Pau Gasol will look to bounce back strong after a difficult 2013.
In the wake of Dwight Howard leaving town, the Los Angeles Lakers had to completely reconfigure their roster over the course of the offseason with an eye toward generating the maximum amount of cap room possible heading into next season.
Power forward is one position which the Lakers turned over rapidly during the summer. While Pau Gasol remains at the top of the depth chart, gone are his primary backups from last year—Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark.
Taking their places are two unproven rookies. The Lakers selected Ryan Kelly out of Duke 48th overall in June's draft and signed undrafted rookie Elias Harris out of Gonzaga to a multi-year, non-guaranteed contract earlier this month.
Let's take a look at what the Lakers can expect out of each of their projected power forwards in 2014.
Pau Gasol is coming off the worst year of his illustrious career.
The Spaniard struggled to stay healthy all season and didn't seem to quite fit into coach Mike D'Antoni's plans when he did take the court.
Overall, Gasol posted career lows in games played, scoring, true shooting percentage, PER and win shares. He made seven appearances off the bench after doing so only six times total in his first 11 NBA campaigns.
The main problem for Pau last year was his pairing with Howard. When those two shared the floor, Gasol was forced into an uncomfortable role away from the basket—essentially as a spot-up shooter.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), 47 percent of Gasol's field goal attempts came from outside the paint with the Lakers' twin towers playing together. He shot just 36 percent on those attempts and the Lakers were outscored by 0.7 points per 100 possessions.
On the flip side, when Gasol was in the game without Howard, 62 percent of his attempts came in the painted area, and he converted on a supremely efficient 55 percent of them. In these instances, the Lakers completely wiped out their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions.
That last paragraph should give Lakers fans hope.
Now permanently sans Howard, Gasol will be able to operate in his favorite spots near the basket, where he is still one of the four or five most gifted offensive big men in the league. Opposing defenses will have no choice but to send double teams at him, which plays right into his creative passing ability.
Defense is where Gasol's mettle will truly be tested. He seemed to struggle more than usual last season moving his feet and cutting off guard penetration on pick-and-rolls and averaged the second-fewest blocked shots per game in his career.
Los Angeles is hoping that a lot of that can be explained by his injury woes and that he can return to being a competent defensive anchor who can at least control the boards and protect the rim to some extent.
Is Pau Gasol more likely to be traded or make the All-Star team in 2014?
Going back to NBA.com's data, the Lakers' defense was better in the Pau-without-Dwight configuration than it was overall and would have ranked in the top 10 in the league.
There's another glimmer of hope.
Though he's listed as a power forward on depth charts, don't be surprised to see Gasol utilized heavily at center, as D'Antoni likes to play small ball and Gasol is the best big man on the roster by far. Expect Gasol to recapture his numbers from two seasons ago, when he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds, though his minutes should be capped at around 35-36 a night.
Expectations should be low in regards to Ryan Kelly. It's rare for rookies taken outside the top-40 picks to contribute heavily right away.
That said, Kelly has the skill set to make a contribution at some point during the season. He's the classic stretch 4 prototype—a 6'11'' jump-shooting big man with a sweet stroke.
Kelly knocked down a little more than 42 percent of his triples as a senior after hitting nearly 41 percent of them as a junior. The Lakers desperately need three-point shooting, and D'Antoni craves a power forward who is a threat to do damage from deep.
There's not a whole lot else that Kelly excels at. Despite his height, his average wingspan limits his length, and his thin frame can be battered in the paint.
Defensively he'll likely be a liability, so the Lakers should make sure to keep a narrow focus on his game and not try to stretch his role into something that ends up hurting the team.
Health has been an issue for Kelly. He missed significant time in his collegiate career, and injuries forced him to miss summer league. That may be why the Lakers are yet to sign him. If he does manage to stay on the court, he can function as a shooting specialist capable of stretching defenses from the power forward spot.
We're looking at about eight to 12 minutes a game depending on how hot his hand is, with averages of around four points and two rebounds per contest while making at least 36 percent of his threes.
The enigma in L.A.'s power forward rotation is Elias Harris. Unless you were into Gonzaga basketball, chances are you'd never heard of the undrafted rookie from Germany before he inked a deal with the Lakers.
Unfortunately, being a German power forward doesn't automatically make you the next Dirk Nowitzki.
Harris is a little undersized to play the 4, but he doesn't have the quickness or skills to play the 3. Given D'Antoni's penchant for going small, power forward will be where he gets his minutes on this team.
If you look long enough, you can talk yourself into seeing Harris as a Shawn Marion type. He's got a similar frame and leaping ability—and of course there's the D'Antoni connection—but the resemblance stops at the surface.
Harris doesn't have Marion's defensive stopper capabilities, nor does he have the cat-like quickness or scoring touch around the basket that the Matrix possesses.
At best, he can be an effort guy who runs the floor looking for easy baskets and grabs more rebounds than his size would dictate. Harris has an inconsistent shot and virtually no off-the-bounce game, so his skills are severely limited.
He's definitely a project and shouldn't see much playing time unless the Lakers are ravaged by injuries to their front line for the second year in a row. I'd project him for pure mop-up duty, about three to four minutes a game (in less than 30 games) with maybe a point and a rebound in his short time on the court.
Let's put it this way: If Harris is on the court for more than a quarter, it means the Lakers are in deep, deep trouble.