As the seasons pass in the NBA, the league's players seem to get smaller and more agile in the frontcourt.
But the Lakers have not ascribed to the movement that has seen wings like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony start at power forward, instead putting 7-footer Pau Gasol in the PF slot next to centers Dwight Howard this season and Andrew Bynum last.
Gasol's best and most natural position remains in the pivot, where he can utilize his terrific hands, post moves over either shoulder, face-up game and passing ability at his leisure. The Spaniard spent the majority of his first several years in Los Angeles at center, with Andrew Bynum missing the 2007-08 season with injuries and playing fewer minutes than Gasol particularly in crunch time.
So unique for a true 7-footer — new coach Mike D'Antoni couldn't think of a comparison – Gasol's multiple skills allow him to play the high post as well, doing things that many power forwards do while remaining an extra rim protector on defense.
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, with a new coach and a new system, Gasol played center less than ever before. That Bynum stayed healthy and played 35.2 minutes per game – a full eight more than the previous season – kept Gasol on the perimeter far more than in the past. Ditto for this season, with Howard coming to town and D'Antoni's system encouraging floor spacing from the power forward slot.
The numbers prove this point. As detailed on hoopdata.com, Gasol attempted 5.8 shots per game at the rim in 2008-09, a number that literally decreased every season to a new low at 3.2 this season. As such, Gasol is taking 5.5 shots from 16-23 feet (4.1 last season), up from a mere 1.6 in 2008-09. And while Gasol made an impressive 49 percent from that range in 2010-11, he's hitting only 40% this year (in a far smaller sample size), while averaging a career low 13.1 points with 9.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
After a particularly poor individual outing at Memphis on Nov. 23, Gasol told me that while he'd certainly like more touches in the post – with which he can both score and facilitate for teammates – he can have plenty of success at the 4. He knows it's on him to be aggressive to get his touches inside, acknowledging that Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace certainly don't wait for permission. His personality makes him often the Laker who looks to please his teammates, but it's sometimes an internal debate.
"I'll try to get into the paint as much as I can, but also remind myself that (I need to) keep the floor spaced," he said after Thursday's practice. "I'm trying to figure it out.
D'Antoni, for one, is confident Gasol will do just that. He said the Spaniard is simply too good not to be effective wherever he is on the floor, and that it's on the coaching staff to help make it fit. Of course, that's not to ignore the other side of the court.
No NBA power forward eagerly awaits the night they have to defend Gasol, but yes, he has to defend them too. That puts more pressure on the 7-footer to adjust to constantly varying looks as opponents try to counter L.A.'s length.
"It can be difficult because every game is a bit different," explained Gasol. "You have to adjust your defensive coverages depending on the team you are facing and what your match up is. You have to focus on whatever is going to benefit the team the most that night."
On one night, the Spaniard has to vigilantly stay in the face of LaMarcus Aldridge or (when healthy) Dirk Nowitzki for fear of a rainbow jumper from anywhere. The next, he has to move his long legs as fast as he can trying to chase down Kenneth Faried or Blake Griffin in transition.
Gasol may have possessions against Kevin Durant when OKC goes small, and -- barring a crossmatch in which teammate Metta World Peace can relieve him -- will see LeBron or Carmelo. Then comes a turn on bruising 4's like Zach Randolph.
An additional responsibility for Gasol is to be the first of the two bigs back in transition to protect the rim, since he's generally the one left higher on the court.
"Against Detroit, for example, (power forward) Jason Maxiell crashes the boards really hard and runs the floor well, so I always have to be concerned about that," Gasol continued. "You just have to know whom you're playing against. Maxiell is much different from LaMarcus Aldridge, who is a pick and pop guy that's going to get 20-30 touches in the post every night. Some days are more challenging than others."
But it's not as simple as match ups. Of L.A.'s four stars, Gasol's been the only one who played nearly every game last season (sitting out the meaningless regular season finale only), the Olympics with his Spanish National Team and then the full training camp. During the preseason, he developed tendinitis in his knees that's been a pain.
"It’s been bothering me for awhile," he acknowledged. "I’m going to play through it and you try to keep it under control. It’s a little limiting, but it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. Hopefully, it won’t force me to miss any games unless my performance is way down. I can’t do that to myself or to my team."
Yet in a system that encourages all players to get out and run, Gasol has to fight through the fatigue and soreness, and get to a point where he can best use his considerable gifts.
"He’s a great guy, he’s a great competitor, he’s got a great career," said D'Antoni after the win at Dallas, when Gasol had 13 points and nine boards in three quarters of a blowout win. "I didn’t have any doubts. It’s just a matter of simplifying and getting everybody knowing what we want as coaches, and getting all the frustrations out, and he did it. I would really be shocked if he responded any other way because he’s that good of a (player).
"He needed to play well, and he did. He needed to respond like that, and he did. I didn’t have a doubt. He can easily play our system and he’s going to be a very important player for us, and I’m looking forward to going forward with it."
D'Antoni and his assistants know they're asking a lot of Gasol on the defensive end, especially at his second best position.
"He needs to be consistent with our coverages, trapping side pick and rolls and keeping smalls from going around or splitting (high pick and rolls)", said assistant Chuck Person. "When he's in the post, we ask him to guard his man straight up with no help. It's a tall order for Pau, but if we didn't think he could do it, we wouldn't ask that much of him. We feel like he's a great player on both ends of the floor and that he can live up it.
"He has the quickness to guard smaller players and the length to guard bigger players; we ask him to post up, to pass, to run pick and rolls, to facilitate all facets of the game. He's our X factor."
The value proposition with Gasol is essentially this: can the Lakers take enough advantage of his length and skill over opponents on the defensive end while not tiring him out too much chasing often quicker fours around on the other end?
"If I'm giving more defensively, it takes away my energy on offense, and vice versa," Gasol explained. "There will be games you're needed on both ends and you have to push yourself through it. It's hard not to have consistency sometimes, because you're asking your body to adjust to different situations, but my versatility and my skill set I think allows me to do that. The coaches rely on me to do that for the team, and hopefully that's one reason I'm valuable."
Historically, that's of course been the case: the Lakers went to the NBA Finals three straight times, winning twice, since Gasol was acquired from Memphis in February of 2008.
This season, with Bryant, Howard and (once he returns from injury) Steve Nash on the floor, the Barcelona native knows he won't always have a great many chances to punish his man. Sometimes, the 4-time All-Star just has to sprint back on D or keep a quicker power forward off the offensive glass.
The Lakers still need him find a way to be aggressive, to look for his own shot while still spacing the floor, but he can't change his nature because the position he plays most often has changed.
"A lot of his value comes in the fact (that) he's a player that can do so much but that sacrifices it for the betterment of the team," Bryant told reporters early in the season. "So you still have a player that's insanely talented who's willing to kind of take a step back for the group. That's tough to find."
I totally understand the frustrations around Pau, but hopefully people can at least appreciate what Pau is being asked to do. He's playing hurt and out of position. If there is a trade to be had that makes us better, then I'm all for it. But till then, I'm supporting this guy. I personally think he needs to shut it down for a while, but it looks like, he's going to try to fight through it. I applaud the determination and the commitment, but he'll only hurt the team by staying out there playing hurt.