With only a handful of games remaining in the NBA's regular season, and the Lakers still without a playoff berth to their credit, inquiries into the team's dynamic are being lodged at an alarming rate.
Los Angeles has a cluster of conflicts to resolve, none more urgent than the mystery surrounding two of the league's most branded towers.
Health, defensive performance and discordant game plans are at the forefront of the organization's issues, but with Metta World Peace out, and Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash banged up, the importance of a harmonic dyad has reached unprecedented levels.
All season, Gasol and Howard have struggled to operate simultaneously. The former is still schlepping through the worst season of his NBA career, and the latter reached his peak while his low-post partner was out nursing a torn plantar fascia.
More than 90 percent of the season is in the rear-view mirror and still no definitive blueprint has been set for this coupling.
Staggering their minutes has been proposed and even implemented, but nothing has been able to stick consistently. Finding the right balance of separate lineups has proved tedious, and World Peace's prolonged absence has only complicated matters.
Their performance when placed alongside each other hasn't helped even slightly either.
The Lakers are being outscored by an average of two points per 100 possessions when both Gasol and Howard are on the floor. Not exactly the result Los Angeles was hoping for when infusing two star big men into the same five-man combine, eh?
Still jostling for playoff position with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, nothing about the Lakers' season has yet to be etched in stone. Today, they're battling for a spot in the postseason. Tomorrow, the Phoenix Suns could be left scratching their heads, wondering how they wound up with an additional lottery pick.
Something must be done. A solution has to present itself. Especially now, without World Peace, who was present in 14 of Los Angeles' top 20 five-man lineups.
Is that even possible?
The numbers say yes.
With the Lakers prone to being outscored when both Howard and Gasol are on the floor, common sense—and the need for floor spacing—implores Los Angeles to separate the two.
In Gasol's case, though, this hasn't exactly done wonders. The Lakers are outscoring opponents by just 1.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Los Angeles needs that number to soar. Like now. And to do that, they need to find the right mix of personnel to complement Gasol, none of whom are named Dwight Howard.
Presently, three of Gasol's top 10 most-used five-man outfits have him alongside Howard, and four have him next to World Peace. The Lakers are going to have to get creative, and they don't have to look far to do it.
A combination of Bryant, Earl Clark, Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Nash are outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. They're the Lakers' second-most productive lineup (minimum 30 minutes of floor time) with Gasol, and the absolute best of Pau-included lineups without World Peace.
It also ensures Pau spends time at the 5, where he is best suited. On the season, he is posting a 23.2 PER per 48 minutes at center, compared to 13.4 at power forward.
With so many offensive juggernauts in one five-man set, you want an aggregate of this persuasion to be offensively dominant.
Well, mission accomplished.
This particular group is scoring 1.08 points per possession. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Lakers post only 0.94 as a team. The Miami Heat, who rank first in offensive efficiency are averaging 1.01 overall.
Full-disclosure style, this compound has spent just over 54 minutes of floor time together. But while that seems low, it's Los Angeles' fifth most-used lineup with Gasol. Take World Peace out of the equation, and Gasol actually hasn't spent more time within another group all season.
If he's to operate away from Howard (and he should), this is a faction Mike D'Antoni needs to field more frequently.
Superman is facing many of the same problems as Gasol.
Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, a point differential that needs to climb as well.
Like Gasol, Howard has found the most success in lineups with World Peace. Eight of his 10 most frequently used five-man combinations included Metta. To convolute matters, seven of those are Los Angeles' absolute best (in terms of point differential) with Howard.
Sensing a trend here? Something along the lines of "Damn, Metta was uber-important to the livelihood of this team?"
Yeah, me too.
Sans World Peace, the Lakers are going to have find another lineup that yields impressive results. Again, like Gasol's situation, this entails getting creative. Unlike Gasol's, it's going to take some digging.
What does our bulldozing unearth?
Steve Blake, Bryant, Howard, Jodie Meeks and Nash.
I know, I've got some 'splainin' to do.
With the exception of Howard, this lineup is small, miniature even. But it fits the bill of what the Lakers need.
