Unless the goal is winning 40 games or so and eventually bowing out in the playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder or Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers must figure out how to build Pau Gasol’s confidence back up and allow him to be a productive player under head coach Mike D’Antoni.
At this point, most NBA fans are familiar with the type of offensive system that D’Antoni runs. His belief, at the end of the day, is that a successfully executed pick-and-roll is an “unguardable” play, so long as the personnel fits.
It all starts with a point guard who is capable of reading and reacting to opposing defenses and making good decisions with the basketball.
As long as D’Antoni’s team has that, he believes that the point guard can successfully orchestrate an offense no matter how the defense reacts to the bread and butter of the coach’s system—the pick-and-roll.
Generally, there are three ways to play the ball handler on a pick-and-roll.
Option one is for the defense to trap the ball handler. A successful trap occurs when the defender that’s guarding the ball-handler fights over the screen set by the screen setter and the screen setter’s defender abandons the screen setter and double teams the ball-handler.
The second option is for the ball-handler’s defender to “fight over” the top of the screen and attempt to stay in front of the ball-handler, regardless of the fact that there’s a screen being set on the defender.
The third option is for the ball-handler’s defender to “go under” the screen, essentially giving the ball-handler exactly what the offense wants—space to operate.
A fourth option is for the defenders to switch, but switching is frowned upon by many NBA coaches because of the options on the pick-and-roll, switching most often results in defensive mismatches and easy baskets.
Executing a pick-and-roll is an attack, and how the defense reacts to that attack is what D’Antoni wants his team to exploit. In terms of personnel, in order for his system to work, he needs a big front-line player who can serve as the primary screen setter and finisher at the basket. In the case of the Lakers, that would be Dwight Howard, just like it was Amar'e Stoudemire previously for Nash.
Along with the point guard and the primary front-line screen setter, D’Antoni prefers the three other position players on the floor to be able to shoot from behind the three-point line, primarily from two spots on the court referred to as the “slot” or the “corner.”
The reason for this is because the success of the pick-and-roll and the multitude of options that result from it will only be available to the ball-handler if there is adequate floor spacing and if each of the five players on the court command the respect of the defense.
And therein lies the problem with Gasol. D’Antoni cannot properly utilize his diverse skill set, and seeing as to how Gasol is arguably one of the most skilled seven-footers in the NBA, it’s seems unreal.
But it is.
Gasol has gone on the record and complained about his lack of post touches, and even before he was sidelined with knee tendinitis, his role was diminishing in favor of Antawn Jamison. That’s because Jamison has the ability to stretch defenses and make three-pointers—something Gasol isn’t capable of doing.
And even as we inch closer toward Gasol’s return—which is expected to be on Dec. 22 when the Lakers play the Golden State Warriors in Oakland—his confidence is at an all-time low because he has a coach that he knows doesn’t value his game.
The most obvious solution to the problem is to trade Gasol and the two players that are said to be high on the Lakers' wish list are players that would fit into D’Antoni’s offensive scheme and do a better job of being productive power forwards than Jamison.
Of course, neither Bargnani or Anderson are regarded as good defensive players, and the Lakers' biggest deficiency at the moment is their inability to stay in front of explosive perimeter players.
Trading Pau Gasol won’t solve their problems.
The only hope for these Lakers at this time is for D’Antoni to find a way to utilize Gasol’s offensive versatility and give him an opportunity to play with Steve Nash. Over the course of his career, Nash has made everyone around him better, so it stands to reason that he can effectively play with Gasol, as well.
As far as the Lakers reserves are concerned, Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre and Earl Clark are the only reserves that D’Antoni has that are capable of spelling Howard, but none of those three are worthy of being trusted down the stretch of big games.
With Howard’s well-documented struggles from the free-throw line, Gasol would give D’Antoni an alternative to Howard down the stretch of close games. But the long-term relationship between Gasol, the Lakers and D’Antoni will only work if the coach is able to harness Gasol’s talents and fully utilize him on the offensive end.
We’ve seen the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan and David Robinson win two championships together, the Sacramento Kings with Chris Webber and Vlade Divac come close and Lionel Hollins, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol rise to the top of the NBA’s Western Conference.
Building a successful offensive scheme with two dominant post players is possible. Double-screens, isolation and playing each at center in different spurts would all help.
In the end, D’Antoni’s reliance on the three-point shot is what is at odds with the continued thriving of Gasol.
Since D’Antoni coached his first game with the Lakers on Nov. 20, through Dec. 16, the team has attempted 27.2 three-pointers per game. The only team that attempts more per game is the New York Knicks (29.4).
For contrast, in the Lakers' first five games under Mike Brown this season, the team averaged 18.4 attempts per game.
In Brown’s only full season with the team, 2011-12, the Lakers attempted 18.1 three-pointers per game and under Phil Jackson in 2010-11, 18.1.
In the two years the Lakers won the NBA Finals—2010 and 2009—they attempted 19 and 18.5 threes per game, respectively.
With the talent at D’Antoni’s disposal and with the versatility and skill that Gasol possesses, the team must build his confidence back up and turn him into a valuable piece of its rotation.
Alongside Kobe Bryant, Gasol helped deliver the Lakers two championships. That’s more than coach D’Antoni can say, so jettisoning Gasol hardly seems to be the answer.