- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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One of the most compelling discussions among NBA pundits and fans is whether the Los Angeles Lakers can make a run at the Chicago Bulls' single-season record of 72 wins.
Well, allow me to introduce another topic that involves the unbeaten Lakers, one that's a more compelling discussion than whether the Lakers can outdo those Bulls.
Can Pau Gasol win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award?
Yes, I'm aware it's ridiculously early in the NBA season, but even at this premature stage, you can already see MVP possibilities beginning to form.
Surely you've noticed how Chris Paul's spectacular play has gotten the Hornets off to an unexpected 7-0 start, making them the only other unbeaten team in the NBA besides the Lakers.
Or how Rajon Rondo is serving up assists like he's a hybrid of John Stockton and Magic Johnson. As of Thursday, Rondo was averaging a league-leading 14.8 assists per game, and his 118 dimes through eight games are the second-most an NBA player has had through this point in any season.
Paul and Rondo already are being mentioned as MVP candidates. Why shouldn't Gasol be a part of that same conversation?
The Lakers are 8-0 heading into Thursday's road game against Denver, and a major reason the Lakers look as if they are about to blow through the typically tough Western Conference is because Gasol is playing the best basketball of his career.
Gasol, who is averaging 23.4 points per game and a team-high 4.8 assists, was named the Western Conference Player of the Week after the team's first three games, averaging 25.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5 assists per game. He also shot 52 percent, and the Lakers went 3-0.
And then on Sunday, Gasol notched his fourth career triple-double against Portland (20 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists). He just missed a triple-double the previous week against Phoenix (21 points, eight rebounds and nine assists).
Those are ridiculous numbers.
I asked ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler which player is his MVP at this point in the season, and without hesitation -- or knowing that I was going to write a column on Gasol -- Legler said: "Easy. Gasol."
And then I asked Legler if Gasol could win the MVP. "No way," he said, shaking his head.
Huh? Why not?
It's disappointing, but Legler is right. Despite Gasol's great start, he'll never be taken seriously as an MVP candidate because of his star teammate and the stereotypes that European players aren't tough.
The Lakers will always be Kobe Bryant's team, although Gasol's triple-double came on the same night Bryant shot 3-of-11 from the field and finished with 12 points. And when Bryant was 9-of-22 against Sacramento, Gasol had 22 points and 11 rebounds.
I'm not dogging Bryant, who is obviously one of the best players in the NBA, if not the best. But he casts a big shadow.
But here's a scenario to consider: What if the Lakers finish with the NBA's best record? Usually, the MVP is given to the best player on the best team. Bryant is obviously the Lakers' best player, but it is possible that Gasol could have a better overall season than Bryant.
Currently, Bryant is averaging less than a point per game more than Gasol.
Gasol is the only big man who ranks in the top 30 in the league in assists. He's averaging more assists per game than Chauncey Billups, who was once one of the NBA's elite point guards and remains a very good player as the starter in Denver.
Being teammates with a great player shouldn't preclude someone from winning or being strongly considered for the MVP award .
If it's possible for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to mount MVP campaigns on the same team (and if it's possible for Rondo with a lineup that includes Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and more), then why not for Gasol while playing with Bryant?
Bryant, though, is just one issue that likely will derail Gasol's MVP campaign. The other issue -- perhaps the bigger one -- is the perception that Gasol is soft.
Some people will always look at Gasol as the guy the Celtics punked in the 2008 NBA Finals, which the Celtics won in six games (he scored 11 points and had eight rebounds and two assists in the deciding game, which the Lakers lost by 39 points).
But Gasol hasn't been the same player since.
During the 2010 Lakers-Celtics Finals, the Celtics saw a different Gasol. He was tougher. Meaner. The Celtics threw multiple big men at him -- although enforcer Kendrick Perkins sat out Game 7 with a knee injury -- but Gasol refused to be knocked around. Nobody averaged more blocks and rebounds than Gasol, and only Bryant averaged more points than Gasol in the Finals.
Gasol may not have the athleticism of Dwight Howard, but he's the most complete big man in the league.
It's just too bad he won't be taken seriously as a possible MVP.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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