Gasol was a starter for most of the season, but Steve Nash's return from his leg injury complicated the Lakers’ rotation a little.
Mike D’Antoni’s offense relies on timing, spacing and long-range shooting. With Gasol playing alongside Dwight Howard in the starting lineup, it compressed the court offensively.
The Spaniard has three-point range but clearly isn’t a shooting assassin. Consequently, camping him out on the perimeter was completely counterproductive. His defender sagged into the lane and smothered Howard when he cut hard to the rim in pick-and-rolls.
Also, in the few post-up opportunities Howard was afforded, he often had to worry about Gasol’s defender helping off him to thwart his attempts.
Statistically, the Laker offense was fine. But the eye test said otherwise.
According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, the Lakers scored 105 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor and 105.6 points per 100 possessions with him off it.
The difference is marginal but not inconsequential.
Whenever the shot clock was near expiration, the Lakers struggled to produce any high-percentage shots. Granted, these situations rarely yield great looks, but there are still ways for an offense to score.
Quick pick-and-rolls late in the shot clock usually result in a switching defense, which allows the perimeter player to blow by the bigger defender. In the case of the Purple and Gold, the ball-handler is usually Kobe Bryant.
That’s a matchup D’Antoni will take just about every single time.
But with Gasol on the floor next to Howard, opponents simply double-team Bryant in this scenario because they have no fear whatsoever of getting beat from long range. In addition, most of the league knows Bryant isn’t allergic to forcing up a contested shot when doubled.
This development was one of the many that prompted the removal of Gasol from the starting unit.
The talented forward openly complained about it, but his injury made the switch a little easier. The Lakers have figured out their rotation and redistributed his minutes to Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark.
Surprisingly, the downgrade in personnel has not only given Bryant and company more spacing, it’s also provided a little more creativity off the dribble. The current opening lineup of Bryant, Nash, Clark, World Peace and Howard has played well this season.
This group essentially replaced Gasol with Clark and actually lost a little something offensively. NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us the starting unit featuring Gasol scores 111.3 points per 100 possessions, whereas with Clark those figures dip to 104.9 points per 100 possessions.
Clark does not have the talent or gifted mind of his counterpart.
However, he makes up for his lack of touch shooting the ball with athleticism and quickness. Those physical traits have given the Lakers a much-needed boost defensively. With Clark on the floor alongside the four other starters, the Lakers defend at a top-10 rate.
Substitute the Spaniard in for Clark, and it’s one of the five worst defenses in basketball. The reasons are simple: The congested offense with Gasol on the floor resulted in turnovers, which led to transition opportunities.
Quite honestly, Gasol made the Purple and Gold a little slow. Opposing teams could run them off the floor after misses and miscues.
A team that came into the season with one of the biggest frontlines in the league adapted their philosophy and downsized. And it’s paid off.
The Lakers typically close games with a small lineup featuring Bryant, Nash, World Peace and Jodie Meeks. This particular five-man unit offers a bit of speed and interior toughness—but more importantly, perimeter shooting.
Consequently, they’ve obliterated opposing teams. Per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, that very same lineup manufactures points more efficiently than the league-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. In addition, it’s far stingier than the Indiana Pacers’ defense that is arguably the best in the NBA.
It’s worth noting that these figures are a product of an incredibly small sample size. Bryant, Meeks, Nash, Howard and World Peace have shared the court for exactly 101 minutes so far this season.
This is where Gasol comes in.
It stands to reason that he will once again come off the bench once healthy. Considering the concerns about team speed and perimeter shooting, D’Antoni will probably be tempted at first glance to avoid pairing up Gasol with Howard.
In theory, the Lakers coaching staff could merely subtract Howard from the opening five-man unit and play Gasol alongside the four other starters during the course of games.
The problem with this tactic is twofold: Firstly, Gasol will more than likely be out of shape. Secondly, he is not a great paint defender. The Lakers would be opening the floodgates and inviting teams down the lane for scores.
If the Lakers simply use their closing lineup and replace Howard again with Gasol, the figures are awful. In 22 minutes this season, the unit of Bryant, Nash, Meeks, World Peace and Gasol has given up more points than the Charlotte Bobcats on average.
In other words, Gasol’s minutes might need to mirror those of the Lakers’ best perimeter defenders.
Sadly, that removes Nash from the equation. He is a gifted ball-handler and set-up man, but opponents constantly pick on him. Playing him with Gasol would be asking for trouble.
The same is true of Jodie Meeks. The Toronto Raptors were ecstatic that D’Antoni left him in the contest late against them on March 8th. Raptors coach Dwane Casey kept running plays for Alan Anderson with Meeks defending him, and he scored just about every time.
Antawn Jamison is shaky at best. Players score on him both on the block and off the bounce. Also, his rotations are rarely crisp, and he fails to provide an impediment at the basket.
That leaves Steve Blake, Bryant, Clark and World Peace to play with Gasol. Given D’Antoni’s penchant for offense, it should come as no surprise that this unit hasn’t logged a single minute together this season.
However, if we remove Clark and insert Howard in his place, we’ll find a more than capable lineup.
The concerns over spacing and transition defense would certainly still be present, but this group has some serious potential. The perimeter guys are good defensive players, which reduces the effort the big guys have to exert.
It allows both Howard and Gasol to hit the boards and dominate the paint on offense and defense. The court would be shrunk to some degree, but the Lakers still have a little perimeter shooting on the floor that they can mix up with some off-ball screening by Gasol.
Prior to Gasol’s heel injury on February 5th, the quintet of Blake, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol and Howard was surrendering a mere 91.6 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool. That figure would represent the best in the league today.
Of note, this was before Howard had begun looking like a dominant defensive force. Thus it’s possible this group could prove stingier than anticipated. And if such is the case, we could be looking at a defensive juggernaut.
Offensively, it’s a bit trickier.
The Spaniard hasn’t participated in a competitive basketball game in over a month. He will be out of shape and lack his usual timing. Those factors make it nearly impossible for Gasol to hit the hardwood without Howard playing with him.
Gasol will more than likely miss a few rotations and have trouble staying with his man in his first few games. This means that D’Antoni will probably orchestrate a scheme where he can have both big men on the court at the same time.
If he goes that route, he can emulate what Gregg Popovich does with the San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter play a considerable amount of minutes together and haven’t had any issues coexisting on the court. The Spurs no longer run a steady diet of post-ups for Duncan. Instead, they run a lot of sets that require movement off the ball and screen action.
For instance, look at the play below with both big men at the elbows:
Gasol is a terrific passer. Thus, using him in the spot of Splitter in the play above would certainly serve the Lakers well. Much like earlier in the season under Mike Brown, Kobe Bryant would earn himself some easy baskets with plays where his big men start off at the top of the key.
Glance at the footage below:
There are other concepts the Lakers could potentially steal from the Spurs. There is a slight variation involving the use of his frontline at the elbows that D’Antoni could borrow from Popovich.
The video below captures it perfectly. Tony Parker uses the quick hand off at the elbow with Duncan almost like a pick-and-roll and feeds him rolling towards the basket. Splitter’s man rotates to pick up Duncan:
The most important aspect of these plays is constant movement. The Lakers have relied heavily on isolations since the All-Star break, and it’s benefitted them.
But reincorporating the Spaniard will require avoiding stagnation on offense. The best way to utilize his skills involves putting him in situations where he can catch the ball on the move with chances at scoring or dishing as illustrated above.
Combine that with protecting him defensively, and this Laker team might be quite dangerous the rest of the way.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist. You can find him on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.