What's wrong with Pau Gasol? It's a question that many Los Angeles Lakers fans have asked themselves this season, as their team has fallen to 17-25 and are far outside the Western Conference playoff race.
For a team that many considered an NBA championship favorite, this is obviously unacceptable. The team has already been coached by three men this season, and only one (Bernie Bickerstaff) has come away with a winning record.
It's a circus-like mess, ripe with in-fighting, bad coaching and lazy defense. But at least some of the Lakers' struggles center on Gasol. Once arguably the NBA's best big man, Gasol is in the midst of his worst professional season. He's averaging a paltry 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting only 43.1 percent from the floor.
If there's anyone who embodies the Lakers' struggles, it's Gasol. However, Gasol's struggles are actually rather explainable for those who have watched the Lakers this season.
With that in mind, let's take a look at exactly why Gasol's play has gone into a tailspin and figure out a couple of ways the Lakers could fix it.
What's Wrong With Pau?
Mike D'Antoni is Wildly Misusing Him
When the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard, some wondered aloud whether he and Gasol could coexist in the post. At the time, most analysts scoffed at the notion, assuming that then-coach Mike Brown would use the Princeton offense to keep his seven-footers moving and setting up a rotation of post opportunities.
Brown got exactly five games to implement his system before being fired.
D'Antoni, on the other hand, has a system predicated on only one post presence. His offensive system is one built on pick-and-rolls, floor spacing and shooters. Having two players consistently rotating in the post mucks up his spacing. And with Metta World Peace's defenders not having to worry about him knocking down threes, they can also screw up spacing by hedging into the paint against pick-and-rolls.
D'Antoni's solution to this has been to consistently start sets with Gasol at the elbow. Here are a couple of instances where it worked, as Gasol's teammates found him on the roll.
While those plays worked like a charm, notice that Howard wasn't on the floor either time and where Gasol finished: at the rim. Gifted with arguably the NBA's best set of post moves, Gasol has always been a center masquerading as a power forward. Anyone who watched him in Memphis knew it, as did the Lakers when they first acquired him.
He hasn't been allowed to play his game this season. According to basketball-reference.com, Gasol's most heavily used spot on the floor has been from 16 feet out to the three-point line. That's a first in a decade-plus-long career for Gasol, and it's not as if he became Matt Bonner overnight.
Even though he was still somewhat misused by Brown last season, just take a look at where Gasol began offensive possessions last year, even with Bynum on the floor:
Nearly every single set ran the same way. Gasol would first scamper down the floor, set a (somewhat lazy) down-screen for a wing player and get fed the ball on the block in isolation. That's where he's most comfortable on the floor and most effective.
Unsurprisingly, he's shot a shade under 65 percent this season at the rim. At the rest of the spots on the floor? Not so much.
Gasol Simply Has Not Been as Good This Season
Sometimes part of the explanation is so ridiculously simple that it gets overlooked. Sure, Gasol has been wildly misused by D'Antoni and that doesn't seem to be changing, but he just hasn't made shots he usually hits, either.
Per basketball-reference.com, Gasol knocked down 42.1 percent of his shots between three and 15 feet from the rim and exactly 40 percent of his jumpers in 2011-12. This season those rates are down to 32.2 percent and 33.7 percent, respectively.
Say what you will about how Gasol gets those shots, but Gasol's lack of shooting prowess doesn't fall at D'Antoni's feet. His jumpers are flat, and he's hit only 44.4 percent of his hook shots, a signature in Gasol's game.
As for an overarching reason for those struggles? It's almost inarguable that Gasol is somewhat fatigued. He went through the NBA's 66-game shortened season in 2012, followed it up by being the most important player on Spain's Olympic team and then essentially started the cycle all over.
Gasol is a 32-year-old seven-footer. His body doesn't heal nearly as well as it used to, and that problem has only been exacerbated by Gasol's bout with knee tendinitis. As a player gets older, tendinitis reoccurs more and becomes more difficult to battle through. If you're looking for a reason Gasol looks slow and hasn't been able to get the same elevation when in the post, it likely centers on those knee problems.
That's obviously not an excuse. Plenty of players stay on the court through tendinitis and stay effective. However, if Gasol is hurt, unhappy with his role and doesn't love his coach, there are very few reasons for him to be giving 100 percent on a nightly basis.
How to Fix Gasol's Struggles
Fire Mike D'Antoni or Force Him Change His System
No matter which way you want to slice it, D'Antoni has been a disastrous hire from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles. The Lakers are 12-20 since his arrival, including a disastrous 2-10 during the month of January. They now stand four full games out of the Western Conference Playoffs and would have to win 60 percent of their games the remainder of the season just to hit .500.
D'Antoni has also completely mishandled his personnel, especially Gasol, so horrendously that one has to wonder whether the relationship is salvageable. One of D'Antoni's very first moves as Lakers head coach was to bench Gasol against the Memphis Grizzlies and then throw him under the bus after the game.
And the relationship has only gone downhill since.
Unfortunately for Lakers fans, if one of them goes, it's Gasol. The Lakers aren't firing D'Antoni—at least this season. Jimmy Buss isn't ready to admit making a bad hire at this juncture, and the team certainly doesn't want to be paying three coaches (D'Antoni, Mike Brown and the new guy) over the next couple of years.
The only other solution is D'Antoni radically changing his system. Smart analysts saw the problems his system could create internally from the moment he was hired. D'Antoni has a bunch of 30-plus-year-old players running the second-fastest pace in the league—astounding considering just one of the Lakers' five best players (Steve Nash) actually fits an up-tempo pace.
In theory, the Lakers should be playing one of the league's slowest paces, using their seven-footers to create matchup nightmares in the middle and avoiding transition defense (a huge weakness) at all costs.
D'Antoni seemingly has no interest in his offense making basketball sense. He's benched arguably the league's most talented post player (Gasol) for Earl Clark. Yes, the same Earl Clark who had never played more than 12.4 minutes per game prior to this season and who shot 36.7 percent in 2011-12.
Without a stark changing of his system, this relationship isn't likely to work unless Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki do a Freaky Friday situation.
That leaves just one (untenable) option for the Lakers.
Ship Gasol out of Los Angeles
This is obviously the most likely situation at this juncture. Gasol privately expects to be traded by the February deadline while the Lakers have no interest in moving Howard, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Perhaps that's the only way the Lakers can truly fix Gasol. With D'Antoni unwilling to adjust and Gasol flailing this season, this might be a classic case of a guy in desperate need of a change of scenery.
He's not washed up. We saw him dominate in the post during the London Olympics, where he shot 57 percent and nearly went for a triple-double against the United States in the gold-medal game.
Gasol isn't unsalvageable. He just needs to find a team willing to employ a system that meshes with his skill set and a coach willing to deal with his sensitive tendencies.
It's become readily apparent that the Lakers and D'Antoni aren't that combination.
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