Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers need Pau Gasol at or near his best to succeed down the stretch.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been fortunate—to say the least—to employ a slew of supremely skilled seven-footers over the course of their storied history. The ceremony to retire Shaquille O'Neal's jersey to the Staples Center rafters on April 2 served to remind the NBA of that long-standing tradition, with the Big Diesel's No. 34 taking its rightful place alongside those of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But the profusion of praise that was (rightfully) lavished upon Shaq from all corners stood in rather stark contrast to the tepid support so often shown to another gifted giant who added two Larry O'Brien Trophies to the Buss Family's extensive collection and who still wears the Purple and Gold.
I'm speaking, of course, about Pau Gasol.
In the game that bookended O'Neal's nostalgic romp at mid-court, Gasol put forth one of the finest performances of what's been an exceptionally trying 2012-13 season for him. He scored 14 points (albeit on a middling 6-of-13 shooting), grabbed 10 rebounds and assisted on six baskets in 35 minutes during the Lakers' crucial 101-81 win over the hard-charging Dallas Mavericks. He also played a pivotal role in the team-wide effort to limit Dirk Nowitzki to 11 points on 4-of-13 from the field.
But even that all-around effectiveness left Gasol as no better than third on LA's totem pole of attention. Kobe Bryant stole the show with a triple-double. Dwight Howard was hacked to (almost) no end in the fourth quarter and wound up with 24 points and 12 rebounds of his own. Both Bryant and Howard were granted additional limelight for their adversarial connections to Shaq.
Gasol, on the other hand, is no hero, and he is certainly far from anyone's villainous rival. He's "just" a really tall guy who plays basketball—and an exceptionally smart and talented one, at that.
That's been all too easy to forget amidst this most chaotic of campaigns. Pau missed eight games in December with tendinitis in both knees, another five in January on account of a concussion and 20 more between February and March after tearing his plantar fascia.
Gasol has suffered the bite of the injury bug before, but never to the extent that he has this season. He missed 26 games with an Olympics-related foot injury in 2004-05 and sat out the first 23 games of the 2006-07 season with a broken foot suffered while representing Spain at the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
Pau's poor track record of post-international setbacks came into play in a big way this year. His knees were shot after leading his home country to a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics. But at the start of Lakers training camp, then-head coach Mike Brown insisted on grinding Pau to a pulp in practice.
Brown's thinking? If the pain in Gasol's knees was bound to persist throughout the season, Pau might as well get used to it now.
But that bit of coaching foolishness was far from the only one to derail Gasol's effectiveness and, in turn, submarine his value in the eyes of Lakers Nation. Brown was also largely responsible for shifting Pau further away from the basket, even when he still ranked among the most effective post-up players in the league.
Granted, Brown didn't have much of a choice. The Lakers' decision to ship Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks (after previously trying to move him and Gasol in a trade for Chris Paul) left the team without a viable option with whom to create breathing room on the court between Pau and Andrew Bynum.
Because Pau was the better shooter between himself and Bynum—and, perhaps, because Lakers management (i.e. Jim Buss) wanted to see what 'Drew could do as an offensive focal point—the onus fell upon Gasol to sacrifice his game for the good of the team.
Not surprisingly, Pau's performance has since taken a huge hit, as has his reputation. His shooting percentages have plummeted rather predictably, right along with his share of shots within 15 feet of the hoop. On the flip side, according to Hoopdata, Gasol is taking more long twos and threes than ever before.
That trend continued even after Bynum was swapped for Dwight Howard and Brown for Mike D'Antoni.
Pau remained miscast as a mid-range-shooting power forward and suffered mightily as a result. He shot poorly, played passively and invited some rather harsh criticism from his most prominent teammates for his decline. There were calls for the Lakers to trade Pau because he was a poor fit for this system or that, because he was "too soft," because, at the age of 32, he was hardly the three-time All-Star of old, because he couldn't even fend off Earl Clark for a starting spot.
Even if his personal history (and massive salary) suggested otherwise.
But the Lakers stood pat and Pau stayed put, in large part because he was banged-up through trade season. Now, they're perfectly positioned to reap the rewards inherent in their patient approach with a player whose name evokes effusive praise from players, scouts and basketball lifers alike.
The Lakers have won three of their last four games, thanks in no small part to Pau's resurgent play. Gasol's scoring (13.8 points) and rebounding (7.5) numbers during that stretch are hardly reflective of his old self, though he's dishing more (5.5 assists per game) and shooting far more accurately from the field (.540) than he had been.