Assuming they continue to run the ball through the post more, Dwight needs to be surrounded by shooters to limit the amount of double- and triple-teams opposing defenses will toss his way. Only one of the other four (Kobe) is shooting less than 36.5 percent from deep.
It's risky, but it takes floor spacing to the next level. And it has also generated some impressive results already.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), when these five are on the court together, they're outscoring opponents by 31.3 points per 48 minutes.
Crude as it seems to go off this, we've already found that Howard is best served alongside World Peace. Unconventional pairings will have to be embraced if the Lakers wish to find another effective balance.
We've also got to understand how this lineup looks when broken down even further.
When Howard is on the floor next to Blake, the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions.
Why is that important?
Because a four-man combination of Bryant, Howard, Meeks and Nash are plus-16.5 per 100 possessions. So while the sample size of the five-man unit is rather small (14 minutes), four of the five members of this lineup have spent more than 237 minutes on the floor together. Adding in Blake—who has spent more than 580 minutes next to Howard—only increases their potency.
When not forced to play next to Gasol, Howard needs to play alongside a surplus of shooters.
And here, the Lakers give you that surplus of shooters.
Separating Howard and Gasol is an option, but it's not an end-all, be-all solution to Los Angeles' quandary.
Knowing how battered the Lakers already are, how prone to injury their core has been and how important it is to have your best players on the floor come playoff time (assuming they make it that far), Howard and Gasol are going to need to play together on occasion.
As we discovered earlier, the Lakers haven't fared well with both of them on the court.
Is it a big problem?
No, it's a mammoth-sized one.
Of Los Angeles' 20 most used five-man lineups, merely three include both Howard and Gasol and are also outscoring their opponents. And of those three, World Peace is in all of them.
If you're experiencing that "where do they go from here" feeling, you're not alone.
Assembling a five-man convocation with both Gasol and Howard isn't going to be an easy task. Given how borderline destructive they can be, small sample sizes won't even be of use.
Thus, we turn to common denominators. We must find players that both Gasol and Howard play well next to and form the lineup that best suits the needs of this pairing.
At present, when all four of Blake, Kobe, Gasol and Howard are on the floor at once, the Lakers are outscoring their foes by 7.8 points per 100 possessions. They've also spent nearly 170 minutes together.
We wouldn't consider this overwhelmingly impressive by any means, but it's a start. To finish, we need to find a fifth player that has statistically played well opposite both Howard and Gasol.
Our expedition brings us to Jamison.
In 32 games together, Gasol and Jamison are averaging roughly 10 minutes of burn. When both are on the floor, the Lakers hold an 12.5 points per 100 possessions advantage over the opposing team.
By comparison Howard and Jamison have appeared in 62 games together. They're averaging about 12.7 minutes of court time next to each other, during which Los Angeles is a plus-2.8 per 100 possessions.
Which means we're left with a five-man coterie of Blake, Bryant, Gasol, Howard and Jamison.
For those asking, "Why isn't Nash included?" I understand your dilemma. That said, his absence is necessary.
While the Lakers are a plus-6.3 per 100 possessions with both Nash and Howard on the floor, they're a minus-3.6 with him and Gasol. And when Dwight, Pau and good ol' Stevie are playing together, Los Angeles is a minus-1.6, which isn't going to cut it. But we digress.
To date, this advised lineup has only seen one game of action and spent less than three minutes of floor-time together, and they have an even point differential. But that's not the point. And neither is the fact that Nash wouldn't fit into this scheme.
What must the Lakers do to improve the production of the Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard pairing?
Sample sizes aren't as relevant when pairing both Gasol and Howard together, not with World Peace on the sidelines. Los Angeles is going to have to play around with seldom-used concoctions in order to achieve the desired results.
The Lakers are going to have to try anything and everything to make this pairing work or even feign effectiveness.
When breaking down the components of this specific combine to form smaller groups, the numbers suggest this guild has, at the very least, an opportunity to salvage a floundering Gasol-Howard twosome.
With so much already having gone wrong, and the Lakers left to piece together the remnants of a tumultuous season on the fly, Hollywood can't really ask for anything more.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.