While the sky falls daily upon the Miami Heat -- culminating Thursday in LeBron James' prodigal return to Cleveland -- the defending champs slog onward in relative quiet and calm. Much of the Lakers' slogging has been done by 7-footer Pau Gasol, who has turned himself into an MVP candidate by assembling the NBA's most impressive stat line of the young season: 20.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.
Gasol has averaged 43.4 minutes over his last five games in the absence of center Andrew Bynum, who has been increasing his workouts following summer knee surgery and could return by mid-December. Gasol has gone a weary 12-of-36 from the field over his last three games to corroborate his value: The Lakers depend on him to play at a high level, and when he doesn't, they lose. In Houston on Wednesday, Gasol tallied a season-low eight points on 2-of-8 shooting in 39 minutes. The Lakers were minus-13 when Gasol was on the floor, and they lost 109-99 for their fourth consecutive defeat.
"Pau's been playing such great basketball, and right now he just can't do it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said earlier this week. "He can't play up to the level of his capabilities because he doesn't have a guy who can give him relief minutes."
Can we agree that the 30-year-old Gasol has established himself as the NBA's best power forward? By the end of this season, he may yet threaten Dwight Howard as the best big man, period. No one of his size excels in so many ways as Gasol, who played stifling team defense against Howard in the 2009 Finals. In last year's Finals, Gasol's diversity was impossible to miss: He scored 69 points across three of the opening four games (while converting 27-of-33 shots), he blocked six shots in Game 2, and in Game 7, he fought all-out for 18 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass to create the extra possessions that enabled the Lakers' comeback. No one on the floor was more aggressive that night.
Gasol acknowledges that he didn't know how to play with such fire over his first six-and-a-half years in the NBA, with Memphis.
"I give more importance to the different areas of the game -- defense and rebounding -- that before I didn't so much," he said. "I was just relying on what was easier and more natural for me. But here, you need to pay attention to every little detail within the game to accomplish greatness and be able to beat the best in the end."
Said Jackson: "The drive that this team provides helps carry him to those spots. Before it would be frustrating for him to play on a losing team. But when he knows there's a lot expected of him -- it's a winning proposition and he came here to win -- every night's an effort, every night is a challenge, and he comes out every night to produce. I think that's what brings the best out in a player when they know they are in a competitive situation and they have to play well to win."
When Gasol asked to be dealt by Memphis, he was derided for not doing more to carry the Grizzlies.
"It really was killing me that I couldn't see growth, that I couldn't see improvement," he said. "I fought and worked hard to be able to do my part but at the same time make the team grow every year, but it wasn't growing. I lost a little bit of motivation and that's not what I'm about. I'm not about making money and putting up numbers. I'm about winning and being part of something special."
Gasol has displayed those priorities since joining the Lakers and helping them to two straight titles. He isn't the type to make the last-second shot -- neither is Howard (and neither was Shaquille O'Neal when he was a Laker) -- but he is, as a rival GM put it, "the best No. 2 player on any team in the league."
"That's not my goal, definitely not in this league," Gasol said of entering the MVP race. "What I try to do is to have my team be a champion at the end of the season in whichever way is needed. I'll just try to do my part in the way that I know how to do it. If another teammate is the MVP, that means that we probably have been the best team of the regular season, which is one of my goals; and then we're in a great position to have home-court advantage to the very end and trying to get to the championship. Which is my ultimate goal."
In other words: If any Laker is MVP, it's going to be Kobe Bryant. But he can't contend and the Lakers can't three-peat without Gasol alongside him.
He won't be their priority, Reggie, just as Amar'e Stoudemire wasn't the priority last summer -- though the Knicks have to be in love with Stoudemire now that they've won seven of eight to go over .500. So don't rule out anything.
The problem with speculation for any player or team beyond this season is that no one can say what the rules are going to be. Under the current system, the Knicks are set up to have cap space when Eddy Curry's contract expires next summer, but will the new collective bargaining agreement afford them cap space? What will be the rules for free agency?
Crawford could blend into Mike D'Antoni's offense, but the Knicks' positional priority -- aside from landing Carmelo Anthony or another elite star -- is to find a point guard who will push the ball and make excellent decisions on the run before defenses can organize in the half court. The Knicks probably wouldn't view Crawford as the answer at point guard, but who is to say he won't be their best available option after the CBA has been resolved?
The normal thinking is that a rebuilding team should dump its older stars and commit big minutes to younger players, but that would be the wrong move in Phoenix. Nash and Hill have flourished in that system -- both on the court as well as in the trainers' room, where each has remained healthy -- and they could be excellent bridge players to help bring along younger teammates. Wouldn't the Suns be better off developing the next generation in a winning climate? Nash and Hill would make that possible while demonstrating the right way to prepare for each season and each game.
But here's the problem: When Nash becomes a free agent in 2012, will he necessarily re-sign with Phoenix? It would make sense for him to be interested in Toronto or New York. So if the Suns want to guarantee they'll receive value for him, they may be forced to consider a trade (after the potential lockout) for Nash this offseason.
The answer is an emphatic "yes." Great players win NBA championships, and it's much harder to acquire someone like Paul or Anthony than it is to fill in around them. Another star to pair with Dwight Howard would give Orlando more hope of a championship.
Is he frustrated by diminished skills or his diminished role? Think about Hamilton at his best: He circled the half court like Reggie Miller, benefiting from screening big men and converting well-timed passes. The Pistons are no longer a tight outfit capable of creating space for Hamilton, and based on his recent play, teams aren't going to change their offense to create shots for him (as the Celtics reconfigured their system to open up catch-and-shoot opportunities for Ray Allen). Even if he auditions himself at a high level, there will be little market for that enormous two-year contract. No wonder he is frustrated, and the Pistons are frustrated with him.
He won the 2006 championship for Miami and he recovered from injuries to carry the Heat for the last couple of seasons. It is a great question, Karla, and it will be worth asking a few months from now. Wade must emerge as the leader in Miami. He must mediate between the coach and the players (LeBron especially) and -- because no one else seems capable -- he must articulate the new style of the Heat and then lead by example. Right now it doesn't look good for anyone on that team, but let's see how he responds as a leader over the next couple of months.
Going into the season, I picked the Spurs to emerge as the main challengers to the Lakers. If Bynum is out, San Antonio has a chance to match up with L.A.'s front line, and an upset will be within reach, given the diversity of the Spurs' weapons. But if everyone is healthy, the Lakers will have too big of an edge in talent.
Every NBA GM is interested in helping himself. The truth is the Heat have very little healthy talent that would entice other teams, so I don't see anyone making a deal with them. "When I watch other teams, it's with an eye to making a possible trade or looking at some of their players for the future," one GM told me recently. "Miami isn't one of the teams I'm looking at it, because they really don't have anything to trade right now."