Booming groans as soon as the deal went through. Bill Simmons wrote that “the Lakers [fleeced] Memphis for Pau Gasol in a horribly one-sided trade.” Marc Stein said he was “struggling to believe that the Lakers got [Pau] without touching anyone in the top 10 of their rotation.” Gregg Popovich, who was grinding his teeth starting Fabricio Oberto next to Tim Duncan, floated the idea of an NBA trade committee that would veto gravely incompetent moves like the one Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace had just made. The previous summer, Kobe Bryant had asked to be traded to the Bulls. He didn’t see the possibility of winning another championship in Los Angeles. After the swoop for Pau was complete, he visited the Catalan’s hotel room at one-thirty in the morning. “This is our chance,” he said.
The trade actually worked out fine for both franchises, because Pau’s chubby little brother—an ostensible throw-in that Wallace presciently insisted upon—developed into an All-Star center a few years later, but all those complaints about how the Grizz had gifted the Los Angeles a title were more or less correct. Pau joined the Lakers in February of 2008 and turned them into a contender overnight. They made the Finals that year and lost to the Celtics in six. Then they went back-to-back.
It’s slightly surprising that there was so much certainty about Pau at the time of the trade. Maybe it was sheer giddiness and horror—the Lakers had moved Kwame Brown, Pau's little brother playing in Spain, and what figured to be a pair of late first round picks for a 20-and-10-ish power forward—that muted any doubts about Pau, but he wasn’t a completely sure thing. He’d spent his entire career on Memphis teams that ranged from outright awful to halfway decent. His playoff record was 0-and-12. These were the days when every European player was described as soft whenever they went through a rough patch. Though he was certainly a respected star, he wasn’t proven either. If the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Devin Booker tomorrow for peanuts, their fans would be excited, but they would also wonder if he could come through in big games, considering he hasn’t yet played in one.
Then again, Pau put up 36 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists in the first postseason win of his career, a 128-to-114 victory over Denver. People were right not to worry. He took to performing on a contender immediately, and he liked playing for Phil Jackson, possessing both the temperament and curiosity to accept Phil’s reading recommendations—Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, definitely the first thing the Zen Master thought of—and the Triangle, to which Pau was particularly well-suited. He could pass, drive, and shoot, operate out of the low post or closer to the elbow. Kobe did what he had always done, mostly by himself, but Pau was fully integrated. You could toss him the ball on the block and he’d score, but he had never played with a frontcourt partner as powerful as Andrew Bynum or as prismatically talented as Lamar Odom. He appreciated this, which is a rare thing in a star big man. Those dudes tend to be territorial. They like to stake out their space near the basket and have everybody else get out of the way. But Pau’s a generous spirit; he seemed to enjoy discovering all the ways he could score and assist from various spots on the floor. He was happy, Kobe was placated, and the Lakers were the best team in basketball, for a while.
All of this joy is distant now, which isn’t to say that Pau hasn’t had a good time in the years since the Lakers descended from their championship level. He assembled two all-star seasons in Chicago and, as is the birthright of every well-liked Euro, got to play under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for a bit. He had hoped to meaningfully contribute to Milwaukee’s playoff run last year, but that didn’t come to pass, and now his stint in Portland has ended without him playing a single game.
He’s got a bum left ankle. He’s 39 years old and seven feet tall. His career is probably over. It’s not like he couldn’t see it coming, but it’s still sad. Thankfully, though he’s not on the official roster anymore, the Blazers are going to keep Pau around. He’ll hang out at the practice facility and rehab the ankle. Maybe Portland will bring him aboard as an assistant. No matter what he chooses to do, everybody will benefit from having him in the building, even if he’s just reading a book in the hot tub. We’ve all heard stories about how much his teammates like him, his vast knowledge of sets and defensive coverages, how polite he is to reporters and stadium attendants, his interest in theater and opera, his charitable work with UNICEF and St. Jude’s, how he nearly became a doctor because he wanted to fight the AIDS crisis. He’s Pau Gasol: warm, easy, and intelligent.
When Pau joined the Lakers, their fans were naturally thrilled, but in the long run, his move to L.A. did something for everybody who follows the NBA. He was languishing in Memphis, putting up nice stats and collecting praise from League Pass nerds, but like Kemba Walker in Charlotte or Chris Paul in New Orleans, he was both notable and obscure. People knew he was good, but they didn’t know him. Basketball being a team game, you need a supporting cast in order to make a solid impression. The media doesn’t devote much energy to the best player on a small market lottery-dweller, or even a 45-win squad. Pau’s Lakers switch gave him everything on the court, and it also gave him celebrity. That celebrity allowed us to better enjoy a beautifully coordinated and creative player who also happened to be an almost preposterously sweet person. The Lakers made a great trade for all the obvious reasons, but the deal paid off in ways nobody could have anticipated. They got Pau, and so did we.