The news from the Pau Gasol front is not encouraging.
Whichever form Gasol's deal takes, he's destined to join the Chicago Bulls soon, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 12, 2014
Yet I still find myself waiting for a miracle, for Pau to change his mind and sign with the Spurs for the MLE. I've come to the point where every time the Spurs are rumored to be interested in someone, I simultaneously realize they are probably not going to get him but still remain emotionally invested in the possibility. It often simply has to be with the Spurs' inability to attack free agents and not with the actual talent level of the player they are interested in. But in this case, the two go hand in had: Gasol is a huge name in basketball because he is arguably one of the best big men to come into the league in the past 20 years.
But lost in all the excitement is a very simple yet relevant question: does Pau fit in with the Spurs?
Pau's decline: a trend or a combination of circumstances?
Gasol has missed a combined 55 games over the past two seasons. His true shooting percentage and free throw rate has been below career average for the past three years. He played a career low 31.4 minutes a game last season. He has clearly lost a step defensively and has become much more reliant on an inconsistent long jumper as his ability to score inside has dwindled. Are those facts relevant when evaluating the player Gasol is at this point?
If they are, using MLE for Pau might not be such a great idea after all.
In all fairness to Pau, LA has been a mess. Gasol has been pushed to the perimeter by space-eating centers and then marginalized by a system that avoids post ups. He's only 33 and even though he will play the FIBA World Cup, Spain is so deep at the big man spots that he should be relatively rested once the NBA season starts. And with perfect spacing, great set up men and monitored minutes, Gasol could put fantastic per minute numbers and regain some of his inside dominance on offense and competence on defense.
His situation as a Laker was so wrong for him to thrive, that there is hope he can regain his former level with the Spurs, at least on a per minute basis. But it doesn't seem like a coincidence that Pau has done his best recent work as a post player.
Is Pau strictly a center now?
As mentioned, Gasol was pushed to the power forward position first by a healthy Andrew Bynum in the lockout shortened season and then by Dwight Howard in 2012/13. Gasol's offensive rebounding suffered and his game become more perimeter oriented. Pau started taking more jumpers, with less than stellar results. His passing became a big enough asset to offset some of the shooting efficiency but by now it's clear Pau's contributions on offense are maximized when he plays close to the basket and can either post up, or face up near the block.
Pau is a better overall defensive player than he gets credit for but there are some worrisome signs that point to him struggling to defend faster players at this point in his career. Gasol was often late to get back in transition last season, which could either be a sign of lack of effort or speed. If it's effort, it might come back playing for a contender. But the league's power forward have gotten quicker and more athletic. Blake Griffin often leads the break, beating guards down the court. Serge Ibaka is one of the best trailers in transition there is, often keeping up with and cleaning the misses of Russell Westbrook. No matter how much he hustles, Gasol will have trouble getting back on time. And playing outside, he isn't a big enough threat on the offensive glass to demand extra attention.
Similarly, a player with both a quick first step and a mid-range jumper will often have good results against Pau and he doesn't offer great versatility on the pick and roll.
So at this point in his career, Pau (not unlike Duncan) seems better suited to operate close to the basket on both ends. He uses his length to bother bulkier post players and protect the rim after hanging back. And he can be a focal point from either block. Those attributes are not a problem in themselves. As a center, Gasol is still really good. But Tim Duncan has the same strengths and weaknesses. Splitter can guard those PFs so Pau doesn't have to but he cramps the spacing. And Diaw and Pau might not be sturdy enough on the boards.
Should the Spurs even be trying to sign Pau?
Without a doubt, yes. For the mid-level exception, Gasol would be a fantastic get. If he doesn't pan out, he's tradable. If he does, the Spurs could figure out ways to get everyone enough minutes in the right combinations to maximize their talent or move Splitter for a more complementary piece. The price tag is too low and the upside of the move simply too big to pass up.
At the same time, after digging a little deeper, it doesn't seem like the type of can't-miss opportunity I initially thought it was.
Because Pau is better suited to play the role Tim Duncan currently occupies, there will be diminishing returns. If Pau is not operating close to the hoop, his value is simply not very high. Jefferson and Jackson were proof of that. RJ taught the Spurs that trying to fit a square peg on a round hole is simply not worth wasting money or time on. And Jack showed that if a player is not ready to humble himself and accept a small role, he will not be a Spur for long.
If history is any indication, Gasol can't be used sparingly or out of position for too long without him becoming frustrated. So whose minutes does he take? Who does he play next to? The temptation is to say that Pop will figure it out later. But those are the type of serious chemistry concerns the Spurs avoid like the plague.
Signing Pau Gasol would not only mean a talent upgrade but also a big win for a franchise that doesn't often attract free agents. If it happens, it would be a reason to celebrate. And if, like it seems more and more likely, he decides to join the Bulls, that news can't be spun into a good thing for the Spurs. But it's possible the Spurs, who will continue to have the MLE and bi-annual exception available, can still find a player or two who, while not as talented or glamorous as Gasol, could be a better fit.
And that's not a bad place to be as a defending champion.
Update: Gasol has confirmed he will play for the Bulls next season.
It hasn't been easy. After meditating it a lot I've chosen to play with the Chicago Bulls. Looking forward to this new chapter of my career— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) julio 12, 2014