Lakers News: Pau Gasol's Struggles More a Result of Decline Than Incorrect Usage

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Pau Gasol #16 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on during the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 16, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Pau Gasol's relationship with the Los Angeles Lakers has always been a little off-kilter. 

Brought to Los Angeles for Kwame Brown, picks and flotsam (including his then-chubby-now-awesome little brother), Gasol's arrival has, in the long run, been more an affirmation of Kobe Bryant's greatness than his own. The two Lakers championships he brought are more often cited with Bryant's five total than a confirmation of his Hall of Fame status—that's what happens when you're the second banana to an all-time great. 

In what basically amounts to six seasons, Gasol has been fake-traded more times than anyone else in the league. He was even real-life traded once before the then-Hornets "ownership" put down the kibosh. It's been such a weird, up-and-down relationship that Gasol's only real connections to the organization seem to be Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson—the latter only tangentially involved at this point. 

So you can understand that Gasol is unaffected by the latest round of trade rumors circling his name. 

“I’m used to it by now,” Gasol told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s been a constant thing for me. It’s like getting up from bed and having breakfast.”

Gasol's name has been bandied about of late thanks to his latest run-in with arguably his biggest annoyance since arriving in California: coach Mike D'Antoni. Upset with his play to start the 2013-14 campaign and the way he's being used, Gasol pretty much laid it all on the line in an interview with Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times last week. 

"The fact that I'm not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness," he said. "When I'm not getting the ball where I want to, where I'm most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity." 

Jan. 30, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni gestures towards forward Pau Gasol (16) against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gasol, frankly, was D'Antoni's unwanted stepchild last season. With the Gasol-Dwight Howard front line working in direct opposition of the coach's four-in, one-out offensive system, D'Antoni spent a stretch of the season starting Earl Clark (!) over a three-time All-NBA selection. Their relationship frayed as D'Antoni metaphorically pounded his chest and Pau pouted, before MDA had an epiphany and decided playing his five best players was a good idea.

This year was supposed to be different. D'Antoni spent his entire offseason foisting plaudits on Gasol, who was expected to take top-dog honors with Howard in Houston and Bryant recovering from his Achilles injury. Instead, Gasol is turning in the worst year of his career. His scoring is up (14.7 PPG to 13.7 PPG in 2012-13), but he's shooting a career-low 43.9 percent from the field and has been a net-minus by more than 12 points per 100 possession while on the floor.

Despite having his highest usage rate since 2005-06, Gasol has been mostly terrible. In response to Gasol's comments, D'Antoni responded with his own, saying the big man needed "play harder," per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.

Since the latest back-and-forth barbs, Gasol has responded well. He's made 16 of his last 21 field goals, averaging 18.5 and 9.5 rebounds per game over the past two games—a loss to Atlanta and victory over Memphis. D'Antoni even went out of his way to praise Gasol, saying that he's been playing at an All-Star level, per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:

Two-game sample aside, these little kerfuffles engender themselves to the most basic of debates: Who is right, D'Antoni or Gasol? Are the seven-footer's problems more rooted in his usage or unwillingness to do as the coach's offensive instructions say?

It's easy to jump right in and say the former. Gasol is a multitime All-Star, a player who is gifted with arguably the best set of post moves of this generation. There have been many smart, respected media members who have opined for Gasol to receive a change of scenery so that he could return to form. 

The more I look at the numbers and watch Gasol play, however, those folks may be waiting for something that never comes.

Nov 7, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) posts up on Houston Rockets center Omer Asik (3) during the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Because despite his cries about not receiving enough post-ups, Gasol actually posts up quite a bit. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), 36.5 percent of Gasol's possessions that end with a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover have been out of the post. Among players who have received at least 50 post touches for the season, his 6.4-per-game average is tied with Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki for the ninth highest in basketball.

The problem here is that Gasol just isn't finishing like he used to. His 0.736 points per possession on post plays this season rank in the NBA's 32nd percentile; among the aforementioned high-usage players, that ranks 47th out of 54 players. 

