If Dwight Howard Bolts Lakers, Will Pau Gasol Regain All-Star Form?

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If Dwight Howard Bolts Lakers, Will Pau Gasol Regain All-Star Form?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
A healthy Pau Gasol playing in the post is still capable of All-Star stats.

Unloading Pau Gasol to save money could be the dumb decision of the year should the Los Angeles Lakers go in that direction this summer. 

Conversely, keeping Gasol in purple and gold for the remaining year of his contract and shifting him over to play center should Dwight Howard leave may turn out to be a brilliant move.

The future of Pau Gasol as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers is as uncertain as Dwight Howard's decision on whether or not to sign a long-term extension.  And while Howard keeps everyone in suspense with his non-committal answers, Gasol has made it clear he wants to stay and play in the city where he has won two NBA Championships.

If Howard does leave Los Angeles, the Lakers most likely will move Gasol back to center, with Jordan Hill as his backup.  It's a spot on the floor where the seven-foot Spaniard excels. If healthy, it should boost his status back to an All-Star level in his 13th NBA season.

There are bound to be detractors who will cite Gasol's age (33 on July 6) and health (recent surgery to repair tendonitis in both knees).  He missed eight games because of tendinitis, five due to a concussion and 20 more after suffering a torn plantar fascia at Brooklyn on February 5.

But, the fact remains that Gasol can be one of the league's top big men and, when given the chance at center, will put up numbers which are equal to or surpass those of Howard.  He actually is much more of a skilled offensive player than D12, though Howard is stronger on the defensive end of the court.

Gasol started three games at center last season.  He averaged 20 points on 49 percent shooting.  Compare that with his career-low 13.4 ppg as the team's starting power forward in 39 games.  As the team's center, Gasol averaged 16.3 shots, compared to 11.9 as starting forward and just 9.4 per game coming off the bench in seven games.

At least publicly, Gasol seems to be taking the uncertainties on his future in stride.  Since nearly being dealt two years ago to New Orleans for Chris Paul (NBA Commissioner David Stern immediately nixed that deal), Gasol has been the subject of numerous trade rumors.

And now he sits and waits again for decisions to be made that are out of his control.  Gasol told reporters, per USA Today, at his April 30 exit interview with the team and General Manager Mitch Kupchak  that:

There's a possibility that I could be gone.  There's a possibility that I could stay.  I don't know exactly the percentages of it, but I'm prepared either way.  Like I said, I understand the challenges that the franchise is facing, the decisions that they have to make in order to take the team in the direction that they want to looking at the present and the future, and also understanding the business side of it.  It's a lot going on.  I wish things were a little simpler, but they're not.  So we'll see.  We'll see how it plays out.

Assuming that Dwight Howard leaves the Lakers, the questions about whether or not to keep Gasol would appear to be moot.  Even with a coach (Mike D'Antoni) who prefers an up-tempo offense, Gasol remains one of the league's top front-court players and understands the rhythms of Kobe Bryant better than virtually anyone else on the Lakers roster. 

D'Antoni had Gasol playing too far from the basket for the first half of last season, asking him to be more of a facilitator and wasting his big-man talents.  That started to change when, late in the year, D'Antoni realized the team performed better when it slowed to a half-court game and moved Gasol closer to the basket as a true power forward.

Initially, D'Antoni saw Gasol as a slow-moving liability rather than a dominant big man with great ball-handling skills and a tremendous mid-range game.  The coach even benched Gasol twice, once in the fourth quarter of a game in November and another one in late January against the Phoenix Suns. 

His rationale for yanking Gasol in that November game was given to Kevin Ding of the OC Register:  

D'Antoni really had no idea what to do with Gasol and, had he the power to do so, might have traded the Spaniard out of Los Angeles as soon as he took over the team.

By the end of the season, D'Antoni was sounding more like Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, both of whom called for Gasol to play down low.  Whether D'Antoni genuinely believed Gasol was suddenly a great fit in the post or was simply playing to the real possibility that he might be left with one starting center doesn't really matter. 

As he watched the resurgent Lakers go 28-12 down the stretch, D'Antoni told reporters, via Larry Brown Sports, on April 17:

I've come to realize that we can play with the two big guys. I was a little skeptical at first. I think with both of them being close to 100 percent, yeah, they can play together easily. I kind of had a preconceived notion that probably wasn’t right.

In what could only be characterized as having tremendous fortitude and class, Gasol not only battled back from in-season injuries and intense scrutiny from his coach and the media, he persevered and flourished down the stretch as the Lakers fought for and gained a playoff berth on the last day of the campaign.

If Dwight Howards walks away from the Lakers (a recent poll by LakersNation.com revealed that 55 percent think he will), Pau Gasol stands ready to reclaim his spot as the Lakers most dominant big man of the past five years.  

Come to think of it, he never really lost that spot to begin with. 

In five seasons with the Lakers (playing both center and power forward), Gasol went to three consecutive NBA Finals, winning two rings in the process.   

He's a four-time All-Star, three of those (2009-2011) coming as a member of the Lakers.

Pau Gasol may be older, but he still has a few good years left of performing at a high level.  And, barring any major injury, he is primed for another All-Star season.  All signs point to a stellar year for Gasol, should he switch back to the low post.

Let's see how smart the Lakers truly are.

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