Forced out of the paint and onto the perimeter thanks to Dwight Howard's arrival, Gasol struggled immensely during the regular season. Injuries contributed to his abrupt demise, but positional discomfort was the primary catalyst.
He wasn't meant to drift amongst the small forwards and shooting guards on the perimeter; he was made for low-post dominance. The stretch forward role is not, and never was, a part he should be playing.
Displacing him from where he spent a majority of his career was a mistake. A monstrous error in judgment.
One the Lakers now have the opportunity to correct.
You Belong, Pau
Finally, Gasol will be put where he needs to be—at center.
Since joining the Lakers, he has excelled at the 5. Not that he's been horrific at the 4, but in Mike D'Antoni's offense he's nearly incapable of remaining effective there.
Last season was by far the worst of his career, yet he still managed to stand out while playing the 5. Per 82games.com, he notched a 22 PER at center compared to a 15.4 at power forward. And since his arrival, he's posted a 24.2 to a 21.8, respectively.
Returning him to where he's been markedly better over the last six-plus years just makes sense, now more than ever.
Traditional power forwards are obsolete in Magic Mike's offense. Stretch forwards rule the day, ergo D'Antoni suggesting Jordan Hill get his three-point shot on during the offseason.
The same was asked of Gasol last year, but to no avail. He couldn't emerge as the towering stretch forward D'Antoni's offense craved, the same one the Lakers needed.
Not for want of trying, though. Gasol tailored his game to meet the needs of a Howard-centric low post.
Below you'll see Gasol's shot distribution over the last seven years, courtesy of hoopdata.com.
In 2012-13, Gasol attempted a career low in shots at the rim while hoisting up a career high from beyond the arc, almost like this transition was done on purpose. Because it was.
And the alterations can be traced back to the lockout-truncated 2011-12 campaign, when he was moved back to power forward in favor of Andrew Bynum. It was then his looks at the rim began to trend downward.
Dragging Gasol outside of the paint, however, is like actively admitting the Lakers think missed jumpers are sexy. When at the rim, Gasol connected on 66.7 percent of his shots last season. Outside of three feet, he shot a disastrous 37.7 percent.
Meanwhile, the man Los Angeles was butchering Gasol's tendencies for, Howard, failed to emerge as a dominant presence in the post.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he averaged a pedestrian 0.74 points per post-up possession, well below Gasol's 0.87. Don't sing the pick-and-roll song either. Though Howard hit on 79.6 percent of his field-goal attempts as the roll man, just 11.1 percent of his offensive plays came under such circumstances.
Los Angeles essentially ripped Gasol from his comfort zone, hoping he could morph into some version of a floor-spacing 4. But he and the Lakers were burned by unrealistic ambitions. His ability to make jump shots has always been a supportive limb, not the roots of his offensive game.
Next season, the Lakers have an opportunity to keep it that way, to play Gasol where his numbers are highest and Superman is no longer clogging up the pipeline.
If you've ever seen Howard post up, you know how ugly his back-to-the-basket game can be.
The dribbling, fumbling of the ball as he brings it above his head, the point of release—everything. It's as if his free throw and jump shooting got together and decided to reproduce.
Now that Superman's unpredictable offensive game is in Houston, gone are the days when Gasol must jostle for position down low against his own teammate. Neither Howard nor Bynum can prohibit him from posting up now.
I give you this:
Gasol is able to catch the ball on the weak-side block, as opposed to the free-throw line extended. Positioning Howard outside of the paint allows him to post up and go to work on LaMarcus Aldridge.
Do you know how often it's a good idea to take Howard out of the paint? Almost never.
Unlike some of the more offensively evolved centers in the NBA, Howard's range doesn't extend beyond three feet.
Still, he remains lurking on the outside as Gasol goes deeper:
Gasol has successfully gotten closer to the basket, and Howard stays idle. The Portland Trail Blazers foolishly double-team him, no doubt hoping to prevent a quick pass.
Problem is, only one guy is needed in that situation. Howard can't score at a high rate from there, so there's no use placing two bodies on him when Gasol is taking advantage of his one-on-one matchup:
After ducking under Aldridge, Gasol scores:
Post-up opportunities such as these won't be as difficult to come by next year, because Howard won't have to journey well outside his comfort zone to give Gasol space.
