Lakers, Gasol still searching for fit

LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol has had rough stretches before. The end of his time in Memphis was pretty awful. His back hurt, his spirit was pretty close to broken after the Grizzlies got off to a terrible 13-32 start. The chances of it getting better soon -- or ever -- seemed remote.

The end of the 2011 season was pretty bad, too. Gasol came up small when the Lakers needed him most in a second-round playoff series loss to the Dallas Mavericks. When Phil Jackson, who was both a coach and a friend, needed him to make coming back for a final stand worth it.

But this latest trough had been something else altogether. New Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni benched Gasol for the fourth quarter of the Lakers' loss to his old team on Nov. 23, pretty much the first time that had happened to him in his career. Gasol did a little better the next night in Dallas, but 13 points and nine rebounds isn't anything to write home about.

Things got really bad in a 79-77 loss to the Pacers on Nov. 27. He scored just 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting. The next game he had just six points in a win over the Nuggets. Six points!?! Never since he'd become a professional had he been this ineffective and this underutilized for so long.

Something had to change.

But with just a Saturday afternoon to work it out before the Lakers hosted the Orlando Magic on Sunday evening, his options were limited.

A long film study seemed counterproductive. He needed to think less, not more. Since playing for Jackson, meditation had become a way of life, not a tool to pull out only when things got tough. He needed more than that. Something drastic, or at least different.

So he did what many an actor in this town has done to play a new role or remake his image: He got a new look.

When he showed up at Staples Center that Sunday afternoon he looked 10 years younger. His scraggly beard was almost gone. His messy brown mop of hair was noticeably shorter and tamer.

"It was just getting out of control," Gasol said. "When it gets like that, you look at yourself in the mirror when you wake up in the morning and go, 'What is going on?'"

It didn't help. He still looked the same on the court. And for the second time in a week, D'Antoni benched him for the fourth quarter even though Dwight Howard was shooting free throws like the ball was square and made of clay.

After this one it was D'Antoni who made the dramatic change, agreeing with the Lakers' training staff that Gasol should sit until the tendonitis in both his knees calmed down.

Yes, Gasol's knees have been hurting since the preseason -- a by-product of another long summer and another grueling training camp with Mike Brown -- but that's not the only tissue that needs rehabilitation.

That beautiful mind, which made Jackson's triangle offense sing just a few seasons ago and would've been mastering complicated surgeries somewhere in Spain if his body had not grown to be 7 feet tall, that beautiful mind of Gasol's was getting in the way.

D'Antoni's offense is based on hustle and flow, not X's and O's. It's rhythmic, musical even. You play it like a great guitarist riffs, letting instinct take over, silencing your mind and the internal voices that compel you to stay within a structure.

"You just make it up," D'Antoni said. "Because they can make it up better than we [coaches] can make it up. We want to rely on their skills and Pau's the best for it. That's why I'm a little perplexed when people say he doesn't fit. He fits."

Gasol knows this. But knowing it and internalizing it are two different things. And doing so for a franchise he's already helped win two championship rings by playing the way he's always played, that's not easy, either.

"I want to connect with Mike and everything we're doing," Gasol said. "Because I want to be out there and help the team and I can't help the team if I'm sitting on the bench.

"But I think he's always played with small lineups. He's never played with true centers and true post-up players [like Gasol and Howard]. That's an adjustment for him. He's trying to figure it out. I don't take anything personally. We talk, we communicate, maybe we need to do it a little more and talk more about how we help each other out and make this relationship work."

If a picture tells a thousand words, the one D'Antoni drew for me after a recent practice says everything you need to know about what a challenge it will be for him and Gasol to find the right balance.

I hold out my notebook and draw a picture of the key, then a circle near the elbow where I generally see Gasol start on offense.

"This is the space Pau is usually in, right?"

D'Antoni shakes his head, grabs the notebook and pen and starts drawing circles along the baseline, perimeter and just outside the key.

"Pau can start in any of these places," he explains. "We never want to be predictable. We don't want the other team to know where we are going to be."

Then he takes the pen and colors in the area inside the paint. It's everywhere on the court Gasol has always been comfortable.

"But he's not here. We need this space."

At some point, one of them will have to change his principles and adjust. A haircut isn't enough. Neither is sitting out to rest the knees.

But as the pressure mounts on the Lakers -- they now have 12 losses after Sunday's debacle against the Utah Jazz -- it becomes harder to know who should face the reckoning.

Is it really Gasol who should change?

With Steve Nash still sidelined with a broken leg, D'Antoni's offense has been a wreck. Even calling it D'Antoni's offense seems insulting to all those wonderful teams he and Nash built together in Phoenix. It neither seems to suit the skill sets of the Lakers' current personnel, nor energize them.

A lot of that is because Howard is still probably only 70 percent of his former self after having back surgery over the summer. The athleticism that set him apart from every other center in the league has been the last thing in his game to come back.

But a lot more of it is because Nash is not there to show them the way. That seems like a lot to put on one player, but Nash really might be that important.

As one current NBA coach said, "Why are we even worried about Pau Gasol? Pau is going to be open all day once Nash comes back and starts running the pick and roll with Dwight. You'll either have to leave Pau or Kobe to cover Dwight on the roll. Pau's going to be open all day. All day. Steve made Boris Diaw $9 million a year hitting that jumper from the free throw line. That's Boris Diaw, not Pau Gasol."

True, but Gasol is a lot more than a guy who can hit a jump shot. He's a four-time All-Star, two-time NBA champion, Kobe Bryant's most successful sidekick and arguably the most skilled big man in the league.

