Let me be perfectly clear about the purpose of this article: I have a tremendous affinity for Pau Gasol's basketball game. He is still one of the most skilled players in the game, bar none. In most circumstances, his return would not even require a second thought to the starting lineup.
But this is not most circumstances.
This 2013 Lakers team has proven to be something akin to a frustrated fisherman who appears to reel in his prize, only to see it slip away time and time again. Every time this team seems to progress toward what they are seemingly capable of, there is another calamity that pushes them further away.
Well, the last couple of games, while not against elite competition by any means, has still demonstrated how good the Lakers can be. And it has happened in no small part due to the insertion of Earl Clark into the starting lineup gives the Lakers something they were definitely lacking earlier in the season: a sense of balance.
What do you think: Should Earl Clark or Pau Gasol start going forward?
Clark is not Pau Gasol. But what he is might be more important to this team going forward. Clark is athletic—something the Lakers lack outside of Dwight Howard. He plays off of Howard better and most of all, he brings a tangible energy and effort that Los Angeles has only seen consistently from the Clippers this NBA season.
In other words, he is a better fit.
That's been the 'secret' of the NBA for as long as it has existed and something notorious Laker hater Bill Simmons famously interviewed Isiah Thomas about. You don't win with the five best players. You win with the five players that fit best together.
In short, Gasol and Howard simply do not mesh. And truthfully, Laker fans and management should've seen this at the end of the 2012 season. A slowed Gasol was basically cast off the block by Andrew Bynum and began to see his production decline. It has only been more pronounced with Howard's acquisition.
Gasol is still a very good player. Yes, he has slipped. But that is precisely why a move to the bench would be so beneficial.
As the backup center/power forward, Gasol recaptures his coveted pivot space that has been lost all year. He instantly becomes the Lakers' best playmaker on the bench and is easily the best scoring option in terms of potential efficiency.
But—and I don't know if people are really saying this enough—there is a real necessity now for that slot with the season-ending injury to Jordan Hill. With all due apologies to Robert Sacre, he's a late second-round pick for a reason. Clark's value isn't as notable playing alongside Sacre, Antawn Jamison and Chris Duhon as it is with Kobe Bryant, Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace.
So why exactly is Mike D'Antoni so hesitant to make this seemingly logical move?
My theory is that he has a gauge of the often sensitive and internalized nature of Gasol and does not want to risk seeing the Spaniard go adrift. Make no mistake—with no trades on the horizon, the Lakers need a productive Gasol regardless of where/when/how much he plays.
At the same time, this is a business move, nothing personal. If there is any truth to my hypothesis, it is silly and gives credence to the fractured nature of this Laker team.
In other words, with Gasol coming back, wins will have to keep coming to serve as a deodorant. Truthfully, this team doesn't have much more time to deal with any more real adversity. To avoid Oklahoma City in the first round (because I do think they will be the number one seed out West), I project the Lakers needing to win 46 games. That means they would have to go 29-15 the remainder of the season.
Are they capable? Yes. Have they proven it? Absolutely not.
Even though I wrote (and still believe) yesterday that the showdown with Miami is not that large in the scheme of things, a bad loss with Gasol starting only further serves to make him a scapegoat. At this phase of the season, the Lakers need all the harmony and function they can get.
That is precisely why they shouldn't be messing with a good thing in the first place.