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Gasol signing is forward thinking

12/24/2009

Yankees skipper Joe Girardi chose to wear No. 27 as a daily reminder of the 27th championship his team was striving for. The Yankees won. It worked. And Girardi is switching to No. 28 next season.

Lakers forward Pau Gasol happens to wear No. 16.

Should the Lakers defend their title this season it will be championship number -- you guessed it -- 16 for the franchise.

Gasol can't copy Girardi's next move should the Lakers win it all again, though, because Andrew Bynum already wears No. 17. And he can't be even more ambitious and go with No. 18, because that belongs to Sasha Vujacic.

No worries. No. 19 is available.

After Wednesday's announcement that Gasol has signed a contract extension believed to be worth about $57 million over three years, he might as well switch to No. 19 if the Lakers win this June because he's guaranteed to be around long enough to make a run at that greedy goal.

Wait, if the Lakers already won No. 15 last season -- and two in a row would be No. 16 this season -- then if they get to 19 it would be, gulp, five championships in a row?

"I'm very thankful for [the Lakers' organization] putting all this trust in me and keeping the group and the unit that we have here going on for many years to come and hopefully many championships to come," Gasol said.

Gasol sounds at least somewhat open to the idea. "Many" isn't a word you use to describe one or two. He seems to be entertaining the idea of the three-to-four territory.

"I'm just thrilled that I'll be able to spend at least my next five years with this great organization, with my teammates and with this great city and community," Gasol said, breaking out into a grand smile.

The only team in NBA history to win more than three championships in a row was the Boston Celtics, winning eight straight from 1959 to 1966.

If Kobe Bryant follows Gasol's lead in signing an extension, L.A. will have the core in place to make a legitimate run at four rings in a row, or half of Boston's total, at least.

Ron Artest is signed through 2011-12 with a player option for 2012-13 and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom are both signed through 2011-12 as well, with team options for 2012-13.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said that the team "continues to have dialogue" with Bryant and his agent, Rob Pelinka, but didn't indicate that a deal was on the verge of being agreed to or anything. However, Kupchak did say, "I've always felt that Kobe began his career in Los Angeles and that he should and would end his career in Los Angeles."

Bryant cares too much about winning to even think about bolting for more money elsewhere, and that's why Gasol left money on the table when signing his deal to give management more flexibility in retaining the rest of the roster, Bryant included.

"I'd like to thank Pau for working with us on the extension and working out some parameters that will help us in our attempt to keep this team together for the years to come," Kupchak said.

Gasol was just as grateful toward the organization.

"It's a matter of making sure that the team will have the foundation for this next few years to come to be able to be as competitive as we can possibly be," Gasol said. "That's why I have to be so thankful to the Buss family to be able to put this kind of investment down because again, we do have such a high payroll already."

Despite the hefty payday, which Kupchak described as a "nice Christmas present for everyone involved," Gasol brings a considerable amount of value to the team.

The Lakers are 101-23 (.815) in the regular season since acquiring Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 1, 2008, and the 7-footer is averaging 17.6 points on 54.3 percent shooting with 12.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.8 blocks this season -- numbers that should assure him his second-straight All-Star Game appearance.

"I've improved [since becoming a Laker]," Gasol said. "I think I've matured a lot. I understand better what I can do and I'm at a good age. They say that at 28 is when you get in your prime, mentally and physically, and I see that that's actually happening."

Not only are the Lakers securing an elite player in his prime, but they are keeping someone whom they view as a perfect fit for the system they run.

"There's a lot of really good big men in the league and you can poll general managers and fans across the country and come up with different rankings," Kupchak said. "But I feel comfortable saying with the way we play and the players that we have on our team, I can't imagine a better big player in the NBA right now to play for us than Pau."

While dubbing Gasol the best big man in the game today might seem hyperbole at first, can you think of a more natural match for the Lakers?

Could Amare Stoudemire make the intricate passes it takes to play the high-low, two-man game that Gasol does with Bynum so easily?

Could Yao Ming's body be able to sustain a playoff run deep into June, when it has previously broken down in May, April or even sooner?

Could you see Bryant willingly throwing the ball down to the post on a late possession to, say, Dwight Howard, and not keeping it for himself when he knows that Howard's just-north-of-50 percent free throw percentage comes attached like a sidecar to his Harley Davidson frame?

"He's been a blessing to me," Bryant said about his teammate with whom he shares such a good chemistry that they'll often speak together in Spanish on the court so nobody else can understand them.

"I can't say enough about him. I give him a hard time all the time but he knows how much I love him. I appreciate him. I think he's probably underappreciated to a certain extent, that's for sure."

Maybe underappreciated by the league at large, but not by the Lakers.

By locking up the big man, they are making a clear commitment to winning, as Gasol puts it, "many" more championships.

And if it all works out, I'm pretty sure Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw will have no problem if Gasol wants to wear the gunner's old jersey number and switch to No. 20 when L.A. goes for five in a row in 2013-14.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.