To use him as just a jump-shooter is to underutilize him. And while that's not what D'Antoni says he has planned for him, especially once Nash comes back, that's how it's been so far.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gasol was fifth in the NBA in post-up points in 2010-11. He was ninth last season and 10th in 2009-10.

This season, he's 27th with just 2.7 points per game out of the post.

Said a recent opponent, "Kobe and Pau are the Lakers' best two post players. Kobe's probably the best post player in the league. But when we played them, Pau wasn't in the post much. And the few times he was, we ended up in single coverage on him and he didn't really do much. Honestly, there's not one guy on our team who should be able to defend him, but we were able to stop him.

"I think he'll be fine if they make him feel a part of it. But right now he just doesn't look confident and comfortable to me, which you can understand."

Last year wasn't easy for Gasol, either. He was traded on the eve of training camp for Chris Paul, then yanked back to an uncomfortable reality when NBA commissioner David Stern nixed the deal.

Gasol was still in Los Angeles and he still wanted to be there. This city suits him. He's comfortable there. He's won there. But no matter how professional he tried to be about it, it was hard to get over.

"There's no doubt it was jarring," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "For a guy like him, it's going to take some time to get over. But you know, sometimes there's a silver lining. You get a jolt. You take things for granted, and I'm not saying he did, but sometimes you look around after something like that -- and whether it's a health scare or whatever -- and say, 'My day is not as bad as I thought it was.'"

The thing is, it wasn't just that trade. As the Lakers' most desirable trade asset, Gasol was on the block all season. It wasn't until the trade deadline passed and he was still a Laker that he could relax. And in a video of him singing at a UNICEF event, it was clear that gratitude was just the start of what he was feeling.

"I'm a person who is thankful and feels very privileged to do what I do in my life," Gasol said. "Things happen for a reason. If it's not meant to be, you go on with your life and I go on with mine."

Still, getting through all that was difficult. It hurt. Two years earlier he'd been the Lakers' savior and now they not only thought about trading him but actually did it.

He reached out to Jackson several times over the course of the season.

"Phil has always supportive of me," Gasol said. "And I appreciate and listen to him. Early on, in training camp and a few times during the season I talked to him."

But Jackson could only provide so much support. He was his friend now, not his coach. This was Gasol's burden to bear, and to do so, he turned inward.

"I read a lot of books on life and on principles," he said. "Different philosophies of what's really important, what's really important to you, and keeping everything into perspective.

"I started reading about meditation and staying at peace with myself. And also my own persona and my own values. That helped me get through it."

After the season, and after the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, he really got away from it all. Up to his house in the Pyrenees Mountains.

"There's probably only 50 houses in the little town," he said. "There is a TV, but I don't like to turn it on. I just read and listen to the nature and hang out with my girlfriend.

"We went for five or six days this year. Not as long as I wanted to."

But still long enough to heal. Or so he thought.

What's hard to explain, much less understand, is how it ever got to this point. How a player of Gasol's caliber could be so marginalized.

It would be wrong to suggest this is all D'Antoni's doing.

This was an organizational decision before it became a systemic issue this season. After the 2011 playoff failure, the Lakers decided to emphasize Andrew Bynum over Gasol in their offense and organizational pecking order.

When Bynum was traded for Howard, Gasol remained in a diminished role. D'Antoni's system has only exacerbated the issue.

Once a savior, then a champion, Gasol is now something of an accessory.

"Pau's such a nice guy, such a good person, he was the only guy the Lakers could demote like that who wouldn't flip out," a former teammate said. "You think they could do that to Drew? Or to Dwight? Never."

There are all sorts of reasons the Lakers, as an organization, made this decision. Gasol's failure in that 2011 playoff run is certainly among them. But mostly this is just business. Bynum and Howard are the future. They are younger and still growing, still in their prime. Gasol had his moment, his peak is probably behind him. Never mind that over 48 minutes, the Lakers actually score 4.1 points per game more than their opponents with Bryant and Gasol on the floor together than they do with Bryant and Howard.

On an intellectual level, he can understand and rationalize that. But as a competitor, even one as selfless as Gasol is, it's hard to digest.

It's why one of the books he read last season was Tony Schwartz's self-help tome and workplace manifesto, "How to be Excellent at Anything." On Page 14, Schwartz writes:

"Our core need at the emotional level is for security, the sense of well-being that depends, in significant part, on the experience of being accepted and valued. How we feel profoundly influences how we perform.

"Feeling devalued pushes us into the Survival Zone, which increases our fear, distracts our attention, drains our energy, and diminishes the value we're capable of creating."

The easy thing to do would be to excise the wound, clean it, bandage it and move on. To trade him.

But is that really what's best? Should a player of Gasol's caliber be discarded for a lesser one who might fit better?

That just feels wasteful.

As bad as he's looked this season, Gasol is still an elite talent. "If they want to trade Pau, I'll take him right now," one coach said. "I'll take him over every player on my team."

For now, the Lakers are holding on to him. It would be reckless to trade him before they see how Nash changes things.

Yes, that's a lot to put on one player. But there's a reason D'Antoni speaks so reverentially about Nash. If you saw him stop shooting in the fourth quarter of a 2005 playoff game against Dallas -- a game in which he scored 48 points -- because he knew he needed to get Shawn Marion involved so his confidence would be high for the next game, you'd feel that way, too.

But in some ways trusting in Nash to fix things is the same thing as Gasol getting a haircut before the Orlando game.

Yes, Nash might be able to fix things offensively. And yes, that success will help Gasol's confidence.

But this isn't just about looking better on the court, it's about feeling better. Feeling wanted. Supported. Valued.

Like there's a place for him, not just space on the floor.