What Will Earl Clark's Role Be When Pau Gasol Returns?

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What Will Earl Clark's Role Be When Pau Gasol Returns?
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As Pau Gasol inches his way closer to a return to the Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup, Earl Clark will be the player affected most by the Spaniard’s return.

Gasol has been rehabbing a torn plantar fascia in his foot that has kept him out of action since Feb. 7. Although he’s on the road to recovery, Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Gasol experienced soreness in his foot while playing a two-on-two game. So it appears as if Gasol will miss additional time in order to get 100 percent healthy.

While Gasol’s return is still a mystery, Clark—who has started 31 games this season in Mike D’Antoni’s coaching system—will have to prepare for the possibility of a different role moving forward.

Clark gained favor under D’Antoni due to his athleticism and ability to spread the floor. As a result, he carved out a niche in the Lakers starting lineup, relegating Gasol to the bench. Despite that fact, the Lakers head coach may be having a change of heart.

According to Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News via Twitter, D’Antoni may be more inclined to start Gasol due to his veteran experience. D’Antoni said of Gasol’s return:

As you get to the playoffs, experience and being able to perform under certain conditions is a big factor. And he’s more comfortable starting. There’s a lot of things you have to think about. We’ll look at it. As soon as he gets healthy enough, that’s where we’ll go.

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D’Antoni and Gasol clearly have not seen eye to eye since the former New York Knicks coach took over. In fact, the two had a meeting December to try and hammer out some of their issues, according to Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times.

However, if D’Antoni’s recent quote is any indication, Gasol will get to start. He acknowledged that Gasol is more comfortable starting and the Spaniard’s ability to perform in the postseason is a factor that needs to be considered.

So what will that mean for Clark, who has been having a breakout campaign in purple and gold? Well, given the amount of minutes Clark has received lately, it may not mean all too much.

The 25-year-old swingman got ample court time in the month of February when he averaged 33.5 minutes per game. However, even with Gasol sidelined, Clark’s minutes in March have dwindled to 21.9 per contest.

That significant dip in minutes can be attributed to the fact that D’Antoni has given reserve guards Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks more minutes.

Harry How/Getty Images
Steve Blake provided a huge spark off the bench for Los Angeles against the Indiana Pacers.

Both of those guys have been providing a spark off the bench and cutting into Clark’s court time. Meeks had a 19-point outburst against the New Orleans Hornets on March 6, when he knocked down five three-pointers.

Blake had one of the best games of his career against the Indiana Pacers on March 15, when he recorded 18 points, seven assists (against just one turnover), six rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 35 minutes played.

Gasol’s return will undoubtedly cut into Clark’s minutes if the veteran is given the responsibility to start. Despite that fact, Clark’s role has already been significantly diminished this month due to the Lakers’ backcourt depth.

When Gasol does make a return to the court, Antawn Jamison will ultimately decide Clark’s role.

Jamison, like Gasol, had his differences with coach D’Antoni. However, the two seem to have buried the hatchet according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN via Twitter:

If D’Antoni favors the tandem of Gasol and Jamison to provide veteran leadership, Clark will fall even further out of the loop. He could still get minutes as the backup to small forward Metta World Peace, but leaning on players with the most postseason experience makes the most sense for an up-and-down Lakers squad.

Regardless of the playing rotation D’Antoni locks in for a postseason run, it will be important for that rotation to get comfortable during the final month of the regular season.

The quicker Gasol gets healthy and acclimated to his teammates, the better. However, that probably won't be the best case scenario for Clark's playing time.

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