Long before Dwight Howard rained on Hollywood's parade, Gasol was making sacrifices on the offensive end. Positional concessions he wouldn't normally make became habitual. He went from a versatile center to a power forward on a leash.
A snot-nosed Andrew Bynum impacted his ability to roam about the post freely a year or two before Superman arrived. Exchanging one for the other was just Los Angeles' way of burdening Gasol further.
In fact, @paugasol has sacrificed his post game for the past 2-3 seasons, first with Bynum, then Howard. It's not like his skills are gone.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 25, 2013
Next to Howard and Bynum, Gasol lacked an offensive identity. No coach the Lakers brought in could figure out how to accentuate the mass of D12 and 'Drew without gutting Gasol's innate inclinations. Not Mike Brown, not Mike D'Antoni. Even Phil Jackson struggled to master the interior logjam following Los Angeles' last title in 2010.
Stand here. No, stand there. Pick-and-roll all day long. I'm sorry, pick-and-what? Put your big-boy pants on. Well, maybe it's better if you stick with a onesie. Yes, you're a starter. No wait, you're a sixth man. Never mind, you're a starter.
The inconsistency was maddening, and it showed last year. Gasol averaged a career low in points (13.7), field-goal attempts (11.8) and percentage (46.6). Injuries contributed to his offensive dissolution as well, limiting him to just 49 games. But being stripped of his individuality hurt more.
With Howard in Houston and Bynum (not) playing in Cleveland, that's no longer an issue. Gasol won't take a backseat to Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre or Chris Kaman. He's the man up front for the first time in more than two years. General manager Mitch Kupchak even believes he could be an All-Star in 2014 if he's healthy, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.
Kupchak on Pau Gasol: "If he's healthy, he's going to be an All-Star player"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) September 25, 2013
Almost three years removed from his last All-Star appearance and well past his 33rd birthday, Gasol will find securing another selection difficult at best. The NBA's All-Star ballot structure certainly won't help his case, either.
But 2013-14 isn't about a return to the All-Star game for Gasol. It's about something far more important and suddenly plausible. This season is about the return of Gasol, as we previously knew him.
Before he lost his way.
The Center of Attention
Gasol belongs at center. Always has. Most of his minutes have been spent at the 4 since 2011, and it hasn't always been pretty. Last season, it was outright ugly.
With no Howard or Bynum to contend with now, the Lakers plan to use Gasol at the 5 exclusively. Finally.
Since joining the Lakers, Gasol has never posted a PER below 20 while playing center, according to 82games.com. The league average is 15; you do the math.
Pretty much everything Gasol does gets better when he's allowed to play center. Just take a look at how his per-48 minute averages have stacked up by position since arriving in Los Angeles:
There's no argument to be made to the contrary. Permitting Gasol to play center makes more sense than anything else. The numbers don't lie.
Neither does Kupchak, who indicated Gasol will become the "focal point" of Los Angeles' interior attack, per Lakers.com's Mike Trudell.
The key phrase from Kupchak on how LAL will use @paugasol this season: "He'll be the focal point of our play in the paint."— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 25, 2013
Running the ball through Gasol before other bigs eliminates any residual inconsistency. He'll get more touches, receive more shots. Which is a good thing.
Remember, he attempted 10 or fewer shots 19 times last season. That's just the fourth time in his career he's hit such a benchmark. And it came during a season in which he played a career-low 49 games. Sheesh.
A more prominent offensive role guarantees Gasol will have more opportunities to make an impact. Passive nights will be few and far between. He'll take more shots, more often.
Being exposed to that kind of continuity will make a difference in itself.
The Lakers were a good pick-and-roll team last season.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), their roll men ranked sixth in the league with 1.05 points per possession. The problem is, roll men accounted for just 5.6 percent of their offensive touches. Why? Because of Howard.
Superman has never been one to embrace the use of pick-and-rolls. He fancies himself a post-up scorer, when he has no business handling the ball. Ever.
He ranked ninth in points scored per possession as a roll man last season (1.29), but those sets accounted for only 11.9 percent of his total offense. Post-ups, meanwhile, came in at 45.2 percent. That's almost half. Nearly half of his touches were devoted to situations where he shot just 44.5 percent from the floor and ranked 121st in points per possession (0.74).
Gasol hasn't shown the same disdain toward pick-and-rolls or, as we should call it, the end-all, be-all for D'Antoni-coached offenses. Though he struggled as the roll man last season—0.89 points per possession—Gasol still connected on 48.9 percent of his attempts under those circumstances.
More than 20 percent of his possessions came as the roll man, too, almost doubling the ratio of a post-up insisting Howard. When you factor in the additional 2.6 percent of his sets that came as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, he essentially does double-up on Dwight (22.7 to 11.4).
Make no mistake—that matters. Gasol's ability to handle and pass the ball means he can play both sides of the pick-and-roll. His increased range makes him more difficult to defend as well.
Defenses know where Howard is going when he rolls—the rim. Pick-and-pops cannot be run with him if he's the intended "popper." He just can't shoot.
Per hoopdata.com, he has never averaged more than two shot attempts outside of nine feet for an entire season. Limitations abound on the offensive end for him, not Gasol.
