New Blazer joins title pursuit
It has been a busy summer for the Trail Blazers.
For Pau Gasol, too.
The Blazers completed their training camp roster last week by signing the veteran center/forward from Spain to a one-year, $2.56 million free-agent contract.
Gasol completed his personal life by marrying his long-time girlfriend, former Southern Cal cheerleader Catherine McDonnell. Gasol, 39, and his bride, 30, were involved in a pair of wedding celebrations — on July 7 in San Francisco and July 18 near Barcelona.
Honeymoon evidently over, Gasol met with the media via teleconference from Madrid, where he is rehabbing from May foot surgery and working out with a personal trainer as he prepares for his 19th NBA season.
The 7-foot Gasol, who played in only 30 games last season with San Antonio and Milwaukee, opted for surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot in order to be prepared physically for the 2019-20 season.
"My expectations are to be completely cleared and ready to compete during training camp (in late September)," Gasol told reporters on Monday. "I decided to take the surgery when I did because it would give me a chance to be ready for training camp.
"That meant saying no to the chance to play in the (2019) playoffs, but next season was the priority, and the ability to be healthy and ready to go."
This is Portland's second courtship of the future Hall-of-Famer, who considered the Blazers and Toronto before choosing San Antonio when he was last a free agent in 2016.
"Sometimes timing is everything," Gasol said. "(Last time), the Spurs were a bit better fit. It was a hard decision. The Blazers and the Raptors were two (other) great choices. You tell yourself you can't go wrong. You give it a shot, and you give it your best."
General manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts renewed their pursuit of Gasol this summer, pitching the club's upward rise, its continuity and a history of productive play from its big men.
"They were very direct," Gasol said. "They inspired a lot of confidence. They shared the same interest they had a few years ago. That was comforting and reassuring. To me, it's about being honest, direct and trustworthy. They were both great about that."
Gasol listed several factors that convinced him to sign with Portland for what likely will be his final NBA season.
"It's a great team, one of the best in the league," he said. "Terry is one of the best coaches in the league. They're hungry. Their culture is great. It shows in the way they've been growing and with their commitment to winning. It's a city that loves basketball. Their fans are loyal and incredibly supportive of that team. I've seen that coming in as an opposing player for many years. Now I'll be able to enjoy that as a home player.
"Looking at my options, Portland was the best one, one I felt would be the most fulfilling and a great challenge for me at this point in my career."
Portland continues its tradition of signing players from Spain, beginning with the first ever to play in the NBA, forward Fernando Martin in 1986-87. The list includes Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Victor Claver. No other NBA team has had as many Spanish players.
"It's interesting, and it adds to the moment," Gasol said. "It's something that's cool and fun and special."
Gasol is expected to back up Hassan Whiteside at center and Zach Collins at power forward to begin next season. The six-time All-Star, who was Most Valuable Player at the world championships in 2006 and helped the Los Angeles Lakers to NBA titles in 2009 and '10, will provide insurance at center when Jusuf Nurkic returns at some point during the season after recovering from leg surgery.
Olshey said Nurkic is "progressing well" in his rehab and is "on or ahead of schedule" for his return, though he would't specifiy what that time line is.
There is a very real question about how much Gasol has left physically. Through his first 17 NBA seasons, he never averaged fewer than 10 points or seven rebounds. Through his injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign, he averaged 3.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 12.0 minutes. Perhaps with good health, he'll bounce back this season. Or maybe he has little left to give as a player.
The Blazers want on-court help from Gasol, but consider of equal importance the impact he can have in helping develop their young post players such as Nurkic, Collins and Skal Labissiere. That along with providing the presence of a veteran with experience and character. Gasol won the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2012 and the Magic Johnson Award for "excellence on the court and cooperation and dignity with the media and public" in 2016.
"We're incredibly fortunate to have him give to the team both on and off the court, as a mentor and as a player," Stotts said.
The mentorship role appeals to Gasol.
"Once you get to this stage of your career, it becomes a fulfilling aspect, to help out just the way veterans helped me in my growing years," he said. "I look forward to talking to the younger guys, whether in the interior or at other positions."
Gasol and CJ McCollum are members of the NBA Players Association executive board.
"I've gotten to know him a little bit in last two meetings," Gasol said. "With (Damian Lillard), we communicated during my previous free agency, and he texted me (last week) after my signing was official. He communicated his excitement about me joining the team and what I can provide. I look forward to getting to know them better and joining them to try to get a championship."
Gasol has achieved just about everything pro basketball has to offer. BasketballReference.com lists his probability of one day making the Naismith Hall of Fame at 93.3 percent. So what drives him to continue playing at age 39?
"The love for the game," he said. "The competitive spirit. To push myself to newer limits. To continue to be a part of the best league with the best players in the world, and to continue to add meaningful value on and off the court. I have a huge passion and fire for what I do. I love working my butt off to continue to do it at the highest level."
The addition of Gasol gives Portland a 14-man roster heading into camp, along with forward Jaylen Board, who is on a two-way contract, meaning he will divide time between the NBA and G-League.
Olshey said the Blazers might be open to adding a second player on a two-way deal.
It's ironic the Blazers have wound up with four players — Gasol, Whiteside, Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja — whom they have pursued in free agency in the past.
Now they have put together a group that is rich in talent and experience, with more 3-point shooting prowess and some depth at all five positions.
"We've filled some holes in areas where we were vulnerable and provided more solutions to the challenges we've had," Olshey said. "We have a good balance of established veterans and young guys who can help build the infrastructure and bring energy and excitement for the future."
All of that has come at great cost. Portland carries by far the largest payroll in the league at more than $145 million into next season, meaning owner Jody Allen will be paying luxury tax on about $13 million, with the threshold set at $132 million.
It's evidently the price of making a run at a championship. Anything less would be a disappointment, especially after adding still another valuable piece to the puzzle in Gasol.
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