Commentary

Kobe Bryant's message for Pau Gasol

Updated: February 22, 2012, 1:39 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant threw down the gauntlet to Lakers management Sunday afternoon, telling those in charge to do one of two things: (1) trade Pau Gasol or (2) don't. Their call. It is assumed that Mitch Kupchak and his guys already knew their options on this one, but Bryant is there for them, just in case.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Pau Gasol
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesIt would be hard to interpret Kobe Bryant's comments on Sunday as an embrace of Pau Gasol.

Set aside for the moment whether Bryant should have said what he said. Set aside whether he's right. Set aside the possibility that Gasol's problems extend beyond the external issues of trade talk, and that something internal -- say, Kobe's near-pathological insistence on taking every possible shot -- is part of his big sag.

There could be something deeper at work here.

The headlines dwell on the Kobe-rips-management angle, suggesting that Kobe's message had just one audience. On its face, that's a legitimate interpretation. Kobe is tired of the talk surrounding Gasol, and everybody involved would be better off if Kupchak either traded Gasol or stopped talking about it.

But it seems to me the true target of the message was Gasol himself.

"It's hard for Pau because of all this trade talk and all this other stuff; it's hard for him to kind of invest himself completely or immerse himself completely into games when he's hearing trade talk every other day."

What do you hear in those words? Is Kobe really telling the Lakers -- through the media -- that the trade either needs to be made now or not made at all? (His preference, he said, was for Gasol to stay.) Or is he not-so-indirectly addressing not only management but also Gasol and his effort?

Because if what Kobe said was meant to be a defense of Gasol, then Pau needs a new lawyer. Most people, whether they play for the Lakers or not, probably feel that a guy making more than $18 million a year (as Gasol is) can put aside the rumblings from the front office and manage to give an undivided effort a few times a week. There's no question that these guys aren't robots, and ancillary events undoubtedly play a role in what happens on our fields and courts, but we've found a new definition of "sensitive" if Gasol's attention on the court somehow drifts in and out because Kupchak might be talking to the Bulls about Carlos Boozer. Could it bother him when he's sitting at home pondering his future? Sure. But on the court? Let's just say a business as public as the NBA is a tough business for someone with skin that thin.

(The weird thing is, Gasol's performance doesn't seem to reflect an uninvested, nonimmersed Pau. He seems to be about what he always is -- roughly 17 points and 11 boards -- and he's doing it on 10 fewer shots a game than Bryant. Sometimes it's hard to look completely invested and immersed when you're posting up for the pass that never comes. Maybe it came to a head Sunday because Gasol reportedly was busted by Lakers coach Mike Brown on the team plane Sunday morning. Gasol's offense? Looking up trade rumors on his laptop. Which, if true, is kind of weird.)

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Pau Gasol
Garrett W. EllwoodPau Gasol is contributing at about his career average for the Lakers this season.

There's no denying the brilliance of Bryant's approach. (Although the Zapruder-like appearance of the postgame video makes it seem a little less calculating and more spur-of-the-moment.) He can address his comments to management much more easily than he can to Gasol, and this way the message gets to all the right people while potentially annoying only those with whom Kobe doesn't share the court. But given that there hasn't been that much Gasol-trade talk since the demise of the Chris Paul deal -- not even on Pau's laptop, presumably -- it's safe to assume the message was meant mostly for his teammate.

Bryant has his faults, but his basketball acumen isn't in question -- and neither is his desire. You've got to believe this issue -- fully investing under duress -- is close to Kobe's heart. He has played through personal and professional issues his entire career, maybe more than any other player in the Internet era: rape allegations, the Shaq stuff, divorce -- yet his intensity seems to rise in relation to the severity of the scrutiny. He's the savant of stress, able to use distractions as an accelerant.

Judging by his words, he doesn't see the same qualities in Gasol right now. He might think a vote of confidence from management is the solution to the problem, or maybe he believes such a vote will settle -- once and for all -- the issue of whether Gasol remains a viable candidate to share his court.

In the end, the headlines were right; Kobe was directing his message at Lakers management. But what he was saying was this: Gasol is unable to play through distractions. In Kobe's world, there is no worse indictment.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of "Pawn Stars"' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available on Amazon.com, as well. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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