized, whether to make room for Bynum in the post or for Kobe Bryant in any number of locations near the paint. He is too good and too accomplished as a passer and scorer to be made an afterthought. Not enough action has been directed Gasol's way specifically for him, particularly given the work he's done defensively in Brown's scheme.

Against the Clippers that changed, as assistant coach John Kuester repeatedly called Gasol's number, particularly early.

As ESPNLA.com's Dave McMenamin notes, Kobe "called BS" on Gasol's complaints after the game, brushing aside questions of coaching adjustments and putting the onus directly on Pau himself. "I think the difference tonight was him," Bryant said. "His energy ... the mentality that he played with yielded some good things for us, which in turn I rewarded him and we rewarded him by getting him the ball more."

Aggressiveness brings touches, he said, and scoring opportunities. "You got to go," he said. "You got to go. And tonight he went."

Bryant pressed the notion of Gasol being the captain of his fate throughout his postgame media chat.

"Pau's extremely skillful, but it's just a matter of attitude. What he wants to do. It really depends on him. Sometimes he's passive, sometimes he's aggressive. Tonight he was extremely aggressive and it looked familiar," he said. "You guys can tell the difference between a Pau [against] Indiana and a Pau tonight. That's two championships right there."

"Pau found the chip on his shoulder that brought us the two championships. He played with that sense of urgency and that passion."

Kobe is correct. Gasol's points on usage are valid intellectually and strategically, but are only part of the picture. Too often he's ceded ground on the floor, whether by settling for a jump shot when a dribble drive was available, or waiting too patiently for teams to send double teams at him in the post. Gasol's admirable ethic of ball movement, balance, and teamwork doesn't preclude him from catching on the post and making a quick move to the rack more often than he's done this year.

Contextually speaking, none of this is a surprising, since it's not the first time Gasol has made noise about how he thinks the game should be played offensively.


Noah Graham/Getty Images
The on court relationship between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol isn't always smooth, but has been very fruitful.


This week's events are another example of the push-pull existing for the Lakers, primarily between Bryant and Gasol, since nearly the moment Mitch Kupchak pulled the trigger on the deal with Memphis, growing as the team -- and Gasol -- have found success. Talk of an inherent passivity ("Ga-soft!") or lack of toughness or internal fire notwithstanding, Gasol is a fiercely proud and competitive athlete who, I believe, wonders why he hasn't quite earned the benefit of the doubt typically awarded with a pair of titles and four All-Star nods, particularly when accompanied by a team-first attitude.

There are too many renters, not enough buyers on the bandwagon, using the relatively few bad moments to invalidate all of the good.

I suspect as well Gasol resents some of Kobe's language, wondering why someone with his resume who has delivered so much for the team needs to be "rewarded" by Bryant for good play, like a third grader waiting for a teacher to put stickers in his notebook. Or why trust sometimes comes with such a short leash, or why balance can be so hard to come by.

I certainly would.

Except Bryant has a point in wondering why Gasol can't do what he did Wednesday every night, and wanting to bring as much of it out as possible. An angry, chip-on-the-shoulder Pau is typically an effective Pau. After the Lakers lost to Boston in '08, Gasol was instrumental through title runs the next two years, in part because he wanted to shut people up. Phil Jackson poked at him because he knew ultimately it made Gasol mad enough to bust through some of his more mild-mannered tendencies. Phil may be gone, but his interview style lives on in Kobe who, quite frankly, doesn't give a &^$()% about Pau's feelings.

If needling Gasol makes it easier for Kobe to win, he'll do it. His competitiveness isn't compassionate.

Importantly, all of this is balanced with a tremendous amount of respect. Kobe knows he doesn't have his fourth and fifth rings without Pau, and Gasol understands what playing with Bryant has done for his career. Neither is naive, and the reality is Gasol's skill set and basketball worldview are a brilliant match with Bryant's, even if their personalities aren't or it breeds frustration on both sides. There could be a point where the two simply can't play together anymore, but I suspect their run will end naturally (trade, contracts ending) before that day comes. This ain't Shaq vs. Kobe. As 1/2 combos go, the fit is good, which is how scenes like the hug shared between the two (pictured above, after Gasol hit a critical jumper late in a win earlier this month over Golden State) come to pass.

The coaches have been slow in defining a role for Pau, who had a right to pop off but still hasn't shown consistent aggression, in part because the floor balance this season with Kobe hasn't always been ideal, in part because the coaches haven't defined the role for Pau who isn't always aggressive enough.

Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong. As long as everyone recognizes the big picture, the system will work reasonably well for the amount of time required by the Lakers.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Marshall 8.8
StealsJ. Meeks 1.4
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0