Posted Jan 27 2010 10:09AM
More than a few front-office executives were surprised when the Lakers recently demonstrated an undying love to Pau Gasol by expressing their sentiments 64 million ways.
That's the rough estimate, in dollars, of the 3-year contract extension given to a player who still has another year left on his current deal. The front-office types wondered: Why the rush? And why so much?
The reaction is understandable. Almost nobody is getting contract extensions these days, definitely not anyone with time still left on a current deal. Many teams wouldn't do business that way, not in this economy. Gasol turns 30 this summer and could be on the downside of his career before the contract expires in 2013-14. Plus, the Lakers obviously bid against themselves; not many teams could afford to pay Gasol what the Lakers just gave him. And with a labor negotiation approaching, wouldn't it be wise to sit tight and see how that shakes out before committing so much so quickly?
Well, the Lakers' decision to lock up Gasol could perhaps be explained in two words: Kobe Bryant.
Kobe and Gasol are perfect together. Their styles don't conflict, their personalities don't clash, and there is a strong enough mutual respect between the superstar and flexible big man that the Lakers figured: Why not?
Was it a fortune? Absolutely. Yet, money apparently wasn't a big deal with a club that currently sports a $90 million payroll and is blessed with an ATM machine known as Staples Center, where ticket prices are steep and the building stays packed. The Lakers, along with the Knicks and perhaps the Bulls and Blazers, are in a different league financially than other teams.
The bigger issue is a duo that clicked right from the start and is still rolling along harmoniously. They won a championship together last season and there's no reason they can't add more before the end of that extension. Assuming they stay healthy, Kobe and Gasol have every incentive and reason to maximize their union to the fullest.
As long as Gasol is around, the better the odds Kobe will be happy. Kobe realizes how much Gasol has meant to the Lakers ever since they stole the big man from the Grizzlies a few years ago. You don't get many chances to pair a megastar with a quality big man, for a variety of reasons. It's hard to do, because only in rare situations do teams let a good big man get away. Plus, the Lakers know how many titles they won when they had Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal together. They feel there's a lot more shelf life to Kobe and Gasol, and they're probably right.
"He's a very underrated player," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He does almost everything well."
Kobe and Shaq worked well initially because they were the typical inside-outside combination. Eventually, their personalities interfered with the common goal. Shaq felt Kobe wasn't sharing the ball. Kobe felt Shaq wasn't staying in the best of shape. Both players were guilty of all charges. But they were too stubborn to acknowledge as much, to work out their differences and maintain the relationship for the sake of the team. And when Shaq demanded big dollars to remain with the Lakers, it was an easy call for owner Jerry Buss. Not a popular call, but an easy one. Buss went with the younger, more exciting player and hoped, at some point, the Lakers would find a replacement for Shaq while Kobe was still in his prime.
Gasol was easily the best player in (Memphis) Grizzlies history, but the club found itself in a financial pinch (at least that was the speculation surrounding Gasol's trade to the Lakers; the Grizzlies later obtained Zach Randolph, who makes nearly as much). The Grizzlies eventually grabbed Gasol's brother Marc in the trade, which has worked out very well for Memphis. As for the Lakers, they had their Shaq replacement and missing championship link.
Gasol-Kobe works because Gasol keeps his ego in check, his body in shape and lets Kobe be Kobe. In return, Gasol gets respect and a good amount of passes from Kobe, who trusts Gasol with the ball. And it's not easy to earn that trust and the ball.
Their future together hinges on Kobe re-signing this summer (it's only a matter of time, because nobody, not even Kobe, sees him in another uniform), Gasol staying healthy and both players remaining sharp. It also helps their relationship when both players realize they need each other.
Kobe is more mature now and he learned plenty of lessons from the way his relationship ended with Shaq. He's unlikely to make the same mistakes. He's a different person, for the better.
There was almost a total absence of an awkward transition period when Kobe and Gasol came together. The Lakers are literally banking on a similar bliss for the next five years.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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