Slivers of hope and breaks in the clouds have come few and far between for the rickety Los Angeles Lakers as they continue to navigate a season of sorrow and reality checks.
Having lost seven of their last nine, all Lakers triumphs have been largely menial. A two-game winning streak here; a blistering performance from Ryan Kelly or Nick Young there—standard stuff, really.
For the Lakers of old, that alone wouldn't suffice, and is a sign of how far they've fallen. But now, one of the old Lakers lives on, in true Los Angeles fashion.
Pau Gasol has regained his swagger of late, posting numbers, brought to us by Lakers.com's Mike Trudell, that have fans and pundits uttering "resurgence" and "Pau" in the same sentence:
In the last 5 games, @paugasol is averaging 22.0 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 blocks on 53.0% field goals.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 21, 2014
Record wise, Gasol's performance hasn't sparked a Lakers turnaround. They're 2-3 in their last five games, fresh off a last-second loss to the equally mangled Chicago Bulls.
If nothing else, though, Gasol's sudden revival is a reminder of days past, a small beacon of hope for Los Angeles' lost season and cut-and-dry proof that his decline was distorted into something it's not.
The Kendall Marshall Effect
Playing alongside an actual point guard has done wonders for Gasol.
Injuries consumed Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, and surrogate point guards Kobe Bryant and Xavier Henry, leaving the Lakers without a true floor general.
There were times, and still are times, when Young is running the offense. Point guard rotations don't come any more dire than that.
In came Kendall Marshall, bringing ball movement and dribble penetration with him. In essence, he was head coach Mike D'Antoni's dream—a blank slate that injected energy and resolve in Los Angeles' floundering offense.
The Lakers still aren't offensive juggernauts; understand that. They rank 22nd in offensive efficiency and a heightened pace hasn't slowed the number of shots they're missing.
But they do have a direction.
More pointedly, Gasol has direction.
|Gasol...||PTS Per 48 Mins.||FG%||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.|
Merely having Marshall, a pass-first point guard with a solid handle, is a huge boon for Gasol. He doesn't have to worry about creating his own shots as much, and the looks he's receiving are high-percentage opportunities.
Speaking of which...
Increased Mid-Range Efficiency
Gasol's jump shot isn't what it used to be.
Although he was previously heralded for his ability to stretch defenses more than most traditional power forwards, he's struggled outside eight feet of the basket this season, converting fewer than 40 percent of his attempts between eight and 24 feet.
In recent games, however, he's been more apt to finding the bottom of the net from outside. Consider it an extension of Marshall's arrival. More of his shots are coming within the flow of Los Angeles' offense, not last-ditch efforts late in the shot clock or after forcing the action.
|Inside 8 FT||8-16 FT||16-24 FT|
|Last 5 games||61.2%||40%||46.2%|
|Last 10 games||58%||40.5%||45.2%|
Never underestimate the value of Gasol's outside touch. And don't discount Marshall's impact on the ability to improve Gasol's outside touch.
Here Marshall is slicing through and drawing in defenders while hitting a wide-open Gasol:
And here he is again:
Outside shooting is what made, and still makes, him so deadly.
Defenders cannot sag off him when he's outside that eight-foot range because of his shooting acumen; Also, they cannot crowd him because of his ability to take other bigs off the dribble (as Joakim Noah came to find out in that first picture) or hit the open man.
Playing Gasol when he's at his peak—next to a legitimate point guard who allows him to vary his method of attack—is a lose-lose situation for the defense.
And that's kind of the point. A point Gasol made and parlayed into four All-Star selections.
A point Gasol is driving home again now.
Let us not mistake Gasol's recent play for something it's not—a return to his prime.
All 33-year-old big men with a history of foot issues are on the decline, and Gasol is no exception. He's not the player he once was, who would routinely play 35-40 minutes every night and snagged three consecutive All-Star berths (four appearances).
That player is gone.
But much of him still remains.
Will Gasol maintain his current level of production?
Gasol's downfall was overblown to begin with. If you told most teams their aging big man with 12-plus years of NBA miles on his legs would be pitching in 16.4 points and 10 rebounds per game on 46 percent shooting, and posting an 18.3 PER, they would gladly take it.
The last five games can be a sustainable renaissance, buttressed by a strong point guard presence and increased efficiency, because it's not far off from what Gasol was doing before.
"If they got rid of Pau yesterday, they basically would've said it's over," Young said when it became clear Gasol wouldn't be dealt to Cleveland, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "We all have faith and think something can happen."
Faith has started to reward the Lakers, bringing them a version of Gasol that doesn't have to go anywhere.