The Portland Trail Blazers were the first team in league history to feature a player born in Spain when Fernando Martin made his NBA debut versus the Seattle SuperSonics on October 31, 1986. The Trail Blazers now also own the distinction of having the best player in Spanish basketball history on their roster.
After previous attempts fell short, the Portland Trail Blazers have successfully signed veteran center and future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol to a one-year contract. The Trail Blazers will be the sixth NBA team for the six-time All-Star and two-time NBA Champion, who was selected with the third overall pick of the 2001 Draft.
“We're clearly ecstatic to add Pau to our roster, a player with championship experience for a team with high expectations for the upcoming season,” said Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey. “As you all know, he's a player we pursued aggressively a couple years ago in free agency. We're ecstatic to have him join the Trail Blazers and become a core part of our roster going forward.”
Gasol joins Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside and Mario Hezonja as players acquired by the Trail Blazers this offseason who they had attempted to sign and/or trade for over the past three seasons. In Gasol’s case, Portland was one of numerous teams that offered him a contract in 2016 before the 7-0 center, who led an influx of Spanish-born players into the NBA, eventually opted to sign with San Antonio.
“I think sometimes timing is everything,” said Gasol. “A few years ago I thought the Spurs were, I don't know, a better fit at the time. I made the decision and it was a very hard one because the Blazers, the Raptors were two great, great choices. But it's one of those times you have to make a call and you have great options so you tell yourself you can't go wrong and then you give it a shot and give it your best. Now we're here, a new opportunity and I think the team, it's great.”
Gasol, who is 39 years old going into his 19th NBA season, was eventually waived by the Spurs last season, only to be picked up by the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent. But Gasol played just five games for the Bucks thanks to a stress fracture in his left foot, an injury he underwent surgery to repair in May. He noted that he could have put off the procedure in order to play in the 2019 postseason, but opted instead to undergo surgery in order to be ready to play for the start of the 2019-20 season.
“My expectations are to be able to be completely cleared and free to compete during training camp,” said Gasol, who is spending his offseason rehabilitating in Spain. “Those are my expectations. I had a rough season last year with the injury. I did decide to take the surgery when I did because it would give me a chance to be ready for training camp in spite of saying no to the chance of playing in the playoffs last year. Next season was the priority and my ability to be healthy and ready to go, that's what mattered the most.”
When healthy, Gasol joins a big man platoon featuring Whiteside, Zach Collins and Skal Labissiere that will be tasked with holding down the post until Jusuf Nurkić returns from compound fractures in his left tibia and fibula some time in early 2020. And while he’s no longer the nightly double-double threat he was earlier in his career, he’s hopefully that he’ll be able to provide something of value both on and off the court.
“I'll do as much as I can, as much as I'm asked by the coaching staff, by Terry and his staff,” said Gasol. “Try to contribute as much on the floor and off the floor. Obviously at this point in my career I have a lot of experience, help the younger guys understand what it takes, how to get better, how to be a better player and what it takes to win ultimately. On the floor, just try to provide my versatility, my skillset on offense and my basketball IQ on both ends of the floor and make plays. At the end of the day, just try to make winning plays for your team, try to make the team better, get good chemistry within the group and figure out and find out ways to win.”
With few spots available and an inability to offer anything more than the veterans minimum due to salary cap constraints, the Trail Blazers needed to fill out the roster with players who could fill multiple roles. In Gasol, the Trail Blazers have a player who fills a need positionally and in the locker room while providing something no other player on the roster brings: the gravitas of a player who has won multiple championships.
“He's a winning player,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “His game, I think, really fits with what we want to do and how we want to play. His versatility as far as playing four and five -- he can play with Hassan (Whiteside), he can play with Zach (Collins), he can play the five by himself. He knows how to play. The bonus is that, because he's a winning player and he's won everywhere he's been, what he can give, not only basketball-wise, but what it takes to be a Hall of Fame type of player, to Hassan and Zach in particular, at that position, that's a bonus for us. I think we're incredible fortunate to have him be able to give to our team, both on and off the court, as a mentor and as a player.”
In general, the willingness of professional athletes in the twilight of their careers to mentor young players is probably overstated. After all, the confidence and competitiveness typically required to achieve success at the highest levels of sport don’t often diminish at the same rate as skills and/or physical abilities. But Gasol, long considered one of the NBA’s great locker room presences and the heart and soul of the Spanish National Team through their “golden age,” sounds as if he’s looking forward to the opportunity to school Portland’s young bigs as to what he’s learned over the course of two decades of NBA basketball.
“I'll teach them the things that I've learned and acquired from years of experience,” said Gasol. “I am excited about it because I think once you get to this stage of your career, it becomes a very fulfilling aspect of the game, to share knowledge, to share experience, to share with them and help the younger guys just like the veterans have helped me along the way in my younger years.
“So I think that's part of the beauty of life, part of the beauty of sports and I look forward to talk to the younger guys, whether they're in interior positions or they're at other positions, because I have played with a lot of players in all of them. It's all about the game and it's all about being a better player and working hard to improve every single day. It'll be fun. I love mentoring, I love being a leader in that way, so I look forward to it.”