Basketball fans and the media alike often forget that Pau Gasol is a center masquerading as a power forward. Consequently, if Dwight Howard bolts from the Los Angeles Lakers, Gasol will reclaim the starting center position and flourish.
Since joining the Lakers in 2007-08, Gasol has been a dominant performer when playing at his natural position of center. It allows him to go down in the low post and operate with optimal spacing.
When faced with single coverage on the low block, Gasol has consistently proven throughout his career that he can generate high-percentage shots and convert them. He has excellent footwork and is ambidextrous in the post.
The Spaniard hits his hook shots with either hand and is quite comfortable taking the ball to the basket against tough interior defenders. His basketball IQ coupled with his impressive passing skills further exacerbates matters for opponents given that it makes double-teaming him a risky proposition.
It’s not a coincidence that Gasol has made three appearances on the All-NBA team while playing center for the Lakers.
With Phil Jackson coaching the Purple and Gold, Gasol was frequently featured in the post in the triangle offense. The scheme afforded the talented big man with room to operate down on the block given the terrific spacing on the floor.
The statistics reflect this as well. Since joining the Lakers, Gasol has scored more points per 36 minutes when playing center in every season save for the 2010-11 campaign, per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.
When the two-time world champion plays power forward, he is typically flanked by a center that occupies the low post. This forces Gasol to drift out further away from the basket.
It’s worth pointing out that it’s not simply a matter of playing Gasol at power forward that hurts his production. Roster moves as well as coaching philosophies play a huge part on this front.
For instance, in Jackson’s final two seasons coaching the Lakers, roughly 40 percent of his field-goal attempts were manufactured in post-up situations, per Synergy Sports.
The Lakers had the shooters and ball-handlers on the perimeter to complement Gasol. Jackson departed at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, and Lamar Odom was traded in the same offseason.
Consequently, the 7’0’’ Andrew Bynum was going to see more time on the court.
Mike Brown was hired as the Lakers’ coach and reduced Gasol’s touches in the post. In the 2011-12 campaign, the Spaniard generated 28.5 percent of his field-goal attempts from post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports.
The drop in post shots led to Brown incorporating Gasol into more pick-and-rolls. Indeed, the percentage of field-goal attempts created in pick-and-rolls rose from 6.9 percent in 2010-11 to 11.7 percent in 2011-12.
That number eventually climbed to 20.1 percent in 2012-13 with Mike D’Antoni taking over for Brown. The spike was certainly inevitable with Howard joining the Lakers.
Howard has very little range in his offensive game, which makes him a poor floor spacer. Thus, putting him in screen-and-rolls and post-ups is a must for a player with his finishing ability at the basket.
But that also means Gasol must vacate the painted area to give Howard room to maneuver around the basket. This explains why Gasol attempted a career-high 28 shots from three-point range in 2012-13 despite appearing in only 49 games.
Hence, a potential Howard exit would result in Gasol playing center once again for the Lakers. It’s worth noting that D’Antoni will not run a steady diet of plays to get the ball down on the low block.
However, the Lakers will play at a fast pace and surround the big man with a multitude of shooters.
The perimeter players will open up the court and allow the Spaniard to play one-on-one against opposing centers in the same manner the triple-post offense permitted him to do so.
In addition, pick-and-rolls will be much cleaner with shooters around. Gasol’s passing will occasionally discourage defenders from crashing down on him when he catches the ball on the move. In the event opponents converge on him though, Gasol will find his open teammates and hit them in stride.
Gasol is one of the most gifted back-to-the-basket players in the league. Unfortunately, he has not had an opportunity to demonstrate this consistently since Jackson departed from the Lakers.
If the Purple and Gold lose Howard in free agency, Gasol automatically becomes their starting center once again. The Spaniard will reclaim All-Star status with a bigger role and philosophy that exploits his talents.
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