How the Pau Gasol Trade Saved Kobe Bryant’s Legacy
The most significant transactions in the NBA typically occur during the offseason. From time to time, though, we get to witness mid-season deals that would send shockwaves throughout the basketball world.
Some of the recent franchise-altering mid-season trades include Rasheed Wallace to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets in 2007, Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011, and most recently, James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers this year.
However, few mid-season deals have had an impact as significant as the Pau Gasol to the Lakers trade in 2008. You see, not only did the acquisition of the Spaniard turn the fortunes of the struggling Los Angeles Lakers around, but this deal also saved the legacy of one Kobe Bean Bryant.
The 2004 Split
The Lakers found themselves at a crossroads after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant was entering free agency in the offseason. Phil Jackson’s contract had also expired, and he was seeking to double his salary. And Shaquille O’Neal was demanding a max extension that Dr. Buss was reluctant to give.
It also didn’t help that the brewing tension between Shaq and Kobe and Kobe and Phil had reached a crescendo. The Lakers had to choose. And they decided, smartly, to go with their mega-star, who was just entering his prime. They decided to go with Kobe.
The team signed Bryant to a seven-year max contract worth $136.4 million in the summer. O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Briant Grant, and two draft picks. Phil Jackson would leave the team and publish a book called The Last Season that same year, wherein he called Kobe “uncoachable.”
The Post-Shaq Struggles
With Kobe Bryant now the clear-cut number one guy on the team, he finally had the chance to prove the doubters wrong. As brilliant as Kobe had been throughout their championship runs at the onset of the new millennium, he had been labeled, mostly unfairly, as nothing more than Shaq’s sidekick and that he couldn’t win without the Big Fella.
And for the first three years of the post-Shaq era, the critics had been seemingly proven right. The Lakers mightily struggled during their first year without O’Neal, as late-season injuries to Kobe and Lamar Odom caused the team to tumble in the standings and miss the playoffs for the first time since the early 90s.
The return of Phil Jackson in 2005 would give the Lakers a glimmer of hope in turning the franchise around. However, with a mediocre cast surrounding Kobe and Lamar, it took a herculean effort from the Black Mamba just to get them to the playoffs.
After another first-round exit at the hands of the Phoenix Suns and feeling like the front office wasn’t doing enough to surround him with better talent, Kobe’s frustration boiled over during the summer, leading him to demand a trade publicly. A talk with Phil Jackson made Kobe reconsider, and he backed off on his trade request.
The Lakers bolstered their lineup during the offseason by bringing back Kobe’s old running buddy Derek Fisher. And, with the emergence of Andrew Bynum, it looked like the Lakers were finally ready to reclaim their spot among the league’s elite.
Unfortunately, Bynum suffered a severe injury, partially dislocating his kneecap, in a game on January 13, 2008, against the Memphis Grizzlies. This would cause him to miss the rest of the season. What looked like a promising season seemed headed for yet another disappointing finish after the young center’s injury.
That is until the Lakers front office finally made the move that not only made them legitimate contenders once again but also helped Kobe cement his place as a true all-time great.
Enter Pau Gasol
The Bynum injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced Mitch Kupchak to make a deal to save the season.
In a blockbuster trade that sent the much-maligned Kwame Brown, along with Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, and the rights to Marc Gasol, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies on February 1, 2008.
In hindsight, it was the most significant deal in Kobe’s career because the Lakers found the perfect number 2 for him in Pau.
Pau Gasol was the perfect complement to Kobe Bryant in many ways. He was a supremely skillful big man with post moves for days, a reliable mid-range jumper, excellent passing skills, and a high basketball IQ. The “anti-Kwame Brown,” as Bill Walton hilariously described him.
His personality was never going to clash with Kobe’s. He would never usurp Kobe’s alpha dog status and was perfectly content in being the Robin to Kobe’s Batman.
The partnership would click right away as the Lakers would win 11 of their first 12 games with Gasol to shoot up to number one in the Western Conference. Overall, the Lakers went 22–5 in the 27 games Gasol played in 2008 and 36–20 without him.
That was crucial because the Lakers ended up finishing only a game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans for the number one seed in the West and only two games ahead of the sixth seed Phoenix Suns.
They would go on to win the Western Conference title that nobody at the beginning of the season could have predicted. And while they fell short in the 2008 Finals against the Boston Celtics, they came back strong by winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
What If the Pau Gasol Trade Never Happened
The Los Angeles Lakers finishing number one in the West in 2008 finally earned Kobe Bryant what would end up being his lone regular-season MVP award. With Pau Gasol being the final piece to the championship puzzle, Kobe would lead the Lakers to two championships, earning himself a couple of Finals MVPs and finally shedding the label that he couldn’t lead a team to a title.
Had the Lakers not acquired Pau Gasol in 2008, it’s highly unlikely that the Lakers would have ended up with the top seed in the West that year. They may not have even been in the top five. Therefore, it’s easy to assume that Chris Paul would have won the MVP that season.
There’s also a good chance the Lakers wouldn’t have made it to three consecutive Finals and go back-to-back champions without Pau. That means no Finals MVP for Kobe as well.
It would’ve been somewhat tragic if an all-time great like Kobe had finished his career without a regular-season or Finals MVP. His legacy would’ve taken a big hit, and critics and haters would’ve unfairly derided him as someone who simply rode the coattails of Shaq.
While Kobe Bryant would’ve already been a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer on the merits of his achievements even before the Gasol trade, it was the trade for the Spaniard that made it possible for Kobe to pad his individual accomplishments in the NBA further. The trade helped Kobe firmly establish his position as perhaps the greatest Laker ever and one of the true all-time basketball greats overall.
It’s no wonder in Kobe’s Finals MVP trophy acceptance speech in 2010 he made sure to give a special shout-out to the Spaniard, saying they “couldn’t have won without him.” And he was absolutely right.