Los Angeles Lakers Must Use Pau Gasol as a Playmaker, Not as a Novelty
From Lakers PR: Pau Gasol will not play tomorrow night against the Bucks.— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 14, 2013
It'll be the fifth game in a row that Gasol has missed since suffering a concussion during a 112-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets, and the 13th overall in the 2012-13 NBA season from which Pau has been absent on account of injury. LA's 113-93 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 13th moved their record to 4-8 sans Gasol.
Not that he's been all that present for them this season to begin with. A long summer spent carrying Spain to the gold medal game of the 2012 London Olympics, combined with the wear-and-tear inflicted by Father Time, left Pau's knees in a sorry state to start the season.
Though, really, his continued dip in productivity likely has had plenty to with his, errr, "evolving" role within the Lakers' offense, as well. Prior to his most recent run of DNPs, Gasol was posting career lows in points (12.2), field-goal attempts (11.2) and field-goal percentage (.416), and was averaging his fewest rebounds (8.4) since 2007-08, when he made his debut in Purple and Gold.
As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry is often keen to note, a precipitous decline in field-goal accuracy by any prominent player typically has as much to with where the shots are coming as it does with how he's shooting them, if not more so. This particular theorem holds true in Gasol's case.
According to Hoopdata, Gasol is attempting significantly fewer shots per game between the rim and 15 feet out than he ever has since at least 2006-07, and certainly since he's been a Laker. All the while, his average attempts from between 16 and 23 feet and from behind the three-point line continue to climb.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist, then, to pinpoint at least one solvable cause behind Gasol's cratering percentages over his years in LA. The Lakers' need to create space in the middle for another low-block big (Andrew Bynum, and now Dwight Howard) along with Pau's own skill from the high post have left the slender Spaniard to scrap for little more than long twos (i.e. the least efficient shot in basketball), forgettable threes and the occasional putback.
If, for whatever reason, he winds up next to the basket in the first place.
Make no mistake—to leave Pau to launch long jumpers is to waste his prodigious talents in tragic and all-too-public fashion. Fortunately for the Lakers, head coach Mike D'Antoni finally seems to realize this, at least to some extent. When asked about Gasol's role on the team on January 12th, D'Antoni told Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News:
There's going to be a lot of changes. We have to try to do everything. If that works, we'll do it in a heartbeat.
[Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss and I] talked about [playing Gasol inside] but they let me coach. It's pretty evident we'd like to get him more touches down there.
As well it should be. After all, the guy's seven feet tall and has done plenty to prove in the past that he can dominate in the low post, be it as a scorer or as a facilitator. His four All-Star selections—three as a Laker—were the byproducts of such play.
What should the Lakers do with Pau Gasol when he returns?
To be sure, getting Gasol back on track while doing the same for the Lakers on the whole isn't as simple as plunking Pau in the low post. There's not enough room in the middle for Gasol and Dwight Howard to share comfortably, and Pau is the only one of the two whom anyone would trust to hit a jumper. Also, at 32, Gasol's bruised body may not be up to the task of engaging in physical contact in the paint so frequently.
Then again, Gasol will always be tall, and his declining quickness and foot speed doesn't figure to be of such grave concern if he's closer to the cup. As to the conundrum of having two towers on the court at once, D'Antoni can always stagger minutes between Gasol and Howard. When Dwight's on the bench, it could (and probably should) be Pau's prerogative to demand touches down low and go to work scoring and rebuilding his confidence thereabouts.
D'Antoni, of all people, should know what Gasol can do on the block. Mike D was sitting courtside as an assistant coach with Team USA when Pau punished Tyson Chandler and company in the paint to singlehandedly keep Spain in the hunt for the gold medal in men's basketball at the most recent Olympics.
And when time and score demand that D'Antoni feature Gasol and Howard together, the coach can always employ the former's skill as a passer to set up the latter from the high post.
There's no simple solution to this particular problem, which currently stands as one of all too many for the woebegone Lakers. There's also no telling how much longer Gasol will be out of action with this latest bout of head trauma.
(As if the years-long battering of his fragile ego weren't enough.)
But—at 16-21, a full four games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and with 45 games to go—time is of the essence for the Lakers in their search for sturdy solutions. Using Gasol less as a "stretch four" and more as a man of the middle may not be the panacea the Lakers have been looking for, though there's clearly reason to believe that such a move could, to some extent, re-energize him.
And, in turn, the team as a whole.
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