A flood of emotions could hit Kobe Bryant soon. This time, the sentiments will prove much deeper than soaking in one of his last remaining games in his 20th and final NBA season.
When the Lakers (9-38) host the Chicago Bulls (25-19) on Thursday at Staples Center, Bryant and Pau Gasol will square off against each other for the time since he left the Lakers nearly two years ago.
That sparked Bryant to express gratitude over Gasol helping him win two NBA championship and make three NBA Finals appearances during his 6½ seasons with the Lakers after the franchise acquired him in February of 2008 in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.Bryant called Gasol a “fantastic player” and “one of the best post players of all time.” But Bryant also argued “the city of LA didn’t really appreciate” Gasol’s contributions partly because of reduced roles under Mike Brown (2011-12) and Mike D’Antoni (2012-14) and being connected to endless trade talk.
“Everybody kind of fell in line with the Mike D’Antoni rhetoric of small ball and all this other [expletive],” Bryant said. “For a guy that has two championships to be treated that way, you don’t do that, man.”
The Lakers originally traded Gasol on Dec. 8, 2011 to the Houston Rockets as part of the deal that would land Chris Paul from the former New Orleans Hornets. But former NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal and Gasol stayed with the Lakers. Then, Gasol played a facilitating role behind Andrew Bynum to accommodate his emergence under Brown. In the 2012-13 season, D’Antoni tried to feature Gasol as a so-called stretch forward, including off the bench, both to accommodate Dwight Howard and to tap into his fast-paced system that prioritizes 3-point shooting. Gasol chafed at D’Antoni’s skepticism on post play.
During those two years, Gasol became linked in endless trade proposals both leading into the NBA trade deadline and free agency. But Gasol’s eventual exit from the Lakers entailed signing with the Chicago Bulls last summer to a three-year deal at over $22 million. Gasol has averaged 16.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks this season with the Bulls.
“I thought it was really silly,” Bryant said about Gasol’s role. “I felt bad for him going through that stuff. That’s why I defended him so much.”
After all, Bryant remembered how his initial partnership led to nothing but euphoria.
He vividly remembered talking with Gasol for about 30 to 40 minutes at their hotel room on Feb. 2008 after shortly after the Lakers acquired him in a trade from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers secured a 15-point win over the former-New Jersey Nets on the road, where Gasol’s debut entailed posting 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting along with 12 rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes. Bryant mused, “the rest was history” as he quickly offered a prediction to former Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
“As soon as [Pau] caught the ball and he finished it, I ran back to the bench and said, “Yes Phil, we got a big that can catch and finish!” Bryant said. “We’re going to the Finals!’ Phil looked at me and started laughing. But I was dead ass serious.”
After all, Bryant had grown increasingly frustrated before Gasol’s arrival. After trading Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in 2004, the Lakers missed the NBA playoffs the following season. The Lakers then fell in consecutive first-round exits to Phoenix. In the 2007 offseason, Bryant then questioned the Lakers’ front office and demanded a trade.
The Lakers eventually made their blockbuster move by acquiring Gasol from Memphis for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the rights to Pau’s brother Marc, who the Lakers drafted with a second-round pick in 2007.
“I got the guy I can really scheme with,” Bryant said. “Then the rest of the guys can fall in line from that. His intellect made him most dangerous.”