When it comes to constructing a system that will allow the Los Angeles Lakers to succeed during what many expect to be a down season, head coach Mike D'Antoni only has so many options.
He can hope that Steve Nash will play more like the guy who won two MVPs when D'Antoni was on the sidelines for the Phoenix Suns. That, though, is a lot to ask of a 39-year-old coming off the most injury-plagued campaign of his career.
He can pray that Kobe Bryant comes back as strong as ever from a torn Achilles tendon and a trip to Germany to ease the chronic pain in his knees. That, too, seems a bit much, given Kobe's age (35), mileage (more than 54,000 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs) and the severity of his latest setback.
He can lean on the rest of the Lakers roster, which consists of misfits, castoffs and bargain-basement finds like Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson...or not.
Or, D'Antoni can do the only thing that makes sense: Hand the keys to the team to Pau Gasol, at least in the interim.
It wasn't too long ago that a rocky relationship between player and coach made the prospect of D'Antoni giving Gasol his due seem like anything but a guarantee.
D'Antoni didn't seem to grasp Gasol's potential value to the team. He moved Gasol further and further from the basket until the slender Spaniard found himself seated on the bench behind Earl Clark. He employed Pau as a mid-range jump-shooter and pressure release rather than as a scorer and passer in the low post.
To be sure, D'Antoni isn't entirely at fault for this. There were forces at play in Lakerland beyond his control, from his own lack of a complete training camp to Gasol's bout with the injury bug to the team's season-long (and ultimately futile) attempts to placate Dwight Howard.
Those impediments are all gone now—or should be, assuming Gasol's knees have healed from offseason surgery to alleviate the tendinosis thereabouts. Howard has since moved on to join the Houston Rockets, and D'Antoni is currently in the process of impressing upon the Lakers his preferred style of play.
A style that can and should feature plenty of Gasol.
His size, skill, court awareness, mobility and ability to set and slip screens make him an excellent fit as the primary big man in D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll system. Gasol may not be the athlete that Amar'e Stoudemire was when the latter was Nash's partner of choice in Phoenix, but he should be more than able to fill that role, especially with his superior passing and shooting in tow.
Gasol's already shown, time and again, that he can do the job. Here he is running the pick-and-roll with Kobe Bryant against the Sacramento Kings two seasons ago:
Notice how patiently Gasol works as Bryant's screener. He hovers around the perimeter after handing the ball off to Bryant and, once he's set a subsequent screen, astutely slips to the hoop while the two defenders collapse on Kobe. That leaves Gasol wide open for a run to the rim, which Bryant rewards with a beautiful bounce pass that Gasol converts into points in traffic.
Gasol's rapport with Bryant has only grown stronger over time, as shown in the clip below from the Lakers' big win over the Memphis Grizzlies this past spring:
The script is essentially the same as the one seen in the previous play. Gasol waits up top for Kobe to make a move. Bryant dribbles wide around Gasol's screen, dragging both defenders with him. An open Gasol darts toward the basket, makes himself an easy target for Kobe, receives the pass and flails the ball past his brother Marc and through the hoop.
Unfortunately for Gasol, Kobe probably won't be around to work his two-man magic until November or December at the earliest. However, that doesn't mean Gasol will be short on pick-and-roll partners in the interim.
If anything, Bryant's absence will grant Gasol a great opportunity to ply his pick-and-roll trade with a master of D'Antoni's system in Steve Nash. Here's a nifty compilation (set to goofy saloon music) of Gasol running pick-and-rolls with Nash and Bryant against the Toronto Raptors from the 2012-13 campaign:
Gasol appears to work equally well with either of L.A.'s ball-handlers. He reacts in timely fashion to Nash's quick decisions and keeps himself ready to catch the ball on the tail end of Bryant's more deliberate movements.
Here's a perfect case of Gasol and Nash picking-and-rolling on a secondary break against the Denver Nuggets:
Check out another example of Gasol and Nash working together on a secondary break, this time during a road date with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season:
The play is set up like a pick-and-pop, with Gasol setting a screen for Nash on the left side and sliding over to the adjacent elbow. Both defenders attempt to trap Nash on the sideline, leaving Gasol free to receive a simple bounce pass. But rather than pull up for the jumper, Gasol pump fakes into a dribble toward the left block and posts up for a quick hook over his right shoulder.
Not even Dwight Howard's lane-clogging presence could keep Gasol from finding room to operate on the interior. With Howard gone, Gasol should have little (if any) trouble getting inside, especially if the Lakers' new slew of shooters spreads the floor accordingly.
And if D'Antoni decides to pair Gasol with another giant (i.e. Chris Kaman or Jordan Hill) from time to time, the Lakers offense should still run smoothly. Gasol has been, perhaps, the best in the NBA at running big-to-big pick-and-rolls for some time now, thanks to his solid ball-handling and superb passing.
He and Andrew Bynum worked beautifully together in the two-man game during their years together in L.A.:
Gasol and Howard weren't quite so prolific in the pick-and-roll, though Gasol evidently didn't have any problem operating with a more athletic finisher:
All it takes is a brief screen by Howard and a nifty lob by Gasol to put points on the board for the Lakers.
And, when the occasion calls for it, Gasol's more than capable of being the one on the receiving end of a big-to-big pass:
Of course, Gasol won't be working with the same caliber of big men this year as he has in the past. Neither Kaman, a former All-Star in his own right, nor Hill can measure up to the leaping ability of Howard or the length and strength of Bynum.
But Kaman is a better mid-range shooter than either of his Lakers predecessors ever were. Hill, on the other hand, has been hard at work improving that aspect of his game.
In truth, Gasol can work well with just about anyone and in just about any role. That's the sort of player he is and has always been—smart, unselfish and willing to sacrifice his game for the good of the team.
Who should be the focal point of the Lakers offense while Kobe Bryant is out?
The greater concern for Gasol and the Lakers lies on the defensive end. Gasol is tall enough and long enough to protect the rim but lacks the bulk, the leaping ability and the sheer toughness to be the sort of paint-patroller that L.A. so desperately needs.
But Gasol is far from the only Laker who's deficient on that end of the floor. Nor is defense something that can be accurately judged on an individual basis. Gasol has the basketball IQ to execute whatever orders come down from the bench and might not be subjected to quite so many attacks in the lane now that the Lakers have added some more athletic bodies on the wings.
Indeed, Mike D'Antoni's options may seem limited "on paper," but so long as Pau Gasol is healthy in the middle, the world can still be the Lakers' oyster—on offense, anyway.
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