Pau Gasol has, regardless of his status as a two-time NBA champion, become an underrated commodity in the world of the NBA. At the age of 34, the former (and possibly future) Los Angeles Lakers big man has been relegated from superstar status in the minds of most, but that hasn’t stopped a parade of suitors from beating down his door as the 2014 NBA free agency window opens, and that is a sure indication of his perceived value to the public simply differing with his actual value to NBA teams.
In his 12 years in the NBA, the 6-foot-11 (or 7-foot, depending on who you believe) Gasol has been an incredible model of consistency. The Spanish big man did not arrive as a “traditional” rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies before the 2002-2003 season, and at 22 years old, he was able to manufacture a season in which Gasol averaged 17.6 points (on 51.8% shooting) and 8.9 rebounds per game while appearing in all 82 contests. That is relatively mind-blowing in today’s NBA that rarely features a near double-double candidate right out of the box, and that debut set the stage for what has been a long and prosperous career.
The “ceiling” for Pau Gasol’s production has been debated, and that is only magnified by the fact that Pau’s career high for points per game sits at “only” 20.8 when playing in Memphis during the 2006-2007 season. “Superstardom” is often judged, at least on the outside, by the pure numbers, and despite being a near 20-10 player for nearly a decade, Gasol was not always recognized as an “elite” player. Remarkably, a trade that forced him to become a secondary option was the biggest factor in helping him to achieve a higher form of recognition, and that is also key to his future value.
Upon being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a hotly-contested trade during the 2007-2008 season, the then 27-year-old Gasol was immediately inserted as the number two option behind future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. On cue, Gasol adjusted beautifully to his new role, and in the course of his first three seasons in LA, the team reached the NBA Finals in each season and emerged with two championships. “Pau Gasol, two-time NBA champion” has been his full name ever since, and despite the relative hilarity of that perception affecting his future earnings, it is entirely possible.
The above represents Pau Gasol’s shot chart from the 2013-2014 season, and while there are patches of red that indicate danger zones (insert laughter here), they are in areas where Gasol does very little operating. There is little doubt that Pau’s efficiency wasn’t at a peak level last season, when he shot just 48% from the floor, but for much of the campaign, he was operating as the primary option in a system where he did not fit perfectly under Mike D’Antoni, and without Kobe Bryant, there was nothing easy to be seen.
Gasol, playing at age 33, was still able to produce a season in which he averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in just over 31 minutes per contest, and when prorated on a per 36-minute basis, those numbers jump to 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds. In addition, Gasol was measured with a 19.9 PER (player efficiency rating) that ranked him among the top 40 players in the NBA, as well as the top 10 centers in a category that measures overall performance.
If there is a worry to Gasol’s aging process as a player, it is almost exclusively on the defensive end. Pau has never been an elite rim protector by any stretch, with a career average of 1.6 blocks per game and a block rate of 3.4%, but reports of his defensive collapse are greatly exaggerated. Do you want Pau Gasol as your primary rim protector for a title contender at this stage? Absolutely not, but he is a solid team defender, especially within a good system (i.e. not that of Mike D’Antoni in Los Angeles), and if he is paired with another good defensive big, the results can be outstanding.
In addition to his defensive acumen, Gasol plays a game that ages quite gracefully. The big man has never relied heavily on athleticism to achieve his production, and that continues today. His post game is varied and, frankly, beautiful at times, and his jump shot has proved to be reliable from the 15-foot range as his career as moved along. Throw in an incredibly high basketball IQ that would allow him to fit into the great majority of systems and the fact that he is a creative and willing passer, and Pau Gasol is suddenly even more attractive than his stellar numbers.
Pau Gasol has been linked to a variety of teams as the free agency period moves through its infancy, but there is a common theme through all of them.
Teams that have title aspirations want Pau Gasol on their roster.
The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks have all been tied to Gasol in some form or fashion, and aside from heading back to the Lakers for a larger payday, Pau will have his choice of fantastic situations. There has been some debate as to the type of salary that he would command, but with a great deal of smoke emanating from San Antonio and Oklahoma City around a mid-level type of contract, Gasol is shaping up to be a fantastic bargain.
In the open market and with no exclusions, Pau Gasol should command an 8-figure salary, even at his advancing age. He was incredibly productive as a 33-year-old despite injury issues and a system that ignores the great majority of his skills, and if teams like the Spurs and Thunder were able to stretch their payroll to lock him down, they would undoubtedly do so.
Because of the teams that are reportedly in pursuit, Gasol will likely take less than he is truly worth in order to pursue a third championship, and in this day and age, that is exactly what the majority of fans would like him to do in a vacuum. By definition, that would make Pau Gasol a bargain in this market, and whatever team lands his services for the next two to three years will be exceedingly happy with his production, especially when weighed against the cost to acquire him.