Thanks to a nasty ankle sprain, the Los Angeles Lakers may not have Kobe Bryant for part of their ongoing playoff push. But it appears that they'll be getting help from an all-but-forgotten source in the very near future.
Pau Gasol is nearly ready to return.
The odd man out during Mike D'Antoni's haphazard lineup tinkering and the victim of some rough injury luck of his own, Gasol's return could provide a window of hope after Bryant's ankle injury.
That might sound odd, considering that Gasol had fallen out of favor with D'Antoni long before a torn plantar fascia in his right foot shelved him nearly six weeks ago. However, immobile and ill-fitting as Gasol seemed in D'Antoni's offense, there's no getting around the Spaniard's ability to help the Lakers in a couple serious areas of need.
Defense has been a problem for L.A. all season, and Gasol's presence on the floor this year has been a positive one on the defensive end.
According to NBA.com, the Lakers have allowed opponents to score about 105.1 points per 100 possessions this year when Gasol has been on the bench. When he's been on the court, however, the Lakers limit teams to 101.5.
That may not seem like a significant difference, but think of it this way: Overall, the Lakers rank 18th in defensive efficiency. But when Gasol is in the lineup, their 101.5 defensive rating would be good for No. 11 in the NBA.
Though it's based on points allowed per game (and not defensive rating, which is pace-adjusted), the following graphic published by ESPN in the aftermath of Gasol's injury is pretty telling:
Defensively, there's no question that Gasol makes the Lakers a better team. But his potential value in a playoff run doesn't stop there.
Losing Bryant for any period of time will leave L.A. without the man that has become its primary offensive facilitator. With Steve Nash apparently relegated to the role of spot-up shooter, Gasol's passing acumen will matter more than ever.
Obviously, Gasol's health and mobility will be the main determinant of whether he's a blessing or a burden during the Lakers' playoff push. But keep in mind, all of the numbers we've discussed that show the Lakers are a better team with Gasol on the floor came from a period in which he could hardly move because of sore knees.
What if the extended rest during the recovery from his foot injury has helped to ease the discomfort that made Gasol move like he was in wet cement? What if he suddenly looks more like the guy who played an integral role on two championship teams?
Put another way, the Lakers were better with a bad version of Gasol. Imagine the impact a "good" Gasol could make.
In any event, L.A. is going to face some solid frontcourt tandems down the stretch of its playoff push. Gasol's size alone could be helpful, whether or not Bryant is in the lineup.
With two matchups against David Lee and Andrew Bogut of the Golden State Warriors, a date with the Memphis Grizzlies and another with the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers are going to need the frontcourt tandem of Gasol and Dwight Howard to muscle up with the West's bigs.
Finally, Gasol has always been a sensitive player. The Lakers' past efforts to trade him, combined with D'Antoni's lack of appreciation for his skills, left him feeling decidedly unwanted at times.
Well, now he's needed.
Maybe the changed circumstances will help motivate Gasol to make a difference down the stretch.
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