There is one thing Pau Gasol, the Spurs’ new starting center, wants to be certain the team’s fans understand: When he agreed to join the Spurs in early July it was not with the intent to be the player who replaced Tim Duncan.
Make no mistake: Barring injury, when the regular season opens against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on Oct. 25, Gasol will be filling the spot Duncan once occupied alongside LaMarcus Aldridge on the Spurs front line. But instead of replacing Duncan, Gasol had hoped to play alongside the future Hall of Fame big man who announced his retirement on July 11, a few days before the Spurs and Gasol finalized the deal that put the 7-foot Spaniard in a silver and black uniform.
“Before I made my decision I didn’t know if he was going to retire or not,” Gasol said on Monday during his first media day with his new team. “It would have been great to play with him. But things happen for a reason and I know he’s going to be around so I can talk to him and learn from him. He’s been someone who has inspired me throughout my career.”
Indeed, Duncan will be around Gasol and the rest of the team in an amorphous role that will keep him involved with the NBA team he guided to five championships in his 19 seasons. Duncan was nowhere to be seen on media day or after Tuesday’s first practice of training camp. And not even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can articulate the specific nature of Duncan’s ongoing involvement.
“I haven’t made up a title yet but his position is he is the coach of whatever he feels like,” Popovich said. “That’s what he does.”
If Duncan feels like mentoring Gasol about how to fit into Popovich’s offensive and defensive schemes, Gasol will be happy to avail himself of Duncan’s knowledge.
“It’s very hard to replace the things that he did on the floor, especially because of his presence, the way that he had in the locker room,” Gasol said. “You can’t substitute that, I think. So all of the other guys are going to have to pick up from the leadership standpoint, the presence standpoint. But at the same time we have to have our own identity and do what we can from our position. Tim has been so exceptional and unique. He’s been considered by most of us to be the best power forward that has ever played the game. So I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot that he left. But I’m here to make the best to fit in as best as I can with the guys that are here to win a title, basically. And work as hard as I can to do that.
“It’s a challenge. It’s an opportunity. It’s a privilege. But at the same time, it’s a challenge. I’m a very ambitious guy. I look for challenges like this and this is why I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity. I’m just going on working and analyzing and getting a feel to see what is the best way to help this team be better.”
Gasol is one of 12 new players in training camp and his role as Duncan’s replacement underscores the dramatic loss of what Popovich calls the corporate knowledge that made the Spurs such a smooth-running basketball machine through the 19 seasons of Duncan’s career. In particular, the loss of three veteran big men – Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner – mandates a truncated playbook and a simpler approach through the first months of the season.
“One thing that makes me feel a little bit better with that loss is Pau Gasol is a very intelligent man and he understands how to play,” Popovich said. “He’s played for a lot of good people and that’s going to help us in that loss. But having said that, it will take time to get all the new guys to understand exactly how we play and who goes with whom. But the intelligent play of Timmy and Boris was important. And Matty didn’t play that much the last year or two, but he was still there on the plane and the buses, sitting next to LaMarcus and getting him ready and talking to all of our players about how we do things. So we’ll have to make sure we do our best to do that.”
Gasol’s résumé – a 15-year career averages of 18.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, two championship rings, four-time All-NBA team selection, six-time All-Star – provides instant credibility among his most important teammates.
“Him just having two championships under his belt, being in the league and having that knowledge, I think he’ll fit right in,” said Kawhi Leonard, a first-team All-NBA pick and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. “He’s a good team guy, he wants to win, he’s very skilled so that’s the type of player we like.”
Tony Parker, who was on the same 2001-02 NBA All-Rookie team that featured Gasol, has known his new teammate since both were teenage stars in the Euroleague competition – 15-year-old Parker for France and 18-year-old Gasol for Spain.
“I think he’s going to be a great fit,” Parker said. “He’s a smart basketball player. I said the whole summer, we are lucky to sign him because losing Timmy – you can’t replace a guy like that. So at least we have Pau and LaMarcus. I think it’s going to be a great combination in the paint. He’s a great passer too, so that will fit our passing game. I think it’s mental too – he’s a proven winner.”
Top Image: Recently acquired Spurs Center Pau Gasol gives an interview in Spanish for reporters. Photo by Scott Ball.