More importantly, check out the distribution of Pau's shots in those games:
Nearly 60 percent of his attempts have come within close range of the rim. And as you might expect of a top-notch big man like Pau, he's converting those shots far more often than not:
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Gasol's playing so much better now that he's spending more time next to the hoop. He fashioned a fantastic pro career for himself from the low post.
What is surprising, though, is that it took Mike D'Antoni, a purported offensive genius, so long to figure this out and to incorporate this fact more prominently into the reality of the Lakers offense.
Better late than never, I suppose.
In any case, Pau's return to prominence in the paint appears to have sparked a renaissance of sorts in his overall game.
For one, Gasol's partnership with Kobe has been on full display of late. It's not all that far-fetched to suggest that Pau is the one teammate with whose game Bryant has blended most seamlessly over the course of his illustrious career. They're both brilliant basketball minds whose old-school skills emanate from their European youth. They've played together for five-and-a-half seasons. They've played in three NBA Finals and won two titles together. They even speak the same language.
Literally—they're both fluent in Spanish.
Moreover, their on-court interplay is the sort of basketball beauty that even James Naismith could scarcely have envisioned. Pau knows Kobe's tendencies to a tee and understands perfectly how to position himself as a benefactor off the ball when it's in Bryant's hands. Such is the case with this play from the Lakers' 103-98 win over the Sacramento Kings:
Pau waits patiently at the top of the circle while Kobe operates on the right block. As soon as Bryant makes a decisive move toward the middle of the floor, Gasol cuts toward the basket, perfectly anticipating that his defender will leave him to double-team Kobe. Like clockwork, Kobe shoots a two-handed pass over the defenders to Pau, who catches it in stride and dunks it over the late-arriving help.
A similar script plays out over the course of this possession against the Mavs:
Kobe makes a quick move from the perimeter to the hoop on the secondary break, before Pau's even settled back into the picture. Three Dallas defenders swarm Bryant, and yet, he's able to find Pau creeping through the lane, as if he knew the whole time that Gasol was going to be there.
And let's not forget about some of the good, old-fashioned pick-and-roll basketball of which these two savants are capable in tandem, and of which Steve Nash also happens to be a premier proprietor:
Just as Kobe knows how to bring the best out of Pau, so too does Gasol have an excellent feel for playing point with other players of similar height. As far as big-to-big passing from the high post is concerned, few have ever done it as well as Gasol does, though, like any Gladwellian outlier, few have ever had as much practice with it as he has. He spent four years perfecting such a partnership with Andrew Bynum and, because of injuries and perplexing player rotations, has had only infrequent opportunities to develop a similar rapport with Dwight Howard.
Even so, those two have shown flashes of that which they're capable as a dynamic frontcourt duo:
All Dwight needs to do is run to a spot and establish good position, and more often than not, Gasol can and will find him there from up top. And if Howard doesn't have a bead on his defender, Pau can face up and take it himself:
If you put Pau in the post, he can hit cutters with pinpoint passes on the way to the basket:
Or he can probe with his back to the basket and wind up with a score, especially if the opposition is afraid to double-team him:
The point is, Pau does so many things so exceedingly well that it behooves the Lakers to involve him as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. For all of his gifts and experience, Gasol still lacks the superstar instincts of a Kobe or a Dwight, who might otherwise demand touches.
That's just Pau's personality: he's an unselfish, team-first guy through and through. As such, he's not going to dominate unless you let him or, rather, unless you implore him to do so.
What should the Lakers do with Pau Gasol this summer?
The Lakers certainly don't need Gasol to dominate the game, but they could certainly use what he brings to the table as one of the greatest "glue guys" ever. He might just be the only player on LA's roster with the requisite skills to bring all of the team's talented-but-disparate parts into proper harmony. He can serve as a target for Kobe and Nash, get the ball to Dwight either on his own or as an intermediary and generally fill whatever role the Lakers need him to.
So long as it doesn't involve parking him in the long-two boonies.
That much has been clear over LA's last four games—most notably during the team's all-important win against Dallas—and should remain so until the Lakers' season comes to a close.
Because, as it turns out, while Lakers fans were busy reveling in the afterglow of Shaq's heyday in LA, Pau Gasol simply went about his business on the court, reminding the basketball world that he's not all that far removed from his.