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How LA Lakers Have Re-Invented Pau Gasol's Role and Why It's Working

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How LA Lakers Have Re-Invented Pau Gasol's Role and Why It's Working
Harry How/Getty Images

With Kobe Bryant and Mike D'Antoni now both aboard his bandwagon, Pau Gasol is looking a lot more like Pau Gasol.

Not just the Pau of last season or the one before, but of 2010, when he averaged 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds on 53.6 percent shooting, and when the Los Angeles Lakers won their last championship. 

Yeah, that Pau.

Since returning to the lineup after an extensive battle with a partially torn plantar fascia, he's been a little less 2013, and a lot more 2010.

Gasol is averaging 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds on 53.7 shooting since rejoining the team. Over his last eight, he's putting up 16.4 points and 8.8 rebounds on 58.3 percent shooting. And over his last five, he's posting 18 points and 10 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting.

He has also tallied 22 points in two straight games and scored in double-figures in eight consecutive games, his longest stretch of the season.

"That's 2010 Pau," Bryant said after the Lakers' victory over the New Orleans Hornets (via Sam Amick of USA Today).

To really understand how important it is for Kobe to say those three words, we must understand how far Gasol had previously fallen.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The going wasn't easy for Pau early on.

Prior to his last 10 contests, Pau had appeared in just 36 of Los Angeles' first 69 games. He was struggling to stay healthy and find a spot in the fourth-quarter rotation, and his averages of 13.4 points on 45.3 percent shooting (both of which were career lows) left both him and everyone in Tinseltown wondering if he wasn't more valuable as trade fodder.

The trade deadline came to pass and (injured) Gasol remained. He returned in the midst of a (slight) midseason surge to find the Lakers 36-33 and in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Los Angeles lost three of the first four games with Pau back in the lineup but has since won five of the last six. The Lakers have yet to clinch a playoff berth, but Gasol is back to being productive and Kobe is smiling at the mention of his name.

But how? Gasol bordered on obscurity for more than half the season. How was he able to regain the four-time All-Star form he played with years ago? How has he gone from an outcast to one of the most vital components this team as to offer?

Kobe and Magic Mike. Aside from Pau himself, those two are the most responsible for Gasol's renaissance.

Both have emphasized involving the big man in the offense more. Bryant himself always has. This side of Pau's return, though, Coach D'Antoni has joined him (via Amick):

So with D'Antoni's strong preference to use Gasol on the outside to spread the floor, why, I asked, was this vintage style now deemed acceptable?

"I don't know.," he said. "I think Mike just realizes what he has in Pau. He realizes what he has. Even during the timeout, he said…during that stretch there in the second quarter, when I was out the game, Dwight (Howard) was out the game, (D'Antoni) just came back to the bench and said, 'Guys, we've got to pound the ball inside to Pau. We've just got to go to him and stop trying to do things on the perimeter. Just go inside and let him muscle inside.'"

These aren't empty sentiments, either. Gasol has been allowed set up shop in the post and on the block far more often.

Pau by the numbers (via chartgo.com).

Per hoopdata.com, more than 49 percent of Gasol's shot attempts are coming outside of nine feet and just 29.3 percent come at the rim. By comparison, just 26.9 percent of Pau's shot attempts came outside of nine feet and 44.6 percent came at the rim during Los Angeles' 2009-10 championship campaign.

Upon rejoining the team, Gasol has been granted the opportunity to spend a similar amount of time in the post.

"I have a better feel out there, (can) position myself well also…so (I'm) just getting to the positions where I'm most effective so I can operate and make plays and prove it works," Pau said (via Amick).

And he's not kidding. Especially with regards to his two most recent 22-point outbursts.

Against the Hornets, Gasol attempted 15 shots, 13 of which (or 86.7 percent) came inside the paint. He converted on eight (61.5 percent) of those attempts in the paint.

Gasol's shot chart from win over Hornets (via NBA.com).

In the near-loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, nothing changed.

Pau attempted 15 shots once again. This time, eight came from inside the paint (53.3 percent), and he hit on seven of them (87.5 percent).

Gasol's shot chart from win over Blazers (via NBA.com).

Through these two games combined, just nine of Gasol's 30 field-goal attempts came outside the paint, four were taken beyond the free-throw line and he attempted just one three pointer. He's attempted just two total treys in the 10 games since he's returned from injury.

These are areas that Gasol is used to operating within. He's always been an outside threat, someone with whom point guards and Kobe can run the pick-and-pop, but he's more comfortable when allowed to position himself near or around the block. All he's ever needed was to get back there.

D'Antoni's newfound appreciation for Gasol's inside game and Kobe's insistence that Pau remain a fixture in the post has allowed him to do just this.

"(Bryant) just tells me to run to the post and take it and screw everything else basically," Gasol explained (via Amick).

Though Pau admits that taking the "screw everything else" approach isn't his style, he can't deny that it's worked. And a perfect example of its success came midway through the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies.

As the Lakers begin their offensive set, Gasol positions himself near the left block.

He then sets a very light screen for Kobe, who enters the paint. Upon doing so, Gasol rolls off ever so slightly, putting himself in front of Mike Conley but behind Tayshaun Prince.

As Bryant continues to cut toward the basket, Gasol then steps further in front of Conley as Prince converges to cut off the Black Mamba's path to the basket.

Instead of dishing it to Kobe, Howard lets the play develop and waits for Prince to separate himself further from Gasol in his pursuit of Bryant.

Pau is then left with an open path to the basket, and Howard hits him for the easy two.

In real time.

Simply letting the play develop here did a lot. More importantly, Pau was allowed to remain within 15 feet of the basket, not hovering behind the three-point line like a stretch forward.

Los Angeles has employed a variety of other tactics as well, like positioning Gasol somewhere near the top of the key when Bryant or Howard is posting up.

Look at where he is as Kobe goes to work on the strong side against the Hornets. It might not seem like much, but he's inside the rainbow, closer to the foul line.

Recognizing that rookie Anthony Davis is going to cheat off him toward Bryant, Gasol begins to cut toward the basket. 

Pau makes his move and slips completely behind Davis in less than a second, and by the time the neophyte recovers and Robin Lopez comes over with the help defense, it's too late.

In real time.

Never underestimate the importance of spacing. The Lakers (as we just saw) are making a more concerted effort to allow Pau the freedom to maneuver inside the three-point line, which allows Gasol to make cuts and moves he otherwise couldn't.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Pau is back.

Just by emphasizing his importance on the offensive end further and displacing Howard from spending too much time in the restricted area, Kobe and crew have afforded Gasol opportunities he hasn't had all season long.

This was never a matter of Gasol not being able to score. It was a matter of putting him in spots where he could score, pass effectively and do so within the flow of the offense.

Is this version of Pau Gasol here to stay?

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More than 75 games into the season, that's what the Lakers have (finally) done.

"I like my team and my coaching staff to want me to be there instead of positioning myself there," Pau said of being able to post up (via Amick).

Well, they finally want him there. They're finally putting him there. Kobe, D'Antoni—everybody. Because it's working. And having a productive and confident Gasol on offense has made all the difference. It's made the Lakers a better team.

One that might finally be suited to procuring a playoff berth.

 

*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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