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Breaking Down Why Pau Gasol Isn't Sole Problem for Los Angeles Lakers

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Breaking Down Why Pau Gasol Isn't Sole Problem for Los Angeles Lakers
Harry How/Getty Images

There's little doubt that Pau Gasol's play has been problematic for the Los Angeles Lakers this season.

The four-time All-Star is in the midst of arguably the worst season of his 12-year NBA career. He's averaging fewer points (13.1) and shooting less accurately (42.3 percent from the field). As such, the Spanish giant has become an easy scapegoat amidst the Lakers' disappointing 7-8 start. 

Not that Gasol is entirely at fault, be it for L.A.'s struggles or even his own. The wear and tear of the last calendar year—between the condensed 2011-12 season, Spain's run to the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and the more customary start to the current campaign—has left Gasol to grapple with tendinitis in his knees. At 32, Gasol's seven-foot frame can no longer refresh itself quite as quickly.

The game itself hasn't been any kinder to Gasol. He's been moved further and further away from the basket during each season since the Lakers last lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2010. A quick once-over of Gasol's numbers on Hoopdata shows that he's essentially swapped out looks at the rim (the most efficient shots in basketball) for long two-point shots (the least efficient shots). SI.com's Ben Golliver was kind enough to lay it out visually.

Ben Golliver/Sports Illustrated
Last season, he essentially ceded his space in the paint to Andrew Bynum amidst Mike Brown's offense. Predictably enough, Gasol's productivity declined while Bynum, finally healthy again, earned his first All-Star and All-NBA selections. This time around, it's Dwight Howard, the best center on the planet, who's forced Gasol to the perimeter.

The same holds true for Pau on the defensive end, though not by his own team's choosing. He remains a valuable rim protector, what with his rare height and length, but he's had to bear the Lakers' brunt of the league-wide shift toward smaller, swifter power forwards.

A brunt made no less burdensome by Gasol's shaky knees and the ever-changing circumstances (coaches, teammates, roles, offensive systems) around him.

Still, the stats—be it those from NBA.com or 82games.com—suggest that Gasol's presence is as important to L.A.'s success (or lack thereof) as it's ever been. He's a gifted player who's versatile enough to make ends meet in nearly any offense, be a methodical one like the Triangle or a fast-paced one like Mike D'Antoni's.

He may not be playing up to par at present, but he's hardly alone in that regard. Howard's been ineffective at times amidst a slow recovery from back surgery. Even when Howard has looked like the dominant defensive presence of yore, his free-throw shooting (47.8 percent from the stripe) has negated some of the good he's contributed to L.A.'s cause.

The bench seemed to be showing signs of life until Tuesday's loss to the Indiana Pacers, when they combined for five points on 2-of-15 shooting. As if their 21.1 points per game—the second-worst in the NBA, per Hoops Stats—weren't paltry enough.

All told, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon have all taken turns looking like respectable role players when they haven't busied themselves stinkin' up the joint. Jordan Hill has been the most consistent reserve, but he's once again been marginalized under D'Antoni's thumb.

Darius Morris has performed admirably as a starter given the circumstances. He's a young player with some potential, but he's (obviously) not Steve Nash. The two-time MVP has been out of commission since Halloween, when a collision with Portland Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard left him with a fractured fibula.

Nash's return, whenever it comes, isn't likely to be the panacea for all of the Lakers' problems. But at the very least, it'll bring some semblance of calm to D'Antoni's offense amidst the ongoing chaos at the Staples Center.

And it'll lighten the load that Kobe Bryant is currently carrying. He's been scoring as frequently as and more efficiently than ever, but he has been turning the ball over at an alarming rate while trying to run the point.

It should also mean more open looks for Metta World Peace, who's already enjoying his best season in purple and gold. He's been aggressive on both ends of the floor and unafraid to launch from long range.

As well he should, given his 38 percent success rate.

And, of course, Nash figures to give Gasol a boost. Where once he'd have to wait patiently for an uncomfortably long two-point shot, Pau will be able to rely on Nash's ability to deliver the ball in his sweet spots and involve him in a way that's more to his liking.

But not unless Gasol does the dirty work first. For all of his recent complaints about his role, Pau understands full well that he must act against his giving nature, that he must carve out a comfortable spot on the low block if he wants to get touches in the post.

In that sense, the solutions to some of Pau's problems—and, in turn, those of the Lakers—are well within his grasp. Healthy or not, happy or not, he'd do well to force the issue from time to time, if only to remind himself and his teammates that he's there to help.

Gasol doesn't have to be Keyshawn Johnson, but he must assert himself if the Lakers are to be as successful as initially expected. And whether he's playing center or not, Gasol will be the recipient of the most censure, if only because the size of both his salary and his decline remain the most notable.

Unless of course he and the Lakers turn their respective seasons around, when, in typical Gasol fashion, he'll likely defer the credit to his teammates, if there's any for him to accept in the first place.

 

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