The Scapegoat

Fans of sports teams can react to losing games or playoff series in a variety of ways. Emotions can range from depressed, to angry, to indifferent, or even to prideful when the team has performed better than expected. Sometimes, “we lost to the better team” is an accurate statement.

Fans can also play the blame game at times, finding faults in the officiating, coaching, play calling, specific players, or even the weather, depending on the sport. For fans of teams with high expectations, the resulting loss will usually trigger anger, followed by an immediate need to blame someone or something for the loss. With the 2010-2011 Los Angeles Lakers, the focus of fan anger has largely been directed at one man: Pau Gasol.

Gasol has had an up and down tenure with the Lakers since he was traded to them halfway through the 2007-2008 season. He started out as a savior, with fans ecstatic when Mitch Kupchak was able to trade the horrendous Kwame Brown for the all-star. He was able to pick up the triangle rather easily, and formed a quick offensive tandem with Kobe. Fresh off of two straight playoff exits to the Phoenix Suns in the first round, with Gasol the Lakers cruised through the playoffs and suddenly found themselves in the finals against the Boston Celtics.

The shiny new toy soon became defective, as Pau Gasol earned much of the blame for the series loss, and subsequently earned the dubious moniker of “soft”. Needless to say, the Lakers were playing without a healthy Andrew Bynum, were asking Pau to play out of position at center, and were expecting Gasol to essentially be a player that he isn’t. You wouldn’t expect Dirk Nowitzki, another seven footer, to be a banger down low, shot blocker, or rim protector, would you?

Gasol and the Lakers responded to the critics by winning back to back championships, and

[caption id="attachment_107" align="alignleft" width="178" caption="This version of Pau Gasol was non-existent in 2011"][/caption]

the memories and Pau’s softness fell by the wayside. He was back to being the clear second option on the Lakers, the Robin to Kobe’s Batman. The dynamic duo had fans ready and waiting for another three-peat.

When Bynum sat out the beginning of the season recovering from knee surgery, Gasol stepped back into the center position admirably, earning another all-star selection. Somewhat flying under the radar though was the fact that Gasol was averaging nearly 42 minutes a game, playing excessive minutes because of the lack of depth at the center and power forward positions. That seemed to take a toll on him, as his play slowly declined during the second half of the season. Kobe Bryant famously noted that Pau needed to be more of a "black swan" than his normal "white swan" disposition.

When the playoffs rolled around, Laker fans believed that everyone, not just Pau, would be able to "flip the switch" and turn around there recent poor play. Gasol scored just 8 points in a Game 1 loss to the Hornets though, and rather than write it off as one bad game, the blame game started early with Gasol. The "soft" label started to be mentioned again, and tabloid stories involving his girlfriend and a rift with Kobe started to make the rounds. It was a bit surprising at how quickly Pau became the center of attention and criticism this postseason.

I'm not here to give Gasol a pass and claim that everyone was being too hard on him. But I'm not here to to join the torch and pitchfork mob either. Pau was clearly physically exhausted, and seem mentally despondent during games as well. He got pushed off of the

[caption id="attachment_108" align="alignright" width="259" caption="This relationship became the center of attention"][/caption]

block all too easily, consistently fumbled easy passes and plays, and was hesitant to take outside shots. He later claimed during his exit interview after the season that the rumors had caused him some suffering off the court, and that he felt he let those emotions carry over into his play on the court.

Pau went on to say, "Everything just seemed to get bigger and heavier. Sometimes I feel like I'm an easy target."

These feelings seem somewhat justified, as Gasol became the first to be blamed, even though nearly every Laker except for Kobe and Bynum played just as poorly as Pau. Look no further than the ESPN poll only one day after the Lakers season ended: "Should the Lakers trade Pau Gasol?" Not only is the poll question telling in and of itself, but the results are a nearly unfathomable 50/50.

With Andrew Bynum being decision-maker Jim Buss' golden boy, and Gasol being under a larger contract for three more years, it's unlikely that either will be traded any time soon. But for all those fans using Pau Gasol as their scapegoat for the 2010-2011 season, just remember, we had stopped winning championships until he came along. Oh yeah, and we could still be stuck watching Kwame Brown.

- Mark Slattery Senior Writer

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