In a decision that comes with plenty of risk to the L.A. Lakers' improving chemistry, coach Mike D'Antoni has indicated that Pau Gasol could return to the team and rejoin the starting lineup as early as March 18.
Per Mark Medina of The L.A. Daily News, D'Antoni said:
He’s going to be a starter at some point and is going to be a big part of what we do. We’ll work from there. Whether it’s the first day, fifth day or 10th day, I don’t know. It depends on his conditioning and how everything is going. But we will work that in where he starts.
What's so risky about re-inserting a highly skilled four-time All-Star into a starting lineup that has played with a patchwork collection of power forwards since his absence?
Well, for starters, things had been going pretty well for the Lakers since Gasol went down with a torn plantar fascia on Feb. 5. L.A. has gone 12-6 in that stretch and has managed to climb into a playoff spot in the West.
Team success aside, there are sure to be lingering chemistry kinks between Gasol and Dwight Howard.
Per Medina, D'Antoni plans to "use Gasol differently" when he comes back, but it seems as though the coach has already tried just about everything in an effort to get the most out of his frontcourt tandem.
For what it's worth, Gasol actually has made Howard a better player when he's been on the floor this year. But in a twist that appropriately reflects the Spaniard's unselfish nature, his own play has suffered mightily when he's been paired with L.A.'s center.
Note the way Gasol's field-goal percentage and points per game spike when he's not playing with Howard. Those facts—along with the statistic that shows Gasol's assists skyrocket with Howard on the floor—clearly indicate that he is too preoccupied with setting up D12 to play effectively himself.
Going by the numbers alone, it appears to make more sense to use Gasol off the bench. That way, he could spell Howard and allow the Lakers to play with a legitimate center for virtually the entire game.
In addition to alleviating chemistry issues in the starting lineup, Gasol could also improve the overall effectiveness of the Lakers' consistently unproductive bench.
Known as a facilitator, Gasol could thrive as the focal point of the second unit, helping to set up offensive players like Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks who aren't effective at getting their own shots.
To be fair, there are also reasons to believe that Gasol's presence in the starting lineup could work out for the best.
D'Antoni has recently shown an increased willingness to adapt his offense to the talent he's got, which is a marked change from his position earlier in the year. Perhaps he's planning to use Gasol in a way that tailors strategy to personnel, rather than the other way around.
Also keep in mind that there's a chance Gasol's extended absence might have helped ease the pain in his creaky knees. Tendonitis caused him to miss a handful of games before his foot injury, and even when he played, his mobility was noticeably limited.
Assuming he'll be capable of moving around more comfortably—which is, admittedly, a big assumption—maybe Gasol will be better suited to any of D'Antoni's planned uses for him.
Realistically, it's unlikely that all of the difficulties the Lakers had in finding a role for Gasol earlier in the season will suddenly disappear when he returns. Howard is still going to need space down low, and Gasol is never going to be the stretch-4 D'Antoni so desperately wants him to be.
Still, figuring out a way to work Gasol back into the lineup, as risky as it may seem, is a pretty good problem to have.
*All stats via NBA.com