Proponents of Gasol as a second-unit anchor (including myself) understand that the Spaniard can be a valuable weapon coming off the bench.
Not only is he then a perennial All-Star going toe-to-toe with namely backups, but he also gets to spend more time at center, where he has excelled. In the midst of the worst season he's ever had, Gasol is posting a 23.2 PER at the 5. Dwight Howard himself (20.8) hasn't even matched that performance.
As Gasol continues to navigate his way back to the hardwood (setbacks and all, per ESPNLA.com), though, it's less about his value as a pine-rider and more about what he does for the Lakers both now and in the immediate future.
Earl Clark's Struggles
Earl Clark's run of tapered greatness is officially over.
Though the stretch forward still plays some nice on-ball defense, his offense has regressed to the mean over the last 10 games or so.
In the last 10 contests, Clark has eclipsed 10 points just twice and is shooting just 37.7 percent from the field. He's also logged more than 30 minutes just once, which is quite a drop considering he received 30 or more in 10 of Los Angeles' previous 15 games.
What the Lakers also have to take into consideration is how Clark is faring alongside their most valuable players. And by "most valuable," we are of course referring to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
When Clark and Howard are on the floor together, Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by an average of 1.1 points per 100 possessions.
Should Earl Clark remain in the Lakers' starting lineup?
Underwhelming? Absolutely, but it's a far better result than when he's playing next to Kobe or Nash.
The Lakers are being outscored by an average of 4.9 points per 100 possessions when Nash and Clark are playing simultaneously, and that deficit climbs to 6.7 when it's broken down between him and Kobe.
Not even the most stubborn of naysayers can diminish the impact Clark has had on occasion. He's been able to spread defenses in ways Gasol just can't (35.8 percent from deep), but his production has declined as the season has worn on and defenses adjusted to his presence.
His struggles aren't necessarily terminal, nor do they suggest he should be banished from the rotation (he shouldn't), but it is time for change.
The Current Starting Lineup
Clark's individual battle with remaining effective leads us right into our next issue—Los Angeles' current starting five.
Mike D'Antoni has fielded a starting lineup of Bryant, Clark, Howard, Nash and Metta World Peace for 18 consecutive games (and counting). While the Lakers are 17-10 overall when beginning the game with these five, they're outscoring opponents by an average of 3.8 points per 100 possessions during their time together.
A positive point differential is a positive point differential, but when you remove Clark and insert Gasol in his place, that lineup stands at a plus-4.2. Again, we won't be writing any movies or documentaries on such a combine, but it is a gain.
Come playoff time, rotations are shortened. For the Lakers, they will shorten theirs even further, and it's important to put the most potent starting five on the floor.
By this point, you have to be asking yourself, why Gasol?
If Clark isn't the correct fit (he's not) for Los Angeles' starting five, couldn't a Jodie Meeks or Antawn Jamison have the edge?
Jamison, by far, would be the best (numerically based) candidate. A combination of him, Bryant, Howard, Nash and World Peace is currently outscoring opponents by 20.6 points per 100 possessions.
While a personal advocate of said lineup, I also believe that a variety of other factors must come into play.
As someone who has been playing alongside Steve Blake and Meeks for the better part of the season, Jamison has the better rapport with the bench unit. Gasol has spent the year battling injury and meandering his way in and out of the starting lineup, even more so than Jamison. When push comes to shove, removing Jamison disrupts the continuity of an already shallow bench more than the removal of Gasol would.
Let's also not pretend the Lakers wouldn't love to run their $19 million with the starting five. As valuable as he can be off the bench, his pockets were lined in hopes of him starting, not playing second fiddle to a superteam he was supposed to be a pivotal part of.
Starting Gasol ensures he's playing the role his salary suggests he should assume and also presents the Lakers with more options.
Should the end goal remain separating Pau and Dwight, that doesn't have to begin with the former on the bench. Gasol and Howard's minutes can be staggered after the tip by subbing the fragile Gasol out first—a necessity by the time he returns–and limiting their minutes together from there.
Postseason experience has to come into play as well. Gasol has won two championship rings and has more experience playing on the league's brightest stage than anyone else on the team, save for Kobe. That includes Howard and Nash.
Throwing Clark or even Jamison (six postseason appearances) into the starting fold at the most crucial point of the year just doesn't instill the sense of assurance that Gasol's postseasoned presence would.
Los Angeles isn't a faction built on speed, youth or athleticism. The Lakers are relying on wisdom, familiarity and general experience to carry them to glory. Aged 32 and clad with numerous championship rings and All-Star appearances, Gasol provides plenty of that.
With the knowledge that Los Angeles' current starting lineup isn't torching opposing defenses the way the team initially envisioned, Gasol's future with the Lakers needs to become the driving forced behind his reintegration into the starting five.
Gasol told T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times earlier in the season that a trade from the Lakers is a legitimate "possibility" after this season, and that rings just a true now as it did then:
"If this coach stays and Dwight Howard remains with the Lakers," I asked, "what about you?"
"It would be hard for me to deal with another season knowing the facts you just mentioned," said Gasol, 32 and with one year remaining on his contract.
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?"
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes."
Plagued by injuries and aging fast, Gasol realistically isn't a part of the Lakers' long-term plan. To say he's a prominent cog in their machine beyond this season would even be stretch. But that ambivalence is exactly why there's a strong case for him to start upon return.
This isn't just a case of Clark struggling and Gasol not making it any worse. It's more about the Lakers ensuring they're in a position to make an educated decision moving forward and then capitalizing off that decision, whatever it may be.
From what Pau has said and done, he's not going to remain content with coming off the bench. Riding crutches for the past few weeks stands to soften him to the idea, but let's be real, it most likely hasn't.
The Lakers owe it to themselves to see if the starting lineup they originally envisioned dominating can actually be successful. If it can be, then great. Los Angeles can surf this particular powerhouse-esque wave for another year.
Should it continue to struggle, though, the Lakers need to be able to sell suitors on the Gasol they still consider him to be—a superstar. A starter.
Will leaving Gasol on the bench hurt his trade value next season?
What better way to sell him as a starter than to, you know, start him?
We're not talking about tanking for the sake of attempting to run up Gasol's value. As I alluded to earlier, staggering the minutes of Gasol and Howard while starting them both is possible. Hell, just look at what the Memphis Grizzlies tend to do with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
So much uncertainty lies ahead for both Los Angeles and Gasol, and the Lakers have to try and get a handle on it, even if only somewhat.
Starting Gasol provides the team with one final opportunity to actualize the domineering aggregate it was purported to be upon inception. Knowing what the alternative is, the Lakers owe it to the sanctity of their original vision and the players they've assembled to come to a more definitive conclusion.
Clark continues to struggle, and the current starting lineup isn't producing at a rate Los Angeles would prefer. They rank 85th in the league in point differential per 48 minutes, and if the Lakers truly fancy themselves contenders, that's not going to cut it.
Who should round out the Lakers' starting lineup once Pau Gasol is healthy?
Which brings about the need for change, the need for an adjustment. One that gives Gasol and the Lakers a second chance to be the team they were supposed be while using each of their players the way they were supposed to be used.
Can we guarantee Los Angeles wins or even comes close to capturing a title this season by making the switch?
Not at all.
But we can guarantee that Clark's current performance and Los Angeles' starting lineup aren't going to do the Lakers any favors in the playoffs. And benching Gasol (upon his return) doesn't help his trade value or even imply he has a future in Los Angeles.
Moving forward, something's got to give.
In this instance, that "something" is the Lakers' starting lineup and Gasol's absence from it.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.