Have LA Lakers Found Successful Blueprint for Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard Pairing?
Lost in Kobe Bryant's willingness to play the part of distributor and the Los Angeles Lakers' two-game winning streak is how Gasol and Howard are now seemingly able to coexist on the same team. And everyone involved has Mike D'Antoni to thank.
Howard himself offered some indirect insults (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com) after Los Angeles defeated Oklahoma City:
"(D'Antoni is) telling us to go but sometimes you can't get those engines to start up that fast," said Dwight Howard, who has been the most vocal critic of D'Antoni's offense this season, clamoring for more post-up opportunities.
Are the Lakers listening to D'Antoni's direction?
"We listen," Howard said. "But we're the guys out there playing. We see things that sometimes the coaches may not see. We're an opportunity fastbreak team right now because we don't have a lot of speed. When we get the ball in the half court, we still can move and do all the things out of the offense. He wants us to stay spread, which for the most part we do."
The ever humble (kidding) Howard has struck again.
Let's not pretend that D'Antoni hasn't allowed these Lakers to butcher his offensive concept. They're playing an opportunistic, inside-out genre of basketball that only contains footprints of D'Antoni's fast-paced, force-the-action system.
Watch Los Angeles, though, and it becomes clear the ball is still moving, the floor is still spread and quicker shots are still being attempted. Such tactics are not the result of Howard and the rest of the team's instincts. Not entirely.
And neither is the successful blueprint that has been laid out for Gasol and Howard. That one is on D'Antoni—entirely.
What Howard fails to mention is how much the floor has opened up since Gasol has been relegated to bench duty. The duo still spends an ample amount of time together on the court, but to say their minutes are staggered would also be an understatement.
Success, and lots of it.
Since being permanently assigned to the second unit six games ago against the Miami Heat, Gasol is averaging 16 points on 59.4-percent shooting. Given that even now he's still averaging a career-low 12.9 points on career-worst 44.9-percent shooting, that says a lot.
So does the fact that he's only attempted two deep-balls over the last six games as well.
Gasol has found his groove, because he's coming off the bench.
Though the big man was originally unhappy with the move, there's no denying he now owes D'Antoni a hearty "thank you."
Coming off the bench has allowed Pau to spend the majority of his time at center, where he's currently posting a PER of 25.9 per 48 minutes. This very separation from Howard allows him to occupy the post more and has rendered him the apple of the pick-and-roll's affections.
Simply put, coming off the pine has allowed Gasol to be Gasol.
The same can even be said for Howard. He's tallied more than 13 points once over the last six games; however, 1) it's not anyone else's fault that he's liable to shoot 2-of-10 from the foul line, and 2) he doesn't need to score to be effective. Gasol does.
Spending more time away from Pau allows Howard more freedom in the post on offense. No longer does he have to step outside of the paint, where he's not a threat, just to watch Gasol, and no longer must he jostle for position with his own teammate.
Instead, he is now afforded all the space in the world, space that the hack-a-Howard routine has not allowed him to take full advantage of just yet.
Such separation also makes life easier for Howard on defense. In the age of stretch forwards, Gasol has been tasked with manning the perimeter more so than any of us would care to admit. Opposing power forwards are posting a 16.5 PER per 48 minutes with him on the floor, slightly above the league average of 15.
Those very forwards are now being defended by a legitimate wing, which lightens the mess Howard is forced to clean up considerably.
Are we to be slightly perturbed by the fact Howard has combined for just 19 shots over the last two games? Perhaps, but only slightly.
Again, Howard doesn't need to score to be effective, and the Lakers don't need him to score in excess to win; they managed to rattle off two straight victories despite Howard combining for just 25 points.
Howard must come to accept this very reality. If he wants to put more points on the board, he should consider converting on more than 49.5 percent of his free throws. Teams will continue to put him at the line until he can prove he's comfortable.
But he also must accept that a majority of his impact must be made defensively because this current schematic is working. Gasol is scoring more, hitting a higher percentage of his shots and just carries himself on the court with more confidence than he has all season. And as we've seen against the Jazz and Thunder, their separation puts Los Angeles in the best possible situation to not just win, but defeat championship-caliber teams.
The Lakers are no longer a team whose success is reliant upon the reputation of its core. Instead, as Gasol and Howard themselves admit (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com), Los Angeles is now a guild whose success is predicated upon selfless compromise:
"I think guys were just worried too much about their own situations and their own issues," Gasol said bluntly, when asked what has changed since the air-it-out team meeting in Memphis. "When you start doing that, it takes away from the team.
"With the personnel we have, we have to understand that our numbers and our stats are going to be lowered. There's a certain level of compromise and commitment that we all need to accept. Once we do that, things will work out well."
Why did it take so long for the Lakers to accept that?
"It just didn't happen. I wish it would have," Dwight Howard said. "It took us to fall on our head and run into a couple roadblocks for us to see it."
On a star-laden faction like the Lakers, that's simply how it has to be.
Gasol must accept his role coming off the bench; he must understand that it's not only better for the team, but for him personally.
Howard must trust in the system to a certain extent. He must comprehend that success on defense begins and ends with him, but the ascendancy of the offense does not.
Will separating Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard allow the Lakers to continue their recent success?
All of the Lakers must accept that the very separation, the very sacrifice they weren't willing to make is what has fueled their premature revival.
After much aversion to change and a seeming refusal to accept the diminished stature they all signed up for upon assembling this prolific outfit, it seems they have.
D'Antoni has allowed his principles to be manipulated, Bryant and Steve Nash have embraced their roles as hybrid guards, Gasol and Howard have found balance through segregation and the Lakers have rediscovered how to win.
The same discovery that was once a forgone conclusion. The same one that seemingly became near implausible.
And the same one that has finally been made possible courtesy of a fresh perspective, contemporary design and unconditional reception.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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