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?
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:
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.
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