Looking at the film, it's clear that Gasol gets plenty of post touches, most of which come in decent spacing because of the Lakers' solid shooters outside. But the opportunities rarely end well for the team for the most sobering of all reasons: Gasol isn't nearly as good at getting spacing as he once was. A majority of Gasol's post possessions don't end with him slithering past as flummoxed defender, outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the man's ballet-worthy footwork.

Rather, most Gasol post possessions end like this:


That is Zach Randolph, not the fleetest of foot, stuffing his Hamburger Helper mitt in Gasol's face as he's about ready to shoot an air ball. Here's a look at another Gasol miss, this time with Al Jefferson bodying him up through a series of dribble moves before forcing a difficult hook across the lane:


Playing in the post never leads to the prettiest shots; it's generally considered among the least efficient shot types. Banging bodies down low isn't ever going to look as beautiful as a Ray Allen jumper. But Gasol post-ups used to get darned close. 

Now, those are only two possessions, but they're indicative of how teams defend Gasol now. Neither Randolph nor Jefferson are considered anything resembling plus post defenders—quite the opposite, actually. Yet neither the Grizzlies nor the Bobcats sent help. While that is as much about team strategy as about Gasol's decline, it's telling that the league's most gifted low-block talent isn't drawing doubles against two big-time minus defenders.

And the fact that Gasol has been unable to get good shots in similar situations all season should be a concern. What it says is that maybe Gasol, at age 33 and roughly eleventy billion miles on his basketball odometer, might be a step-and-a-half slow.

Nov 30, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett (2) attempts a shot against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It's something that has carried over to his usage on the pick-and-roll. D'Antoni's system calls for his bigs to dive toward the rim; it's been a staple of his system since its inception. Amar'e Stoudemire got nine figures from New York because of his devastating rim runs, and Steve Nash has two MVPs on his mantle because of his innate ability to find STAT near the rim. 

As players (especially big men) get older, though, they tend to move farther away from the basket. Kevin Garnett, himself the victim of rapid aging this season, has been drifting for years now; his (often illegal) picks are almost solely to set the ball-handler free or give himself an 18-footer from the elbow. Garnett has taken only 29 shots from the restricted area this season against a whopping 119 from mid-range. Tim Duncan, he of "DNP - Old" fame, doesn't have quite as stark a split, but he's still taken 21 more mid-range jumpers than attempts near the basket. 

Old Man Pick-and-Roll
PlayerPnR Pop %PnR Roll %Slip %
Kevin Garnett76.423.60
Tim Duncan64.430.15.5
Pau Gasol62.829.18.1
Synergy Sports

Both Garnett and Duncan have always been great mid-range shooters; it's part of the reason they're going to the Hall of Fame. But looking at their yearly progression, it's a slow, year-by-year process where banging down low becomes less a part of their games and the pick-and-pop reigns supreme.

We may be entering that point with Gasol. He's taken only 86 shots inside the restricted area against a whopping 119 in the mid-range. Synergy Sports notes that Gasol chooses to pop as a screener 62.8 percent of the time, and he takes a jumper without a dribble on 81.5 percent of those attempts. Keep in mind that Gasol has made 16 of 21 attempts this year when driving hard to the basket and averages a pedestrian 0.833 points per possession in pick-and-pops.


The solution seems easy—just roll, Pau. But it's a lot harder than that. Rolling to the basket means taking knocks to the knees, getting hit with hard fouls and wrestling for position in the event the ball-handler doesn't pass. It's incredibly hard on the body—especially for someone who has taken more than his fair share of hits.

It's possible, though I haven't heard this, that Gasol sees his one last big contract coming and doesn't want to get hurt. It's possible that Gasol is tired of all the crap he's endured in Los Angeles and just isn't going to kill himself for a coach he doesn't trust. Maybe a change of scenery is all he'll need for one last great run.

Unfortunately, the more I watch Gasol play, the more I doubt it. Gasol may feel all of those things. Or he might just be old.

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