LOS ANGELES -- In a Los Angeles Lakers franchise so stocked with legends it's difficult to single out individuals for superlatives, finding a description for Pau Gasol is remarkably simple. He's the best Lakers acquisition of the 21st century.
The flip side is that letting him leave without receiving anything in return is the Lakers' biggest mistake of the century.
First, Pau's place in Laker lore. There's no easy answer for greatest Laker of all-time when Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor are among the nominees. And good luck picking a starting center between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan without an argument.
But when you rank Laker transactions since 2000, nothing approaches the Feb. 1, 2008 trade that brought Gasol to Los Angeles from the Memphis Grizzlies. The team went to the next three NBA Finals, winning two of them. The individual achievements were summarized on the back of the "Thanks Pau" T-shirts the Lakers handed out to fans Thursday night: "7 seasons, 15,326 minutes, 429 games, 7,610 points, 4,240 rebounds, 1508 assists, 607 blocks, 3 All-Star games."
He boosted Phil Jackson past Red Auerbach in the all-time coaching championship count and allowed Kobe to match Magic with five rings -- and top Shaq by one. That means enough to Kobe that Kobe came up from Orange County the day after season-ending shoulder surgery just to spend a few minutes in private conversation with Pau.
Just when the era of greatness that began with the Shaq-Kobe summer of 1996 and the tapping of Phil Jackson to coach in 1999 began to wane, Gasol came along to revitalize the franchise. Playing a video tribute and giving him center court to bask in the applause of the fans in his return to Lakerland with the Chicago Bulls Thursday night was the least the team could do. Rest assured, his No. 16 will join the rest of the giant retired jerseys high on the Staples Center walls one day.
Gasol didn't just provide points and rebounds, he also provided a Spanish voice to a team with a huge Latino following. He'd patiently provided bilingual answers after every game, endearing himself to the local media. His commitment to children's hospitals endeared him to the rest of the population.
He was the embodiment of what the Lakers aspire to be -- classy winners -- so it's strange that he isn't viewed as a defining player. Such is the shadow that Bryant came to cast over the past 10 years. Gasol wasn't loud on or off the court, so he just doesn't ... stick. And that's why it was important that Gasol had this moment, a time to reflect on his value.
"I think people remember ... remember what we accomplished as a team, my dedication and commitment to the team, to the city, to the community," Gasol said. "It's up to the people to remember. I appreciate the memories, I appreciate the support, I appreciate the respect that I get."
It was clear it mattered to Gasol, mattered as much as it did to Shaq, even though Shaq left under more acrimonious terms. Shaq still wanted his jersey to hang in this building, and he's grateful it went up while Jerry Buss was still alive. Gasol was a part of the last of the 10 championships the Lakers won during Buss' ownership. He was the finishing touch of the golden era.
Gasol deserved some of that deferential treatment when he was still here. He shouldn't have been subjected to persistent trade rumors ever since he was a part of the failed Chris Paul deal in 2011. The Lakers never gave him a firm commitment. Even worse, they weren't adamant about trading him before the expiration of his contract last year. If they'd already determined he didn't fit their long-term plans, they should have made better accommodations for life without him.
The Lakers limited their options because they didn't want to take back long-term contracts in order to preserve their 2014-15 salary cap space. We saw how that worked out last summer. And it would have been hard to pry a pick from the teams hoarding draft selections because those teams couldn't use an expensive older player on an expiring contract when they had no intention of winning in the short term.
In retrospect, the time to move Gasol would have been in 2013-14, when the Steve Nash-Dwight Howard experiment wasn't working and the Lakers needed to give Howard a reason to believe the Lakers were building a long-term foundation. At the minimum they would have been better positioned for when Howard left them that summer.
There are a few reasons Howard's departure didn't hurt the Lakers as much as Gasol's. First, getting Howard only cost them Andrew Bynum, who played only 24 games in the 2 1/2 seasons since the trade. Second, it was worth the gamble on Howard's free agency because it was their best shot at landing the next franchise fixture. Finally, Howard's departure doesn't seem as bad these days. He has missed 14 games so far this season and Thursday he was diagnosed with a fluid buildup in his knee.
Gasol, meanwhile, was coming off an 18-point, 16-rebound, eight-assist game against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night and his averages of 18 points and 12 rebounds compare favorably to his best days in L.A. Perhaps Gasol would have flourished under the traditional coaching approach of Byron Scott, who played in the days when big men ruling the paint was the accepted approach to NBA success.
But it's clear a fresh start has helped him -- no "Black Swan" prodding from Kobe Bryant necessary.
"I'm motivated, I'm energized and I'm excited about what I'm doing again," Gasol said. "I think it's perfect for me."
Gasol has given the Bulls a low-post scoring option and another high-post passer to go with Joakim Noah. The Bulls are still figuring out how to play with the restored Derrick Rose and determining how much of his old self Rose can be.
Gasol wound up with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists Thursday night, but he started slowly and needed the extra minutes afforded by double overtime to post those numbers. It's not as if he continuously reminded the Lakers of what they're missing throughout the night.
The Lakers have a daily reminder of what they miss from Gasol when they look at their own roster and their ledger of draft picks.
Eight years after his fortuitous arrival they have nothing to show for his departure.