Lakers to Feature Pau Gasol at Center Without Dwight Howard

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Lakers to Feature Pau Gasol at Center Without Dwight Howard
Harry How/Getty Images

It's your turn, Pau.

With Dwight Howard gone, the Los Angeles Lakers will turn to Pau Gasol to lead them at center heading into next season.

According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, the Lakers have no plans to amnesty the four-time All-Star, and instead plan to use him extensively at center:

While the Los Angeles Lakers were understandably disappointed when Dwight Howard called to tell them he was leaving to sign with the Houston Rockets late Friday afternoon, there was a silver lining.

Now that Howard is gone, there will be no talk or discussion about using the amnesty provision on forward Pau Gasol anymore, a source with knowledge of the team's thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com Friday night.

Gasol will likely slide over from power forward to center and be featured in that role, as he was on the 2009 Lakers team that defeated Howard and the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

For some, using Gasol at center won't be looked at as a "silver lining."

Harry How/Getty Images
With Dwight gone, there is only Pau.

Howard is 27 and widely considered the best center in the NBA, while Gasol is 33 and coming off the worst season of his career. It doesn't seem like a fair switch, and it isn't.

The Lakers got burned in their pursuit of a superstar and looking on the bright side isn't something jilted Laker loyalists are prepared to do when this foreign sense of failure is still so raw.

In due time, however, those in Tinseltown who remain unconvinced will see the break in the clouds. Howard no longer calls Los Angeles home, and that's not the end of the world.

Immediately people will point towards next summer and the free-agency frenzy of 2014, when the Lakers will chase LeBron James and likely any other superstar with a pulse—as pointed out by Alex Kennedy of Hoops World.

But the Lakers aren't a team that looks at one future summer as a franchise-defining course. If they did, if it was all about 2014, Los Angeles would amnesty Pau (or Kobe Bryant), blow things up and head into next summer with a high draft pick in addition to their free-agency ambitions.

The Lakers don't think that way. Every year comes with a similar expectation—contending for a championship.

Next season may not see them legitimately contend, much like this past year. That doesn't mean they're going to roll over and submit to the will of the Western Conference's powerhouses either.

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports
These three can still play, especially Pau.

A core of Kobe, Pau and Steve Nash, when healthy, can still do something special. And in case you've forgotten, Pau is much better suited as a center than he was a power forward.

Mike D'Antoni's offensive system calls for one big man, preferably a tower just like Gasol, who can score in the post, work effectively off the pick-and-roll and drain some jumpers. No longer jostling for position with Howard down low, Gasol is free to navigate the paint. He's in possession of all the space he needs.

Manning the 5 isn't a new concept for Pau either. Like Shelburne notes, he spent most of his minutes at center during the 2008-09 campaign, and the Lakers won a championship.

The same goes for the 2009-10 crusade. Gasol spent most of his minutes at center, and the Lakers won the championship. 

Coincidence? Hardly.

Since joining the Lakers, Gasol has never posted a PER below 20 at center and notched a higher PER at power forward only once. Broken-record style, PERs aren't the end-all, be-all of player evaluations, but they're one of the most complete metrics we have.

For the last five years, Gasol has been markedly better when playing the 5, as shown above.

Even in turmoil, Gasol's excellence at center has shined through. He averaged a career-low 13.7 points per game on a career-worst 46.6 percent shooting last season, but according to 82games, he still posted a PER of 22 per 48 minutes at center, well above the league average of 15 and noticeably higher than Howard's mark of 19.4.

Sure, I'll cop to Howard having an off year last season. He was good, not great. But what would you call Gasol's year? Incredible? I don't think so.

Over the last five seasons, Gasol's averaged a PER of 24.2 per 48 minutes at center. Howard sits at 23.8. True story.

This of course isn't a means to prove Gasol is better than Howard. That's an argument for a different time. Don't believe for a minute, second or even millisecond, though, that Gasol can't hold his own at center. He can. He already has.

It also bears mentioning that Pau has played more minutes at center than power forward in three out of his five full seasons in Los Angeles. Two of those three campaigns ended in a championship. The other two–the last two—ended in a second- and first-round playoff exit, respectively.

This is more than a mere spacing issue, it's about where Pau feels most comfortable. 

Opportunities like these won't be so few and far between now that Dwight is gone.

Never mind which system D'Antoni prefers to run, Gasol himself is at his best when he's the primary pick-and-roll option surrounded by four other wings to whom he can dish the rock out of double-teams. Placing him alongside another big has always tapered his production.

When he was on the floor with Dwight last year, the Lakers were outscored by an average of 1.5 points per 100 possessions, a deficit that was blamed mostly on D'Antoni and his inability to adapt to using a pair of bigs.

And yet, this is nothing new. Pau has never fared as well when forced to share the post, playing next to the ever-tumultuous Andrew Bynum included.

Courtesy of Basketball-Reference, Bynum cracked the top five of Gasol's most productive two-man pairings (net points per 100 possessions) just once in four full seasons together.

Their partnership was never the train wreck that Pau and Dwight's became, and they were able to outscore opponents when on the floor together, but the Lakers have always yielded better results when Gasol is the lone big man on the floor.

We've also got to understand that Gasol just found more success away from Howard in general.

Dwight isn't known as an apt passer and for some reason. He doesn't even like to be the roll man on pick-and-rolls, even though he ranked ninth in the league in points scored per possession (1.29) in those situations last season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). And that was during what most considered to be an off year.

With Bynum, Gasol was at least able to run more screen-and-rolls (shown below).

How will the Lakers fare with Pau Gasol as their center next year?

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Take the statistical analysis as you wish, but even if you're a numerical skeptic, you've got to see how much better off Pau is now, away from Howard and his somewhat deluded sense of offensive purpose.

Adjacent to Howard, Gasol was forced to spend more time at the 4 when the numbers prove he's better at the 5. Next to Howard he wasn't only not the primary pick-and-roll option, but Dwight's insane aversion to rolling left him unable to exploit opposing defenses with his ability to assist a fellow big man.

Those obstacles are no longer impediments. Howard is gone and Gasol is set to reprise his role as Los Angeles' center, where he's most effective. Where he helped lead the Lakers to two titles in as many years.

Where he'll ensure the Lakers aren't about to embark on a lost season.

 

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