Mike D'Antoni has long been lauded as a creative offensive mind—a basketball genius, even. Once upon a time, he turned Shawn Marion into an All-Star as an undersized power forward, Amar'e Stoudemire into a superstar as a pick-and-roll big man, Steve Nash into a two-time MVP and the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns into legitimate NBA title contenders.
Not right now, of course. Gasol's stuck in limbo with tendinitis in his knees at the moment. He sat out the Lakers' 107-105 loss to the Houston Rockets and is expected to miss visits to the New Orleans Hornets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, if not more dates thereafter.
The tall, slender Spaniard can only hope he'll have a more appropriate part to play in LA's latest drama when he returns to the court. According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has already conveyed to Pau's people that the four-time All-Star had better get with D'Antoni's program. Otherwise, the team will have little choice but to send him packing.
Kobe Bryant has expressed a similar sentiment in a decidedly more public manner of late. As he told the attendant media after LA's 113-103 home loss to the lowly Orlando Magic (via Ramona Shelburne): "Put your big-boy pants on. Just adjust. Just adjust. You can't whine about it. You can't complain about it...You have to master what it is that we're trying to do here and Pau is talented enough and he's good enough to be able to do that."
Bryant has seemingly softened his stance since (again, via Ramona Shelburne):
I love Pau like a brother. I really do. I want him to dominate like I know he can...I want him to dig in and be determined, not discouraged. We should go to him more on the post because he can dominate from there as he has to the tune of two rings. I'm sure we will adjust and figure out a balance when he comes back healthy.
Is Kobe confused? Is he conflicted? One night, he's publicly invoking a phrase that he so often repeats (albeit privately) in a matter that, on the surface, seems mean-spirited and unfair. And, at the same time, he's pushing Pau to play D'Antoni's way.
A day-and-a-half later, he sounds like he's pulled a 180. Now, he wants Gasol to play his game and D'Antoni to tweak his system accordingly. He wants D'Antoni, a coach known for his aversion to stagnant post play in the half court, to let Pau be Pau on the low block.
On the one hand, such an expectation would appear to put Pau squarely on a different block—the chopping one. D'Antoni's system thrives with versatile, often undersized forwards who can spread the floor with their shooting ability, create mismatches and open up driving lanes for cutters and space for the pick-and-roll.
To his credit, Gasol is a skilled offensive player who can pass from the high post and shoot out to long two-point range, as the chart below illuminates.
But by no means is that (typically) the strength of Gasol's game. He's a post player above all else, and a darn good one at that. Few players of any size in the NBA today sport as deft an understanding of how to play with their respective backs to the basket, be it as scorers or as facilitators, as Gasol does and has for some time.
Yet, since Mike Brown first came to town prior to the 2011-12 season, Pau, a natural center, has been forced to masquerade as a power forward. Last season, it was in service of Andrew Bynum, who lifted his game to an All-Star level amidst improved health and a more prominent role in the paint under Brown.
This time around, Gasol's been asked to sacrifice his sweet spots for Dwight Howard, whom the Lakers acquired by dumping Bynum in August. As the argument goes, Howard is the future of the franchise and, with his free agency looming, must be convinced that LA is the place to be. Ergo, it's on Pau to step away from the basket and give up his minutes as part of a team-wide effort to make Dwight happy.
As a result, Pau has been forced to shift his shot selection away from the rim (highly efficient) and toward long-two range (not so much).
On the other hand, this would suggest that D'Antoni needs to rethink his own strategies if this experiment is going to work. At his age (32), with his salary ($19 million this year, $19.3 million next year) and shoddy knees, Gasol isn't exactly an attractive asset on the trade market. The Lakers would have to part ways with Pau for pennies on the proverbial dollar if they were to do so at all; their lack of available draft picks to sweeten the pot practically guarantees as much.
Doing so would also come at the expense of an already volatile team chemistry. Between barbs and jabs, Kobe has never been one to withhold his affection for Gasol as a teammate. He wouldn't likely be at all pleased to see his partner in crime, a player with whom he's enjoyed such tremendous success, shipped out on a whim.
Neither would Steve Nash. To be sure, Nash has hardly been caught in the same jersey as Gasol on account of a fractured fibula. But according to NBA insider Ric Bucher, Pau's presence was a prerequisite to Steve leaving the Phoenix Suns for the hated Lakers in July.
Nash's return has been touted by many in Purple and Gold (D'Antoni included) as a panacea for the team's problems. In particular, the benefits of Nash Equilibrium are expected to make a healthy Pau a happy Pau as well. He'll get more shots in his comfort zones, and the infectious nature of Nash's passing will render Gasol more amenable to sharing.
But even if you put as much faith in a 38-year-old point guard whose minutes (and athleticism) are decidedly limited as D'Antoni does, Gasol's fate—and, in turn, that of the Lakers—ultimately falls on the shoulders of the coach. Kobe can chide Pau all he wants, but the big fella's not going to be at his best, healthy or otherwise, launching 20-footers and trying to make quick cuts to the rim on old, slow legs.
Mike D may be a revolutionary in the world of basketball, but he doesn't need to reinvent the wheel to get a player as gifted as Gasol (and a team as talented as the Lakers) back on the right track.
What should the Lakers do about Pau Gasol once he's healthy?
The solution? Incorporate some of Phil Jackson's old blueprint. Give Gasol more touches in the post. Let him butter his bread from time to time, even if such isn't the staple of the Lakers' offense that it was just two or three years ago. When Dwight sits, put Pau on the block and run some of the half-court sets through him.
D'Antoni doesn't have to relinquish the reins of his uptempo approach entirely. But he would do well to adapt his system to his personnel, to accentuate the strengths (and minimize the weaknesses) of the players he has at his disposal.
That includes Pau, whose strengths as a low-post big man and weaknesses as a perimeter player on both ends of the court are apparent.
That is, assuming D'Antoni would prefer to use his tenure with the Lakers to advance himself as something more than "just" an innovator.