When the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol partway through the 2007-08 season, he immediately legitimized the team and made them instant contenders.
Since then, they have made the Finals every year, winning twice.
Now, however, the Lakers are underperforming: They have a high seed in the West, but they lost their first game to the New Orleans Hornets in a display discouraging to fans like myself.
Why did the Lakers lose this game that they surely should have won? Of course there are multiple reasons behind it, but the most evident was Pau’s weak play; he finished 2-9 from the field for only eight points, in one of his worst performances as a Laker.
If the Lakers wish to win the title again this year (and they surely do), they will need Pau to start playing at the level we all have come to expect from him.
In a nutshell, Pau needs to become a more assertive player.
Throughout his career, and especially since he came to the Lakers, Pau has been labeled as “soft,” and his critics have always maintained that he has never manifested himself as the dominant post presence that he, as a rare seven-foot power forward, should surely be.
Of course, this is wrong. When he is “on,” Pau is a sight to behold in the post; he is capable of dominating the boards and sinking neigh-unblockable shots from all over the court.
Pau’s combination of physical size and exceptional skill form an unmatchable combination, but only when he is able to fully realize his potential, which, tragically, doesn’t occur often enough.
Pau has done a lot in the past three-odd years. He is the primary catalyst that turned the Lakers from a mediocre team into the best team in the league.
Now, he needs to use his abilities to once again prove himself as the most skilled big man in the NBA, and a force to be reckoned with.
We have established that Pau needs to play more assertively in order for the Lakers to find any significant success in the 2011 Playoffs. But what does this actually do?
Pau is a good defender and a great rebounder, but first and foremost he is a scorer. He is an exceptional shooter and, on his good days, simply does not miss shots. (Remember his 10-10, 28-point performance earlier this year?)
Not only does this kind of success pour a bunch of points into the box score, but it also gives great opportunities to other players on the Lakers.
For example, when Pau is hitting all of his shots in the low post, that’s going to draw the attention of the defenders inside. This, in turn, will necessitate leaving Andrew Bynum open.
Of course, Bynum has shown over the past few weeks that even if you put guys on him, he can still dominate. If he gets the ball inside with his defender looking to stop Pau, he’s going to score.
Pau also happens to be a tremendous passer; he is averaging 3.3 assists per game on the season and has handed out seven or more assists on five occasions this year.
For comparison, Dirk Nowitzki, probably the second-most skilled big man in the NBA, averages 2.6 assists per game, and dished seven dimes only once.
Also, keep in mind that Pau plays in a system that is not conducive to high assist numbers; Derek Fisher, the Lakers’ point guard, has only 2.7 APG this season.
Therefore, if Pau is drawing double- or even triple-teams, which is entirely possible, that’s going to leave Bynum open, and Pau’s going to get him the ball.
If Pau’s on his game, Bynum’s going to see a lot of the ball and the Lakers are going to dominate inside.
This is going to leave somebody open on the perimeter.
The Lakers aren’t exactly a great three-point shooting team; of their players who have taken more than seven threes, only Fisher (39.6%), Lamar Odom (38.2%), and Steve Blake (37.8%) are good three-point shooters.
Still, if the other team leaves Fisher, Odom, or Artest (35.6% from three) wide open, they’re going to make plenty of threes.
The more pressing concern for whoever happens to be facing the Lakers is, naturally, Kobe Bryant.
Kobe is one of the greatest players ever, and remains one of the best players in the league. He is still arguably the NBA’s most deadly scorer.
If his opponents leave Kobe open for even a second, or if he sees a hole in the defense, or if his defender looks away for an instant, Kobe is sinking a shot.
We’re talking about a guy who makes the impossible look regular. Even when his teammates are playing badly and forcing him to take a bunch of bad looks (like in Game 1 versus the Hornets), Kobe still manages to make a lot of shots (13-26), score a pile of points (34), and carry his team within an inch of the finish line.
If the defense is focused on stopping the Gasol-Bynum show inside, Kobe is going to have nice, open looks, and he’s going to make them.
Perhaps more importantly, if he doesn’t, he won’t have to take them. If Kobe has the ball and Gasol is making his shots, Kobe will gladly give him the rock.
Remember, Kobe is only a ballhog in three situations: If his best teammates are Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, if it’s the end of the game and the score is close, and if his teammates aren’t performing.
Kobe has good teammates now, and if they're playing well, he will pass the ball.
As Pau Gasol goes, so go the Lakers.
Pau might not be the best or the most important player on the team, but he is still vital to the Lakers' success.
With strong, aggressive play in the post, Pau will open up the middle for Bynum, as well as the outside for Kobe and the rest of the Lakers.
If Pau can rediscover his prior success, and I’m confident that he can, the Lakers will become an unstoppable juggernaut, tearing through the rest of the NBA on the way to the Championship.