Lakers leaning on Gasol Ball
Pau's intellectual approach has boosted L.A. in Kobe's absence
But now that we've seen how the team looks with Gasol as No. 1, with Bryant out of the lineup the past three games, how would you rank the current Lakers' leadership styles?
The Gasol-led Lakers enter the All-Star break on an impressive three-game winning streak against Portland, San Antonio and Utah -- three teams primed to be Western Conference playoff squads.
While Bryant sat in the locker room receiving treatment on his sprained left ankle Wednesday, Gasol carried the team on the court, racking up 22 points, 19 rebounds, four assists and five blocks, in a 15-point win over Utah, a team riding a nine-game winning streak coming into the game.
Gasol's strong performance followed a 12-point victory over San Antonio in which his 21 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists and five blocks comprised a stat line only five players in the history of the NBA have achieved -- Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal.
The game before that -- the Lakers' first without Bryant -- Gasol had 13 points and eight rebounds, and L.A. won by 17 points in snapping a nine-game losing streak at the Rose Garden.
Gasol ball is working for the Lakers.
"I tried to step up and understood how we needed to play," Gasol said late Wednesday.
He undoubtedly puts his stamp on every performance, but his style is so subtle you hardly recognize he's serving as the linchpin.
When Bryant is not on the court, Gasol's play indicates it's his team, but his demeanor lets everybody feel free to get in on the act.
Against the Jazz, the offense started through Gasol in the post and flowed through everyone else's hands. Four Lakers had three or more assists.
"Pau demonstrated his leadership off of the post and how he can control a game going into the post and control the tempo," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
One of Gasol's assists came on a defensive rebound. He dribbled up-court and fed Shannon Brown for a fast-break dunk. Another was a kick outside to Josh Powell. And he found Brown twice more, on a backdoor cut and another slam.
"I make sure that I try to make the right play out there so my teammates trust when they give me the ball, if they're open they're going to get it," Gasol said.
It's a simple concept that keeps the offense lubricated, and it only comes with letting go of ownership of the team and playing with a certain amount of ease.
When Bryant is on the court, it is most definitely Kobe's team. He is the one controlling the ball. He is the one commanding double-teams. He is the one demanding perfection from his teammates when he gives them the ball, and his drive seems to border on an obsession with winning.
Gasol has the same desire, but shows it differently. His style is more democratic but no less intense.
"I don't think people really understand his will to win," Lamar Odom said. "Maybe that's because he plays finesse. If he beat his chest every play and dunked it all the time, people would be like, 'Oh, he's a fierce competitor.' But when he first came here, the first thing I noticed was how much he wanted to win. And he obviously proved it."
When Gasol was called for a three-second violation in the third quarter because Brown took too long to feed him an entry pass from the wing, Gasol broke into an exasperated smile and trotted up the court. I've seen similar mental mistakes by the Lakers elicit the old stink face from Bryant.
When Bryant has a play go against him, he often slaps his hands together in disgust, as if he's clanging giant cymbals, and shakes his head at a referee for not making the call in his favor.
When D.J. Mbenga checked in for Gasol at one point Wednesday, the Spaniard held his hand out for Mbenga to slap, but "Congo Cash" ran onto the court without noticing the gesture. Instead of sheepishly recoiling his arm, Gasol slapped his own hand sarcastically.
"There's no doubt that they appreciate his style," Jackson said. "He's not an in-your-face type of a player. The intellectual level that he approaches the game with I think works well for our team."
Gasol is second to Bryant in scoring (17.1 points per game to Bryant's 28.0) and second in salary ($16.4 million to $23.0); he's the All-Star substitute, while Bryant's the All-Star starter; and he finished with the silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Bryant's gold; but he's no Sancho Panza to Bryant's Don Quixote.
His approach is subtle, not simple.
"It's been all about playing hard and playing together," Gasol said. "It's been a beautiful thing. I think every single guy out there has enjoyed the way we've been playing."
But neither Bryant's nor Gasol's leadership style stands as well on its own as it does when the players collaborate.
Jackson had to call an early fourth-quarter timeout because Gasol had committed three turnovers in the Lakers' first six possessions. The Lakers led by 14 at the time and Gasol was largely responsible for the margin, but Jackson lit into him during the timeout for losing focus.
"I felt we could have improved our lead instead of just treading water at that time," Jackson said. "Those are the areas where I want him to be a little more precise about what he does."
That's why Jackson recently called Bryant the "X factor that wins ballgames," and why just about everyone else in the league calls him the game's ultimate closer.
Gasol's leadership opens things up for the team.
Bryant's leadership does the closing.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.