Tuesday, February 27, 2007

In Defense of Pau

I was embarrassed by what I saw at the Forum last night. Once again, Pau Gasol was booed loudly by a huge section of Grizzly fans in his home building as the Grizzlies lost to Denver 111-107. Pau wasn't great in the 4th quarter, and missed 3 key free throws in the final minutes of the game. But that doesn't justify the treatment he's receiving from large numbers of Grizzly fans.

First, the facts. Pau Gasol did ask to be traded. He did so by going to Majority Owner Michael Heisley and GM Jerry West separately and asking to be moved, if possible. Heisley gave Pau assurances his request would be considered; West did as well, though privately West was said to be seething. Pau did not make this request public. Somehow, Peter Vecsey found out about the official trade request and his initial report opened the subsequent floodgates of media coverage - coverage that Pau Gasol did not seek. Pau did not pout or moan or throw a fit to try to get traded; on the contrary, his numbers and contribution to the team remained high amid speculation about his future.

But none of that matters to some Grizzly fans. Many people have never liked Pau - ever - and have found any and every excuse to boo him at the Forum. Pau misses a FT? Boo him. He misses a jump shot? Boo him. He gets beaten on defense? Boo him. Never mind the fact that almost every Grizzly is defensively deficient at one time or another, never mind the fact that he has consistently put up 20 points and 9 rebounds shooting 50% or more from the field, never mind the fact that most NBA scouts consider him at least a top 10 (maybe a top 5) offensive player from 15 feet and in. None of that matters to the haters. All that matters is that Pau is either soft, or foreign, or weak, and they boo.

Is it Pau's fault that the organization hasn't built a proper team around him? They identified Pau as their centerpiece when they signed him to his max contract, yet they have utterly failed to build a team around his strengths. They've not drafted players to suit Pau, they've not signed free agents to suit Pau, and yet they expect Pau to singlehandedly lead this team out of the doldrums. The blame for that lies squarely at the feet of Jerry West and the Grizzlies. It's one thing to pay a guy and identify him as your centerpiece, it's another to actually build something around him. Pau is never going to be a tough guy. Never ever. This shouldn't have to be repeated over and over. He needs a bruiser next to him, a guy like Ben Wallace. That's why a move to Chicago would have been perfect for Pau and for the Bulls. Wallace could guard the more physical big on defense, hiding Pau's weakness a bit (and allowing Pau's defensive strength - shotblocking - to be emphasized), while Pau could absolutely go nuts on offense.

Look at Kevin Garnett. He's an immensely talented, very tough, incredibly driven athlete. And he's saddled with an organization that has failed to build around him. So what has he won? Nothing. Only once, when the team added Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell to complement him, did KG win a playoff series. But does KG get booed? Of course not. He's lauded for his determination. Perhaps he asked to be traded - we don't know. We wouldn't have known about Pau's request except that someone in the Grizzly organization leaked the information. And you wouldn't have known by Pau's play - he's looked precisely the same throughout this season.

By the way, who among you wouldn't explore other avenues of employment if at your company the following things had happened:

  • Your boss had been fired and replaced by an interim boss of questionable qualification (who himself will soon be replaced by an unknown entity).

  • Your company owner was publicly looking to sell your company to a group promising to cut costs and rely on underpaid young talent.

  • Your company had already failed to give you the tools and coworkers you needed to be truly successful in your job.

  • You were constantly criticized publicly for your effort and your product despite having won award after award and being the best at your company year-in, and year-out.

  • You had been sick for a while, but you rushed back to work because your company needed you, only to be criticized for a lack of production as your were trying to get back into the swing of things.

If all that happened to you, wouldn't your résumé be on Monster.com within seconds? Of course it would. Pau can't do that, so his only recourse is to request a trade.

After having been booed virtually all season long, and after seeing thousands of fans last night cheering louder for Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony than they did for him, Pau was understandably miffed. Here are some quotes:

Pau Gasol says it is "mindblowing" that Grizzly fans don't support him.

He thinks some Grizzly fans were happy that Denver beat the Grizzlies last night.

I can understand his frustration. It makes Memphis look like a low-class city when the fans boo the best Grizzly player consistently for petty reasons. He's far and away the best player on the team. How do you think it makes Rudy Gay feel to see the best player on the team booed mercilessly? He must wonder what it takes to satisfy Grizzly fans - and he probably wonders if he'll ever get booed if he screws up. That's no way to endear yourself to a group of players. Hakim Warrick missed key free throws late in the Spurs game last year. That cost them a game - does he get booed? He plays no defense - does he get booed? Lawrence Roberts missed free throw after free throw last year in Boston, costing the Grizzlies a game...does he get booed? Mike Miller plays no defense. Does he get booed?

For that matter, Carmelo Anthony is great on offense, plays no defense, has only made one All-Star game, and has never been on a team that has won a playoff series. Sound familiar? But does 'Melo get booed? Not in Denver, and not in Memphis either. Pau Gasol was booed more than Carmelo Anthony in the Forum.

The attendance this season has been poor, which is understandable - it's a bad team in a rebuilding year. But the poor attendance mixed with the booing makes this a terrible atmosphere for players. And if you don't think that plays a role in whether free agents will come to Memphis, or whether current Grizzlies (like Rudy Gay) will eventually want to re-sign with the team you're crazy.

It's time this came to an end. Pau Gasol and the rest of the Grizzlies deserve better.

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