The European Championship got off to a nice start for Pau Gasol and Spain, as the defending champs posted a 83-78 victory over Poland. My hunch is the average Laker fan, while certainly not rooting against the good people of Espana, couldn't care less if the trophy remains in their neck of the woods. Still, they'll be watching that squad, eager for glimpses of "Pau Gasol," rather than the impostor who floated through last season's playoff run like a ghost who settles for jumpers and forgot how to rebound. Certainly, 29 points sounds like the fella we've come to know and love.
So is El Spaniard "back?"
Dunno, and we won't know for a while.
My reaction to this performance and other theoretical strong performances throughout this tournament will likely be viewed through this perspective: In a vacuum, fantastic news, but hardly a bellwether when it comes to the larger, burning question with Pau. Not to be a wet blanket, but this tournament, and all the individual successes accrued, is arguably meaningless as a sign of what lies ahead next season.
For starters, while he's hardly competing in a Euro facsimile of a YMCA rec league, the competition doesn't stack up against what Pau faces in the NBA. Talented ballers, to be certain, but nonetheless largely folks unable to carve out careers in the Association. There's also the psychological difference between operating in your wheelhouse -- Gasol traditionally owns Euro basketball -- and returning to the proverbial scene of the crime. Pau bricked the NBA playoffs, and thus must redeem himself at the NBA level. Even as someone confident in Pau's purple and gold track record after disappointing postseasons (see, "the 2009 season"), closure is necessary.
Plus, Pau is chasing a championship after a few months of rest, rather than on the heels of a 82-game regular season. For a player with several consecutive seasons of big minutes, often out position, that toll can't be underestimated. Especially when it comes to last year's inconsistencies, which were on display well before the postseason spun out of control.
Which brings me to the most important factor: Andrew Bynum.
Unless the offcourt issues admittedly plaguing Pau throughout the playoffs prove impossible to shake, nothing stands to shape his 2012 success more than the health of the Lakers' talented-but-fragile center. The more time Pau has to spend banging bodies while surrendering size and muscle at the five, the more likely he is to be gassed once the second season rolls around. This has hardly been a government secret during Gasol's time in L.A., and last year, it came to a head, even after an 2010 offseason largely spent relaxing. Yes, the Lakers can safeguard against this problem with a healthy third string center -- last season's dirty little secret was how dramatically affected the Lakers were by Theo Ratliff on the shelf -- but a high payroll may limit those options.
At the end of the day, Pau's effectiveness is handcuffed heavily to Drew's health. It's a sobering reality, but one impossible to deny after four seasons as teammates.
Still, a 29-point showing beats the alternative, which is Pau failing to show up for his homeland (which I actually would find somewhat alarming). Even if it's too early for a true "redemption," that doesn't mean time overseas can't be used to build a foundation. For now, it looks like El Spaniard is doing just that. We'll be updating the LO'L faithful on Pau's performances throughout this tournament. Thankfully, the progress reports are off to a positive start.