MINNEAPOLIS – As Rick Adelman listed off the threats the Lakers will bring to the Target Center on Friday, he omitted one notable name.
Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Ron – well, he still calls him Ron, but he knows it’s Metta World Peace now. Not a mention of Pau Gasol, the out-of-favor and now relegated-to-the-bench big man who used to be one of the Lakers’ most cherished stars.
It was likely just a slip-up because, really, how can you mention the traveling circus that is the Lakers without even a tip of the tongue to Gasol? Or coach Mike D’Antoni, for that matter, but that’s another story. Regardless, Adelman said what he said, and there’s one player on his team who might, if he’d heard, have taken offense.
That’s Ricky Rubio, of course, the Spanish point guard who’s known Gasol for years and who’s played with him on the Spanish national team. Although it’s facile to assume that just because two players are from the same country, they’re friends, in the case of Rubio and Gasol, it actually holds. The younger point guard looks up to the veteran – “He’s amazing,” Rubio said Thursday – and the admiration goes both ways.
Now, though, with the Timberwolves organization behind Rubio 100 percent, hoping to build around him and make him the core of the franchise, the contrast between the two men’s situations could not be more visible. On the same night that Rubio made his first start since tearing his ACL on Jan. 17, Gasol was yanked from the starting lineup, the first time he’d come off the bench since March 26, 2005. The Lakers have played the 32-year-old Gasol off the bench in seven of their past eight games, not necessarily decreasing his minutes significantly but certainly issuing the requisite slap in the face. Now, it’s yet another disappointing bump in a season marred for Gasol by a losing record, a coaching change, knee problems and a bad concussion.
That litany of problems aside, Rubio, is not a fan of how the Lakers are toying with his friend, pulling him from the starting lineup and reportedly dangling him as trade bait for months.
“He’s been with the Lakers four or five years, maybe more, and he’s been a starter since Day 1,” Rubio said. “This year, it seems like it’s been last two years, it seems they don’t want him. But actually they need him, because he’s a great player.”
To Rubio, it must seem like an embarrassment of riches. To have a former All-Star and to sit him on the bench – that would never happen in Minnesota, not if he’s healthy and willing to play. Add that it’s Gasol, a respected player whom the Timberwolves have reportedly coveted for years, and that makes it even worse.
Rubio said that he’s been talking with Gasol throughout the season and that it’s been hard for the big man to deal with the trade rumors and retain his focus, no matter how much of a professional he might be.
“He proved in the league that he is one of the best,” Rubio said. “He can pass, he can shoot, he can rebound. He can do a lot of things. I think if you use him in the right way, he’s a top player on this league. If they don’t want him, we are more than welcome to get him.”
Exactly who would front the salary there remains to be seen, but it’s certain to be something of a bittersweet reunion between the two friends on Friday. The last time Gasol and company were in Minneapolis was the night of March 9, 2012, when Rubio tore his ACL. The Lakers were on their way to yet another playoff berth, another successful season, just as Rubio collapsed and with him the Timberwolves.
This time around, both teams are struggling, but Rubio is on the upswing, making steady progress while his friend is in the midst of what may be a protracted and ugly fall from Lakers grace.