Pau Gasol's Return Is Exactly What LA Lakers Need

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Pau Gasol's Return Is Exactly What LA Lakers Need
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The Los Angeles Lakers had a vision, a championship vision constructed around four perennial All-Stars, one of which was Pau Gasol. And one of which is still Pau Gasol.

According to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni expects both Kobe Bryant and Gasol to be in the lineup against the Washington Wizards, increasing the anxiety behind how the big man will fare within Los Angeles' current setup.

A two-time NBA champion and four-time All-Star, Gasol was in the midst of the worst season of his career before he was sidelined indefinitely with a partially torn plantar fascia. His season averages presently stand at 13.4 points on 45.3 percent shooting, both of which are career lows, and his 15.8 PER (also a career low) is the first time he's ever posted one under 19.

A decline in production, coupled with the natural regression of age, injuries and Los Angeles' sub-.500 record left many questioning whether or not Gasol had a future with the Lakers, including Pau himself.

Finally above .500 and with a not-so-firm hold on the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, the evidence would seem to suggest the Lakers are actually better off without the Spaniard.

Los Angeles is 13-7 in the first 20 games since Gasol last played and averaged 102 points per contest during that time, the fourth most of any team in the league.

Just because the Lakers have been able to put some points on the board and secure some victories doesn't mean they're not in need of what Gasol does, though, because they are.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
These Lakers still need Gasol.

Kobe and company are both shallow and battered. They need to get deeper and some additionally reliable production must be obtained. Regardless of if he starts or comes off the bench, Gasol does just that.

Hollywood has managed to score in bunches during Gasol's absence, but they've also allowed the third-most points over the last 20 games (102.5). 

Concerning? Considering that means the Lakers are actually allowing more points per game than they're scoring, I'd say so.

Prior to this injury of Gasol's, the Lakers were 23-26 and their defense was still considerably porous (100.5 points per game), yet they were at least outscoring their opponents (102.1). 

Gasol isn't exactly known for his defense, but he's able to clog paths to the basket and, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's allowing 0.82 points per possession on that end. The Lakers as a team are at 0.88. They were also allowing fewer points when he was on the floor before he went down.

Sans Pau, Dwight Howard is Los Angeles' last line of competent defense at the rim. Tinseltown is allowing 44.5 points in the paint on the season, third most in the league. Any able bodies will be welcomed down low at this point.

But is Gasol's body actually "able"? Can he find his niche in the offense? Alongside Howard?

Much of Gasol's demotion and decline in minutes had to do with 1) his health, and 2) his ability to play next to Howard. Within an offense that relied heavily on spreading the floor, Gasol wasn't an adequate stretch 4, which helped fuel Earl Clark's rise to prominence.

Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Clark isn't fairing that much better than Gasol did, if at all.

Clark, unlike Gasol, can knock down the three. He can live on the outside in general, posing a far better fit than Pau ever did or would.

Is he really "living" on the outside, though?

Not at all. Per hoopdata.com, more than 44 percent of his shots are coming within nine feet of the basket, and his conversion rate from that distance is 45.2 percent. 

Similarly, 50 percent of Gasol's shots were coming within nine feet before the injury and he was connecting on 51.3 percent of them. Pau was also knocking down 30.8 percent of his threes compared to Clark's 33.8 clip. 

Let's not mince words about Clark being the ideal replacement. His numbers from deep aren't much better than Gasol's and a large portion of his shots are coming at a range where Pau is more deadly.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Can these two work?

But the Howard thing. They occupy the same space in this offense. Gasol was struggling because of him, and the Lakers were being outscored by an average of 1.3 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor. This can't possibly work.

Before the All-Star break and the injury, the previous notion would have held true. Since then, however, Howard has regained his explosiveness and general effectiveness

Remember, Howard was struggling as well. Now he's playing better, to the tune of 16.8 points, 14.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game since the break

Mobility has a lot to do with it. Not only is Howard navigating the floor better, but he's able to play above the rim and execute as the roll man off pick-and-rolls. 

That changes things for Gasol. With Howard more of a threat to score and agile enough to run pick-and-roll sets from behind the rainbow, it can open up the post for Pau.

No defense will respect Howard's absence of an outside shot, but they have to respect his ability to slash toward the basket. As one of the better passing bigs with his back to the basket (3.6 assists), Gasol and Howard can now engage in some tower-to-tower sequences.

A healthy Howard plus a healthy Gasol equals more of this.

To assume the existence of such an unconventional connection, the Lakers must be prone to running the ball through the post more, which they can't possibly be. D'Antoni is the coach, after all. Trigger-happy perimeter shooters are his specialty.

Just as we're no longer bearing witness to the same Howard, though, the Lakers are no longer avoiding the painted area.

Los Angeles has climbed into the top half of points in the paint per game (42.1) and now 32 percent of its total offense comes from post-ups and pick-and-rolls. There's room for Gasol, who thrives in such situations, on this team.

This exact team. More than most of us realize.

Proponents of separating Gasol and Howard must understand that Pau's return doesn't have to destroy such a mindset. The Memphis Grizzlies start both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and find a way to stagger their minutes. Los Angeles can do the same.

We've also got to understand that they don't have to be staggered at all. Gasol's minutes will have to be monitored upon his return, but his presence doesn't need to be mutually exclusive from that of Howard's.

As noted earlier, the Lakers, on average, are being outscored when those two are on the floor together, but that doesn't mean there aren't five-man units capable of both excelling and housing both bigs. Two players don't (usually) determine the fate of an entire lineup. Collective definition is more about how everyone on the floor complements one another together.

There's room for Gasol both in the starting lineup and the second unit.

Take Los Angeles' current starting lineup of Bryant, Clark, Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace.

Before Kobe's sprained ankle, D'Antonio fielded this lineup in 18 consecutive contests. Though the Lakers are 17-10 whenever starting the game with these five, they're outscoring opponents by just 3.8 points per 100 possessions.

Remove Clark from that equation in favor of Gasol, and that five-man convocation has a 4.2-point advantage.

For those insistent on leaving Pau on the pine, he works as a second-unit anchor, too. As a member of the bench squad, Gasol would see more time at center, where he's posting a 23.2 PER on the season. He's also found success next to members of the second-unit previously.

When he is placed alongside Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison, the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 23.8 points per 100 possessions. Toss in Steve Blake, and that four-man faction currently owns a plus-53.1 per 100 possessions.

Again, there isn't just still room for Gasol, there's a need for him.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Pau has the potential to make L.A. even better.

Los Angeles isn't waltzing past the competition—it's battling. The Lakers are still struggling to find a defensive identity and are still in need of a difference-maker who can shift some of the numbers on both sides of the ball in their favor.

Are the Lakers better off with or without Pau Gasol?

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Gasol can still be that player. Starting or not, alongside Howard or not, he can still be productive.

It's a matter of monitoring his health and minutes, ensuring the correct personnel is around him when on the floor (especially next to Howard) and giving him a legitimate opportunity to showcase his current worth.

That starts with D'Antoni and the rest of Los Angeles roster acknowledging there's a need for Gasol. There always has been.

And as long as the Lakers are built as they are (shallow), there always will be.

 

All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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