Despite their star power, the struggles continue and have most still wondering if Pau Gasol is the team’s weakest link.
But not because he is not an amazing basketball talent; it’s simply because he has not been able to stay on the court and help his team develop the chemistry and cohesion necessary to actually make a run at the Western Conference title.
Without a healthy Gasol—one who is able to consistently stay on the court and learn how to play within his team’s new offensive system—the Lakers will continue to struggle.
With the constant shuffling of available personnel, an in-season coaching change and overhauling of offensive philosophy, the Lakers at least need the personnel to be consistent, and that simply has not been the case.
If Gasol were healthy enough to play and give meaningful minutes, maybe the Lakers could figure this thing out, but as the Feb. 21 trade deadline looms and this team is still struggling to put together wins consistently, his inability to stay on the floor has now become his biggest enemy in a race against the clock.
It’s not Gasol’s fault that, entering play on Jan. 16, he’s missed 12 games (and counting).
Over his first 11 years in the league, he missed an average of 7.5 games per season.
What's worse is he’s 32 years old and is not likely to get any more durable.
It’s also necessary to point out some of the Lakers' other issues. Mainly, the porous defense, inconsistent three-point shooting and lack of athleticism on the perimeter that have combined to make the Gasol-less Lakers go just 5-8 in games played through Jan. 15.
To be perfectly honest, with or without Gasol, the Lakers will still struggle in some key areas.
Even with him, they will struggle to stay in front of younger, quicker point guards and defending pick-and-roll penetrators.
With Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant manning the backcourt, there are some obvious concerns about staying in front of some of the conference’s quicker guards, such as Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, to name a few.
Needless to say, that problem will exist, with or with Gasol.
But if the Lakers are to get back into the playoff picture, they will need to develop some chemistry and cohesion on the offensive end. And since the team has employed a coach that does not necessarily want to alter his offense to feature two supremely talented seven-footers, there’s a dilemma over in Hollywood.
Quite simply, when healthy, Gasol is still a supremely talented basketball player. He has more championship rings than Nash, Howard and Mike D’Antoni combined. That’s no accident.
And if other general managers across the league did not believe that to be the case, the Lakers would have a hard time trying to find a taker for the 32-year-old and the approximate $30 million he’s owed over the remaining year-and-a-half of his contract.
On the contrary, there’s a robust trade market for Gasol, even as the NBA stands on the brink of the genesis of the luxury tax system as we have come to know it.
Back when the Lakers were 15-18, I said that if the Lakers lost their next three games and fell further behind in the race to make the playoffs, Gasol would be the Laker to be traded by February’s deadline.
The Toronto Raptors remain interested in him after engaging the Lakers in early December, and the Chicago Bulls would love to pair him with Derrick Rose. In particular, the former has something that D’Antoni covets—a “stretch” power forward that can hit three-pointers and help create the offensive spacing that his team needs to function the way he wants.
That would be Andrea Bargnani, though he is currently battling injury issues of his own. The Lakers would also love to bring in Ryan Anderson, but the New Orleans Hornets have been unwilling to part with him.
Gasol is a much different player than all three of those guys, so it’s no wonder he’s no natural fit for the stubborn coach and his offensive system.
Many, including yours truly, have advocated for D’Antoni to give Antawn Jamison more minutes with Howard and to play Gasol at the center spot in spurts. After all, Jamison has a jump shot that needs to be respected, and his touch from the perimeter would also go a long way toward maintaining D’Antoni’s precious floor spacing.
But again, there’s been such a lack of opportunity to test that theory out.
Through Jan. 15, D’Antoni has coached the Lakers with Nash, Bryant, Gasol and Howard all available just seven times.
In those seven games, the Lakers have compiled a 3-4 record. While that’s nothing to be happy about, it’s a very small sample size.
It may sound weird, but durability is a part of greatness. In some ways, it’s impossible to be considered great without being able to stay on the court.
Brandon Roy and Tracy McGrady know that better than anyone.
So, in some ways, it makes sense for Gasol to be looked upon as the Lakers' weakest link. At this point, it’s probably fair to say he is.
Fortunately, as of Jan. 16, the Lakers have 44 games remaining in the season, and Gasol may return to the lineup in the very near future.
By the time the NBA trading deadline rolls around on Feb. 21, the Lakers will have played 55 games. And by then, they will have made a decision regarding Gasol’s role with the team and his future.
If things remain the way they are now, he’ll have a different address by then.
Whether you agree or not, the Lakers see him as the weakest link. Until he’s able to consistently stay on the court and develop some cohesion with his club, it will be very hard to argue otherwise.