Below you'll see the average number of shots each has attempted beyond nine feet since 2006:
Collective "wow" on three. One, two, three—WOW.
Floor spacing is just as important in D'Antoni's offense as pick-and-rolls themselves. Not entirely because Magic Mike loves him some three-point shooting, either. The more shots you're able to hit, the more roles you're able to assume. And versatility doesn't just sell, it works. It confuses defenses, forcing them to make tough decisions that can result in easier baskets.
I'll let you see for yourself.
Gasol sets a screen for Andrew Goudelock just inside the three-point line here:
Howard, like always, is camped out down low. So Gasol isn't going to make a beeline for the rim, where Tim Duncan and another help defender would likely await. There just isn't enough room for both him and Howard to operate there.
Instead of trying to will an inevitably foiled play into existence, Gasol rolls left beyond the top of the key:
Now he's wide open, but Goudelock has a choice: Does he let Gasol take the jumper, or does he continue the play elsewhere, by perhaps sending an entry pass Howard's way?
Goudelock correctly defers to Gasol, who spots up and drains the long two:
The closest member of the San Antonio spurs was Tiago Splitter. Everyone else was trafficking the paint. And Splitter wasn't getting to Gasol in time.
Had this been Howard, there would have been no choice to make. He can't shoot 15- or 18-footers. He just can't. Gasol gives the Lakers that option; he gives them that ability to exploit paint-happy defenses.
This next one trounces its predecessor, though.
When Gasol sets the (half-hearted) screen for Steve Nash, he's well behind the three-point line:
Fortunately for the Lakers, DeJuan Blair elects to back up and protect the lane. Not so coincidentally, Howard is already tied up down low by two defenders as well.
With the Spurs rather preoccupied, Gasol takes the opportunity to slide down toward the free-throw line:
Nash hits Gasol with the pass, something he still couldn't have done with Howard. D12 converted just 49.2 percent of his free-throw attempts last season.
As we saw before, that shot is well within Gasol's range. But the Spurs saw that, too. Upon Gasol catching the ball, Blair will close out on him. So Gasol does the unthinkable—he pump fakes and puts the ball on the floor:
When's the last time you saw Howard put his head down and drive toward the basket from that far out? That's not him. He doesn't have the handles, nor is he an outside threat who makes an up-fake worthwhile.
Gasol's fake has a purpose, enabling him to attack the rim in favor of a higher-percentage shot:
Plenty of Spurs are waiting for him, but notice how open Los Angeles' shooters are. Gasol can kick it out if he so chooses.
Then notice where Howard is—right under the basket. Any miscue by Gasol and he'll have an opportunity for an easy put-back.
Never underestimate the value of Gasol's versatility. It will allow him to score in different ways, sure, but it also does things to opposing defenses Howard's offensive repertoire can't.
Rendering him the focal point of the pick-and-roll will make for one dangerous offense and a very happy Mike D'Antoni.
Keep on Keeping On
As far as big men are concerned, Howard is incredible. He's huge, he's athletic, he can run the floor and he's available for hire to clean out your gutters.
For D'Antoni's purposes, he's not ideal. Magic Mike's offense dictates that the ball keep moving on like a gold-digging widow. Howard can excel in the open court, but he's not someone who will share the wealth in a half-court set. He's more of a head-down, hey-look-there's-a-penny-on-the-floor type of guy.
Not to say he isn't quick, because he is. Those feet of his are remarkably fast and, at times, he can be a nightmare to defend with his back to the basket. But he's also averaging 1.5 assists per game for his career, compared to Gasol's 3.3.
Why yes, of course I'll show you.
Once double-teamed here, Kobe dumps the ball off to Gasol:
Now, Gasol can try to back his way toward the rim or attack off the dribble if he chooses. Taking a contested jumper from that distance isn't recommended, so there aren't any other options.
Only there are.
You can see Steve Blake hovering around the three-point line across the court. From that far away, he's seemingly out of sight and out of mind; he's not a realistic option—unless your first name is Pau.
Notice how Gasol keeps his head up the entire time:
He still sees Blake, who is now wide open. Instead of forcing the action, Gasol whips the ball across the court and into Blake's waiting hands:
Unselfish offense is going to win games for these defensively challenged Lakers. Not isolations or excessive post-ups. Not Dwight Howard-endorsed styles of basketball.
Ball movement. That's one of the pillars for this system. For D'Antoni to work his magic, he needs a big who knows when to swing the ball elsewhere.
He needs Gasol.
There's no guarantee Gasol secures an All-Star selection in 2014. More likely than not, he won't. The odds are against it happening.
Failing to make the trip to New Orleans won't mean Gasol isn't playing at a high level, though. Provided he's healthy, he will be. There's still fight left in him.
Think back to the final month of last season when Gasol was healthy. He notched 17.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game on 51.3 percent shooting in April.
Here are @paugasol's numbers in April, even w/Howard still a focal point: 17.5 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 6.6 apg and 1.3 bpg on 51.3% FG's.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 25, 2013
For a few shining moments, he looked like a rejuvenated Gasol. A dominant big man who could do it all.
Free from Howard (and Bynum), and playing within a system that will cater to his strengths, that change can prove permanent. Next season, we may see a brand new Gasol, torching opposing defenses much like the old Gasol always did.