The cheers still rain down on Pau Gasol, though not as loud as they once did, from a crowd that isn't as connected to the Lakers as they used to be. A 25-50 record will do that to you. When the Lakers patchwork starting lineup was introduced before a 124-112 loss to Portland on Tuesday (Kent Bazemore! Kendall Marshall!) Gasol elicited the strongest reaction, perhaps out of sympathy for his plight. With Kobe Bryant having pulled the ripcord on the rest of the season, Steve Nash in and out (but mostly out) of the lineup with injuries and virtually every connection to the team that won back-to-back titles four years ago gone, Gasol has managed to be a steady presence for most of the season, enduring loss after loss, beating after beating in a forgettable Lakers season. This is the kind of year a player with Gasol's pedigree might want out of. And with two weeks to go, maybe he has: A nasty case of vertigo has forced Gasol to miss five of the last six games and put him on the shelf indefinitely. Deep down, it's doubtful the Lakers care. With Bryant in street clothes, with Nash doing the medical equivalent of duct taping his body back together and with the NBA's worst roster this side of Philadelphia, the Lakers are built to lose. They have the NBA's sixth-worst record and fourth-worst point differential. They have an offense that struggles to score (21st in offensive efficiency) and a defense that can't stop anyone (28th in defensive efficiency). Fans, frankly, seem fine with it: They know the Lakers' future is brighter with a high percentage shot at Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum than a few meaningless wins. Gasol has been in the thick of this mess. Only Wesley Johnson (72), Jodie Meeks (70) and Jordan Hill (65) have played more games than Gasol (60). It's not the first time Gasol has seen a team unravel, either. In 2006-2007, Gasol was part of 22-win team in Memphis, another defenseless bunch that Gasol didn't join until 23 games into the season because of a broken foot he suffered the summer before. Gasol remembers the frustration of that season, but it doesn't compare to this. "It's a little different being with the Lakers, a franchise that is known for being successful, that has high expectations every year," Gasol said. "The good thing here is that we get sellouts, we get an extremely nice crowd of people that are supportive through this struggle. In Memphis, the stands were half empty. That was rough. We would play at home and we needed that extra energy that your fans give you. That's what we get here. It was frustrating in Memphis but it's tougher here because of the support we get." Gasol understands this car wreck of a season is probably a necessary evil for the Lakers. Bryant was never going to be Bryant, not this year anyway. And Nash's once-promising tenure with L.A. effectively ended when the effects of small fracture Nash suffered at the beginning of last season rippled through his body like a tsunami. The two-year, $48.5 million contract Bryant signed last November established the window the Lakers have to win a championship with their aging star and the only realistic way to do that is to stink bad enough to be in position to land one of the franchise-changing talents that are expected to be available at the top of the draft.
Free Agent Pau Gasol will have many options
SI | May 29