The space in question will already be there. It will be Gasol's.
Big men have to move without the ball. It's a simple fact of life.
Point guards generally control possession, so their teammates must put themselves in position to get the ball and score. Forcing someone like Gasol to play outside of his range is a good way to ensure they're a) at a standstill and/or b) taking a shot they're not accustomed to taking.
Jodie Meeks is on ball and Gasol begins to traverse his way toward the left:
Soon enough, as Howard attempts to free Meeks from the traffic he's dribbled into, Gasol found his spot.
And he stays there:
By now, Meeks has broken free and hits a wide-open Gasol behind the arc:
To be sure, there's a reason Gasol is left unattended:
Those aren't the shots you want Gasol taking. He's shooting 24.3 percent on three-pointers for his career; there's no reason he should be shackled to the perimeter, especially when Howard is sheepishly playing pick-but-no-roll near the time line.
You want to see more of this:
Steve Blake walks the ball up the floor while Gasol still hovers around the three-point line.
Eventually Gasol turns his back to the basket, but Blake elects to hit Superman, who is standing in no-man's land:
This admittedly doesn't look good. Every time Howard isn't within arm's distance of the rim, you're liable to get this nauseous feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you've just watched Miley Cyrus twerk at the VMAs or something.
This one gets interesting (in a good way) instead. Blake sprints toward Kobe Bryant to set a screen:
Randolph stops riding Gasol's bumper because he either knows a slashing Kobe is headed his way or, more likely given his defensive track record, he just gets lucky and it looks like he's making the right decision:
Stay with me on this one, because stuff's about to get real.
To keep Kobe free, Gasol screens Tayshaun Prince again. Howard (probably) zeroed in on the wide-open space in the paint, which is incidentally where Kobe is headed.
Being the savvy defender that he is, Prince recognizes the Black Mamba is making a beeline for the rim and sidesteps Gasol's screen:
Once again, this looks bad. Howard is still past the free-throw line, the Memphis Grizzlies are smart enough not to double him and Kobe is covered.
Then, suddenly, all is right with the Lakers offense. Randolph has fallen behind the play following Kobe's escape, giving Gasol enough room to slip inside:
Howard then hits him with a pass right in front of the basket:
Because it's pretty difficult to miss from there, Gasol stuffs it home:
What made this play successful is also what stood to render it a dud. Gasol is given the option of journeying inside, like he should, but Howard is left to facilitate the play from just inside the arc, which is typically a no-no.
It took a little uncharacteristic passing from Howard to get the job done, but this doesn't happen if Gasol isn't allowed to weasel his way into the paint. Had he been forced to retreat back outside, Howard would've had to look elsewhere.
Or Gasol would've been left to carom an open 16-footer off the rim. Whichever ending you prefer.
Low-Post Court Vision
Superman drew double-teams, but he never had the wherewithal to pass out of them. Not like Gasol can.
When he posts up, he draws in multiple defenders. While Howard and his career 1.5 assists per game are more inclined to force the action, Gasol lets the play unfold, even if it doesn't go according to plan.
It's arrow time again:
Gasol receives the ball relatively close to the basket, though the location isn't as important as the end goal. With Howard off the floor, he is free to post up. Which he does:
All is well as Gasol is backing down Anthony Davis. But then he slips and falls to the ground:
Now's about the time Howard would have either panicked or screamed foul, or both. Gasol, however, doesn't let the disturbed play get to him.
Ryan Anderson has converged to provide unnecessary help defense at this point. Seeing that he and Brian Roberts have their attention directed toward him and the ball as well, Gasol threads the needle into the hands of a gumshoeing Antawn Jamison:
Point-blank opportunities like those usually fall and this one was no exception:
This is Gasol's court vision at its best. As one of the best passing bigs in the game, having him in the post broadens Los Angeles' offensive dynamic in ways Howard never could. Although this doesn't guarantee the Lakers are better overall without Howard, it certainly makes it a possibility.
But that's not as important right now as knowing that the Lakers will, for the first time in two years, allow Gasol to be the player he's supposed to be, by playing him exactly where he was meant to play.