Steve Nash (left) and Pau Gasol (right).
Howard is a bruising and punishing player on the interior given his strength and athleticism. When he catches the ball near the rim, opposing defenses are faced with two choices: Give up the basket or foul him before he gathers to finish.
These facts alone make Howard a tremendous pick-and-roll player. When engaged, he sets tough screens and cuts hard to the basket.
As previously mentioned, his interior catches are devastating for opposing defenses. In addition, when he rolls hard out of the screen-and-roll action, defenders must temporarily abandon their primary assignments or otherwise concede a Howard dunk.
Hence, Howard sucks in defenders and opens up the perimeter for his shooters even when the ball doesn’t come his way. A steady dose of Howard in these situations obviously benefits the Lakers.
Whether it’s with Kobe Bryant or Nash, Howard is a terrorizing force in the pick-and-roll.
And yet, the Lake Show’s offense enters an entirely different dimension when the action is run with Gasol.
On the surface, it seems counterproductive to favor Gasol at the expense of Howard in these scenarios. The Spaniard converts 50 percent of his shots as the roller in the pick-and-roll, and the majority of his shots this season have come as a product of this specific set, per Synergy Sports.
The two-time champion is unquestionably skilled, but he is nowhere near the physical presence that Howard is on the inside. However, Gasol offers one advantage that Howard just cannot replicate: passing.
Whether stationary or on the move, Gasol can catch the ball, scan the defense and find the open man. This trait alone has made him one of Bryant’s favorite teammates. He had this to share with ESPNLA’s Dave McMenamin on March 30 after dispatching the Sacramento Kings:
You don’t see a big with his skill set. You’d be hard pressed to find a big with his skill set in the history of the game. We put him at the elbow for about five straight minutes and he just tore them up. Tore ‘em up. And with the touch from the outside and posting up and passing the ball. You don’t see that skill set.
And the 2007-08 league MVP is right.
His talent makes him an incredibly difficult matchup, especially in the pick-and-roll with Nash.
If teams employ a trapping strategy with Nash, the Lakers’ lead guard can retreat from the double team and feed Gasol for the mid-range jumper. According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, the Spaniard is converting 38.1 percent of his jumpers from that distance.
In addition, as a pass recipient in this setting, Gasol can drive the ball to the rim or use his passing skills against the defense.
When defenses rotate out of the trap and close out on the two-time world champion, it affords him the possibility of finding Howard for the easy lob and finish.
Also, given that teams expect the Spaniard to look for his center, they typically help off shooters and help out on Howard. This leaves Gasol with the possibility of finding his open shooters.
Howard has little to no range on his jump shot. Therefore, trapping Nash when he runs the action with him is often a win for opponents.
In the event that defenses play the Lakers with single-coverage in the screen-and-roll action, Gasol is still good at catching and finishing in the paint. In addition, his basketball IQ—coupled with his passing ability—makes him a nightmare for most teams in these situations.
While cutting in the direction of the hoop, Gasol has shown a multitude of ways to deliver the ball on the interior. Whether it’s lobs, wraparounds or simple bounce passes, he consistently finds Howard for easy finishes.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is a far better finisher at the basket, but he’s also one-dimensional.
Pau Gasol’s multifaceted game makes him the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Steve Nash, as well as a terrific wrinkle in the Laker offense.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.