The numbers don't lie. Pau Gasol of the L.A. Lakers is having the worst statistical season of his illustrious 13-year career.
Considering he's had an entire summer to rest and rehabilitate his legs after an injury-plagued 2012-13 campaign, why does the 33-year-old seven-foot Spaniard continue to struggle with his offensive production?
The answer is pretty obvious: Pau misses Kobe.
In order to thrive, Gasol needs great complementary pieces, and none has been as good for his career as Kobe Bryant.
Sure, Bryant was around most of last season when Gasol's numbers plummeted, but the four-time All-Star missed 33 games due to various injuries and only late in the campaign did he find some semblance of basketball rhythm.
Following three straight trips to the NBA Finals and two consecutive championships, Gasol was atop the basketball world as a perennial All-Star.
The Lakers system that Gasol came into was ideal. As the Lakers roared into the NBA Finals with Pau in 2008, the center averaged 18.8 points per game and made close to 60 percent of his shots. He followed that up with three more years of over 18 points per game on 53-57 percent shooting.
With Bryant playing at the highest level and scoring 27-28 points per game for over three years, Gasol flourished as the second option in Phil Jackson's triangle offense.
With Mike Brown as head coach in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, Gasol saw his shooting percentage drop to 50 percent and his point total to 17 per game. Things went from bad to worse last year. The Dwight Howard experiment imploded and Gasol was left standing somewhere out near the perimeter, waiting for the ball and a long-distance jump shot.
As the Lakers prepare to meet the Detroit Pistons Sunday in the second of a four-game home stretch, a relatively healthy and rested Gasol finds himself with the worst offensive numbers of his career.
Though he's counted on by coach Mike D'Antoni to be the cornerstone of the team as it anxiously awaits the return of Kobe Bryant, Gasol is shooting just 39 percent from the field and scoring 13.1 points per game. Both are career lows.
With last summer's departure of Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, the 33-year old Gasol was anointed the de facto team leader and everyday center. Paired with fellow 7-footer Chris Kaman, the Lakers frontcourt got off to a slow start and stalled completely when Gasol went a combined 4-of-22 in two games against New Orleans and Houston.
Rumors again began to circulate that the Lakers might trade Gasol during the season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Veteran NBA writer Sam Smith of Bulls.com recently suggested the Lakers might be wise to trade Gasol back to his old club in exchange for the younger Zach Randolph.
As if to show the Lakers just what they were missing, Randolph torched L.A. for 28 points and 11 rebounds Friday night in a three-point Memphis win at the Staples Center. Pau scored just 10 and wasn't a factor late when the score was deadlocked.
Gasol told Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, "We're competing. That's something we need to continue to do, and the results will come."
But Gasol has also acknowledged that his early-season play has been anything but stellar (via Smith):
It's pretty obvious I have got to be sharper. I might not have all the speed and the explosiveness that I used to have years ago. But I still have to use my experience and my fundamentals to be able to be effective every single night.
Gasol is best when paired with complementary pieces. What he couldn't accomplish with Kaman was any dominance on the offensive boards. The reason Gasol was so good for L.A. the first few years is because he had Bryant, Metta World Peace, Andrew Bynum and others to share the load.
When D'Antoni finally decided to insert the aggressive Jordan Hill into the starting rotation and move Kaman to the bench, Gasol's game started to pick up. Who wouldn't want to play alongside the 6'10", 26-year-old, energetic Hill, who averages eight rebounds in just 20 minutes of play per night?
In two recent games, a win against New Orleans and a hard-fought loss the next night at Denver, Gasol benefited by having Hill nearby to grab rebounds on both ends of the court.
While Hill was posting 18 points and 15 rebounds against the Nuggets and 21/11 in the win over the Pelicans, Gasol had 25 and 12 against Denver and 14 and eight versus New Orleans.
And though he will never be quite the same player he was several years ago, Gasol can still provide scoring, great passing and some dominance on the defensive end.
What Gasol needs to do is make more shots, regardless of where they are coming from. Though he has a soft touch from the outside, Gasol's strength is a mid-range jumper or a little spin move and finish close to the basket.
With Bryant finally back on the practice floor and his return perhaps coming around Christmas, it will remain up to Gasol to take more shots (he took 27 against the Nuggets this past week) and carry more of the scoring load. There really isn't anyone else on the roster capable of 20-plus points on a consistent basis.
Against Memphis Friday, Gasol took 12 shots and made just four of them. His 10 points came in 33 minutes. The low scoring is five to seven points below what Gasol should be averaging and is the difference between being 4-7 (which the Lakers are) and 6-5 or better.
Gasol has been a tremendous teammate and leader for the Lakers over the past five years. His current contract of $19.3 million will expire next spring. Is it time for the Lakers to set him free, or will they re-sign him to a smaller extension.?
Lakers management orchestrated a trade of Gasol two years ago (via USA Today) but commissioner David Stern nixed the deal of sending him to Houston and Lamar Odom to New Orleans in exchange for Chris Paul.
Given the right system and the right complementary players, it might make sense for the Lakers to hold on to Gasol at a much smaller salary. But they run the risk of him signing elsewhere and the Lakers getting nothing in return, so those trade rumors will persist all season.
Pau Gasol is clearly capable of scoring 17-20 points per night, but he will need the presence of a healthy Kobe Bryant to get him there. Until then, we're going to continue to see the uneven Gasol, scoring 25 one night and 10 the next.
In his new photo book, Life Vida, Gasol writes about the criticisms that have followed him over the course of his career, especially the last few with the Lakers (via L.A. Times):
One criticism arises from stereotypes of athletes: that we need to be aggressive; that all athletes should have great strength and toughness, and, for the most part, no brains. I don't really feel like I fit that stereotype.
I am myself. I'm extremely proud of my qualities and my gifts. I'm very competitive and I can be aggressive when I need to be. I can be very physical, but that's not my first instinct. It won't come out naturally when I'm at peace and calm. It emerges when I'm competing, when I'm challenged and when I feel like it's a win-or-lose situation.
Pau Gasol is in the midst of a win-or-lose situation. He is not done as a premier player in the NBA. But his days are numbered, and he'll need to meet that challenge head on this year, or it could be his last in purple and gold.
Stats are accurate as of Saturday, November 16, 2013.