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RACE TO THE MVP
Pau Gasol & Phil Jackson
Pau Gasol, with Phil Jackson, leads the league with 10 double-doubles.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Pau for MVP? Lakers' Jackson has an idea how it can happen

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Nov 19 2010 11:52AM

Lakers coach Phil Jackson perked up ever so slightly, during an otherwise mundane, post-practice chin-wag with the Los Angeles traveling press corps on a gray off-day afternoon in Minneapolis.

"That's an interesting question," Jackson said in a mostly empty Target Center, and The Race committee nodded in agreement, seeing as how members pride themselves on staying interesting.

The question: What does Pau Gasol have to do, 10 years into his NBA career, to become a serious Most Valuable Player candidate?

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The obvious answer would be, lose Kobe Bryant as a teammate. As chronicled in this space last week, one of the biggest hurdles facing first-time MVP winners is the presence of a former MVP on the same roster. As long as Bryant is considered to be the Lakers' best player, it will be hard for Gasol or anyone else wearing gold and Forum blue to leapfrog him in the actual MVP balloting.

But shedding Bryant by whatever means probably would do Gasol more harm than good in almost every other way -- notably victories, which are an important part of every serious MVP contender's portfolio. Also, he would suddenly find himself again drawing the level of defensive attention he got in Memphis.

Jackson, though, didn't even go there. Instead, he addressed something inside Gasol that the talented power forward actually could control: A nasty streak.

"The other day [against Phoenix] Channing Frye was literally taking both hands and shoving him out of the lane, and Pau's looking at the referees," Jackson said. "Then later on, [Hakim] Warrick came in and had both arms around him and is hugging him in the lane. And it happened [at Detroit] with a smaller guy, [Jason] Maxiell.

"I told Pau, 'There's a certain latitude in this game.' ... You'll be across the 'code of behavior' and then you have to take it in your own hands."

In other words, Gasol needs to give back as hard as he gets. He needs to play police, rather than relying on the refs always to do it for him. He needs to use those sharp elbows and other angular, bony parts of him to exact a price from defenders who get pushy or grabby.

Said Jackson: "He's such a nice guy -- such a well-meaning person -- that he doesn't take it into his own hands. I told him, 'There's a way to do that where the person you're going against will understand. That you have to take care of your own territorial rights. It might involve some pain, but you might have to inflict some pain sometimes. That's just the warrior mentality that you have to have.'

"It's not anything that's wrong. It's not anything that makes you a bad person to do it. It's a code of behavior that we have in this game. That's where he has to make the next step."

This isn't a matter of Gasol being a 98-pound weakling -- he has strengthened himself physically during his time with the Lakers' training staff to the point that he is better equipped to handle the actual exertions in the lane, holding his position much better than he could against Boston in the 2008 Finals.

It is, instead, a mentality.

"That's probably the next place he'd have to go to be considered [an MVP candidate]," Jackson said. "Because there are teams that will tie him up just by putting him in physical duress. He's so adept, he's so good, that there is a reason that people play him like that: To keep the ball out of his hands and save themselves some trouble."

Could we call that a "mean streak?"

Jackson chuckled. "Well, I haven't told him to watch Kobe, but anybody who plays against Kobe knows that there's a certain sense that he'll take an offensive foul to make a point. That's OK. He gets called for it. It's part of the game, as long as it's not flagrant. And Pau has done that recently, so we're seeing some growth in that area."

Jackson has coached three MVP winners -- Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant -- and, like the rest of us, saw the nastiness that each could flex when needed on the court. A survey of past MVP winners shows plenty of them -- Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Bill Russell -- who were widely were considered ruthless in the area of competition. Even some of the less obvious ones, such as Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, have had deep reservoirs of toughness beneath their sometimes placid exteriors.

So if Gasol wants to continue to rank high among contenders in The Race, his demeanor will have keep up with his stats and on-court production.

Viewed through the same prism, it will be interesting as this season shakes out to see how the league's two-time defending MVP, LeBron James, fares in that area. James is said to be crankier, possibly nastier, than ever after the criticism he got for his switch from Cleveland to Miami. If that shows up in games, and not just in his Twitter account, he might transcend whatever blurred candidacy he faces now in sharing traditional MVP chores with Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Here are this week's top 10, all of whom keep on producing some nasty numbers:

1. Chris Paul, Hornets (9-1)
Last Week's Rank - 1
Paul retains his top ranking in The Race after a week that included two of his four double-double games this season and the payback victory over Dallas Wednesday. He remains a model of efficiency as coach Monty Williams regulates Paul's minutes in an effort to fend off injuries.

2. Pau Gasol, Lakers (10-2)
Last Week's Rank -- 3
Three more double-doubles, the category in which he leads the NBA (he already has 10). Gasol took 47 shots in the Lakers' three games since last week's ranking and sank 29 of them.

3. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (10-2)
Last Week's Rank - 7
Bryant averaged 29.7 points and continues to do more with less. Or, more correctly, fewer. His minutes per game (33.3) are Bryant's lowest since his second season, yet his points per minute -- and shots per minute -- are second-highest of his career.

4. Dwight Howard, Magic (8-3)
Last Week's Rank - 8
So the Orlando strongman scores 25 points and plays 44 minutes in Toronto and the Magic lose. Then he averages 33 minutes and 18 points (and 12 rebounds) and his team goes 3-0.

5. Deron Williams, Jazz (8-4)
Last Week's Rank -- 2
Hard to say that Williams did anything wrong in slipping three spots in The Race. (OK, his assists slipped to 9.5 in four games, while his scoring was at 23.8 in the same span.) Can't quibble with the Jazz's 3-1 results.

6. Rajon Rondo, Celtics (9-2)
Last Week's Rank - 4
A light schedule, but Rondo packed 30 assists into the victories over Memphis and Washington. It's tempting to say he's chasing Bob Cousy, the only other Celtics point guard to win an MVP, except that Cousy's 21.7 ppg when he won the award in 1957 was nearly double what Rondo (10.9) is averaging.

7. Kevin Durant, Thunder (7-4)
Last Week's Rank - 6
Durant slips a spot after amassing 15 assists and 13 turnovers in four games since the last Race. The NBA's scoring leader also scored 111 points, one of the few who could do so and see his average drop.

8. Derrick Rose, Bulls (6-4)
Last Week's Rank - 5
Members of the committee who put great emphasis on an MVP candidate's supporting cast still are beating Rose's drum. The Bulls' point guard did average 30 points in a 2-1 week, hitting 36 of his 67 shots. But he only got to the foul line 14 times, which ought to be more like one game's worth.

9. Russell Westbrook, Thunder (7-4)
Last Week's Rank - NR
Westbrook looks like an early leader in the Most Improved Player Award and he grabs a rung on this MVP watch in the process. Granted, he has Durant to work with. But the Thunder's high-scoring forward had nothing to do with Westbrook sinking 24 of his past 25 free throws or getting them in the first place.

10. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs (7-3)
Last Week's Rank - 9
The choice between Nowitzki and the remaining frontcourt candidates -- such as Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap, Luis Scola and Al Horford -- comes to down the Dallas marksman's perceived workload (although Anthony is averaging 9.4 points more than Denver's next-highest scorer), the W-L results and what appears to be Nowitzki's improved defensive play.

Dropping out: Monta Ellis, Golden State Warriors (10 last week).

Honorable Mentions: Ellis; Paul Millsap, Utah; Carmelo Anthony, Denver; Luis Scola, Houston; Al Horford, Atlanta.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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