Pau Gasol Injury: Earl Clark's Emergence Shouldn't Affect Star Forward's Role
Over the first four games of Gasol's absence (especially the past three), Clark has emerged as a breakout player under coach Mike D'Antoni. He's averaging 12.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while providing an energy on both ends that was sorely needed in Los Angeles.
Some have even argued that Clark's emergence over the past few games gives credence to the theory that Gasol is the Lakers' biggest problem, personnel-wise. In fact, there are even some who feel Gasol's role should be lessened upon his return to make room for Clark in the rotation.
Well, to put it mildly, those people are wildly incorrect.
Gasol being the overarching problem for the Lakers has always been a silly, straw-man argument since the narrative began. As if he's the reason D'Antoni's squad ranks 20th in the league in defensive efficiency or that the coaching staff has decided to play him consistently away from the basket.
First and foremost, history suggests Clark's emergence may be a mere aberration. Four-game sample sizes are inherently flawed measures to begin with, but ultimately can be useful if viewed through the correct prism.
In particular, there's very little evidence to suggest Clark will continue shooting at a high percentage. A career 40 percent shooter, Clark is shooting more than 11 percent better over this short stretch.
Clark has especially stepped up his game in the one place that has vexed him throughout his NBA career: jump shooting. Despite knocking down under 30 percent of his jump shots over the course of his career, Clark is hitting 43.8 percent this season.
One could fairly surmise that playing with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant helps that total. To expect that rate to continue would be unrealistic, though. Not even Mr. Bryant himself is hitting that many of his jumpers.
Clark's rebounding numbers are more in line with what you would expect. He was considered a "tweener" forward coming out of college, which has always just been a way of saying that he was a power forward trapped in a small forward's body without actually saying it.
Dating back to his time at Louisville, Clark has always been adept at rebounding. He averaged over eight boards per night during his last two seasons with the Cardinals and his per 36-minute stats have always backed up his ability to grab the loose balls.
Before this season, Clark was averaging 7.3 rebounds per 36 minutes as a pro. That is an especially strong figure considering how pigeonholed he'd become to the traditional small forward role.
Thus far in 2012-13, that figure is up to 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. Better, yes, but enough that we should be that surprised? Not really. It will likely dip a little as Clark gets more minutes, but nowhere near as much as his jump-shooting percentage.
Clark can be a guy who excels in D'Antoni's system just like plenty of other "tweeners" have done in the past. No one is denying that. What's more, Lakers fans should hope his ascent continues. This is a team in desperate need of reliable bench-depth and Clark could provide that, assuming his stats don't atrophy.
However, to think Clark's ascent should cut into Gasol's minutes when he returns defies all logical comprehension. The assertion is simply an inane justification of an already laughable narrative.
Assuming both are healthy, who should start for the Lakers?
Gasol should play more and should start because he's a better basketball player. Even in his career-worst season, the Lakers are still four points better with him on the floor than off and his overall numbers look a whole lot like Clark's "ascent."
If you want to have a conversation about Gasol's role changing when he returns, though, that's something worthwhile.
As it stands now, Gasol is being put in a place where his struggles are almost inevitable. The fact that Gasol's most-used area on the floor comes between 16 feet out and the three-point line, per basketball-reference.com, is not a failure of the forward. It's a failure of the coaching staff to recognize the strengths of Gasol.
He's being asked to be Dirk Nowitzki without possessing the Dallas Mavericks star's skill set. Gasol is a player blessed with perhaps the best array of post skills in the NBA, not someone who should be taking 16-foot turnaround jumpers.
If Clark's emergence somehow leads to a few looks with him at the 4 and Gasol returning to a more interior role when Dwight Howard is resting, then that could work. But to make a four-game sample size the basis to put Gasol even further on the fringes of relevancy would be incredibly short-sighted.
Then again, based on what we've seen from Lakers management this season, don't go ruling it out just yet.
(All stats are up-to-date as of Jan. 15 and courtesy of basketball-reference.com)
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