On Friday night in Shanghai, Pau Gasol was the last member of the Los Angeles Lakers off the team bus. Long after Kobe Bryant had passed through entrance doors of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, Gasol strutted in with a serious look of confidence and determined focus. He was the leader of the team on Friday.
When the starting lineups were announced, Gasol was last off the bench—a role previously reserved for Bryant. In fact, Bryant was nowhere to be seen early in the game. Perhaps, Bryant was attempting to give his team, particularly Gasol, an opportunity to play outside Bryant’s massive shadow.
This season, more than ever before, the Lakers will only go as far as Gasol carries them. Less than two weeks away from opening night, Bryant has no time line to return. Until Bryant returns—and probably even after he comes back—Gasol is central to any success the Lakers hope to experience this season.
One of the biggest obstacles the Spanish 7-footer faces ahead of opening night is fitness. After having a procedure to regenerate cartilage in his aging knees, Gasol spent significant time away from physical activity during the offseason. Although he played well during Tuesday’s game in Beijing, Gasol’s lack of conditioning was one of the reasons Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni cited when explaining why all of the Lakers’ starters were rested in the fourth quarter—a decision that ultimately cost the Lakers the game.
In Shanghai, the most friendly and gracious superstar in sports took a moment to discuss his conditioning with Triple Threat.
“I’m feeling better,” he said optimistically about his recovery. “I feel like I can run better, and so far I’ve been progressing well.”
“Hopefully now, with these next three games we have left in the preseason, I’ll increase my minutes,” Gasol continued. “My conditioning will also have to improve and take a step forward so I can be ready for opening night.”
Gasol admitted he was not at all ready, but he was upbeat on the progress he was making personally and with the team despite the international obstacles posed this preseason.
“The trip has been really good so far and positive,” Gasol started out diplomatically when asked how the travel to China may adversely affect his recovery and conditioning. “But it is exhausting. It takes a little bit of energy out of you.”
“So far, it has been positive,” the gentle giant again attempted to avoid offending his international hosts. “When we get back home, I’m sure we’ll be pretty tired, and we all look forward, I think, to get back to LA.”
If Gasol is not up to fitness at the start of the season, the Lakers don’t have much of a punch to throw with Bryant all but ruled out for opening night. Although history would advise everyone to expect Bryant returning with a vengeance, his 35-year-old body coming off a major injury and surgery does not provide any guarantees.
If Bryant has taught the fans anything over the past few seasons, it is the fact that he trusts Gasol to carry the Lakers’ load at times when the lifelong Laker is simply not able to. This season, more than ever before, Bryant will have to trust Gasol.
As Bryant would say, it’s time for Gasol to put his big boy pants on. Judging by the way he has been acting, speaking, and playing, Gasol understands.