The dust has settled from the Mike Brown-to-Mike D’Antoni coaching transition, and it can now be said definitively that Lakers big man Pau Gasol was one of November’s biggest winners. Why? Sadly, it’s not for any reasons related to style of play or X’s and O’s. Rather, he simply benefited from the commotion and distraction. He’s putting the finishing touches on one of the least effective months of his career and he practically escaped the negative headlines and scrutiny thanks to Brown.
As the Lakers now turn their attention from excising a failed coach to fashioning a workable future, Gasol inevitably finds himself back in the crosshairs.
While he’s never been a No. 1 scoring option on Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, Gasol’s production has remained remarkably consistent on the macro level. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Gasol ranked No. 3 among power forwards in Player Efficiency Rating, averaging 18 points and 10-11 rebounds and shooting no worse than 52.9 percent from the field. He took a step backward last season and this year he’s fallen off a cliff. In 2011-12, Gasol ranked No. 8 among power forwards in PER, still solid, but saw his averages dip to 17.4 points and 10.4 rebounds, while shooting 50.1 percent from the field.
So far in 2012-13, Gasol is scoring a career-low 13.4 points, more than four points less than he averaged as a 21-year-old rookie, and shooting 43.4 percent from the field, his worst shooting average by more than four percentage points and 8.5 percent off his career 51.9 mark. The kicker: Gasol ranks No. 32 among power forwards in PER, squeezed between the likes of Markieff Morris and Glen Davis. Now is the time for the mandatory reminder that Gasol is being paid $19 million this season, one of the highest salaries in the league, and will make $19.3 million next season.
Gasol, as thoughtful and intelligent as NBA players come, has made it clear that he’s aware of his struggles. The Orange County Register reported last week that Gasol pointed to the distribution of his shot attempts as a cause for concern.
“I’m getting most all my looks as jump shots,” Gasol said. “I would like to see something close to the basket, and not just by rolling — especially when Dwight is there. But we’ll see. We’ll figure it out. We just started, pretty much.”
Gasol added: “How I get going is by getting in the paint and creating off the post and things like that. That’s historically how I’ve been very successful and how I’ve made a really good name for myself and earned my contracts. But hopefully I’ll find a way or we’ll find a way to get me a few opportunities there, too, and to get myself going that way and to be more effective.”
ESPNLA.com added that Gasol said that he “can stretch the defense and make a couple jumpers” but that he’s “not a pure jump shooter.”
Gasol, through the first month of the season, is a totally different type of offensive player than he was during his strongest and most efficient stretch, from 2008 to 2010. Using numbers from HoopData.com, we can easily spot the trend Gasol called out.
As the chart indicates, in 2008-09, Gasol’s first full season with the Lakers, 44 percent of his field-goal attempts came at the rim. By comparison, just 16 percent of his attempts came on shots from 16-to-23 feet, commonly referred to as long twos. So far this season, 47 percent of Gasol’s attempts are long twos while just 27 percent have come at the rim. That’s a massive shift away from high-efficiency shots to low-efficiency shots, a trend that slowly developed over the last two seasons before accelerating this year as the Triangle Offense became a memory. To make matters worse, Gasol is hitting just 40 percent of his long twos this season, his worst mark during his time in Los Angeles.
This tells us that Gasol was right to raise the issue. The Lakers have had three coaches in 14 games and it’s been one series of adjustments after another. Another major adjustment is upcoming: the re-integration of point guard Steve Nash after he recovers from a leg injury. There’s a lot that’s unclear about the Lakers these days but Gasol’s effectiveness isn’t one of them. What he’s doing now isn’t working. He’s putting up his worst numbers, playing at his worst efficiency levels, taking (by far) his worst collection of shots and missing more than ever. The Lakers would have a much bigger problem if Gasol wasn’t sounding a siren in these conditions.
The scary part for Gasol (and the rest of the league) is this: The Lakers boast the NBA’s fourth-most-efficient offense. That’s with Gasol playing this ineffectively. That’s with Dwight Howard still not at 100 percent. That’s with Nash’s having played fewer than two full games before getting injured. In the past, Gasol was a top driver of L.A.’s offensive efficiency, not an obstacle, largely thanks to his versatile game and the dominating interior duo he formed with center Andrew Bynum. Now, they are succeeding in spite of him. For Gasol, this probably feels like a fork in the road. Just about anyone can shoot long twos at a 40 percent clip. That’s a totally replaceable contribution. A player of his stature is unaccustomed to feeling replaceable. If he’s not doing what he does well, then what’s going to keep him on the court?
The assumption, to this point, was that the Lakers’ weak bench would serve to keep Gasol on the court by default. That seemed to be the case, at least until last Friday, when D’Antoni benched Gasol down the stretch of a loss to the Grizzlies in favor of Antawn Jamison. The Spaniard said that he couldn’t remember the last time he had suffered that fate. “I’d like to win this game,” is how D’Antoni explained his decision, adding that he meant no “disrespect.”
This type of benching always carries with it a certain symbolic value and it can often be a simple wake-up call. It’s also worth noting that Gasol, 32, has complained of “bothersome” tendinitis in his knees, a condition that would clearly be problematic under any coach, and particularly in D’Antoni’s desired fast-paced system. Even with those explanations and extenuating circumstances in mind, Gasol’s place in the Lakers’ lineup, once a foregone conclusion, now feels less so. The reason: Howard.
82Games.com’s lineup data reveals Gasol’s critical role to the Lakers since his arrival. In 2008-09, Gasol was included in nine of the Lakers’ 10 most-used five-man units. In ’09-10, seven of 10. In ’10-11, seven of 10. Last season, nine of 10. Bynum, meanwhile, was a less consistent presence, partly because of ongoing issues with his health. In ’08-09, Bynum was in just four of L.A.’s 10 most used lineups. In ’09-10, he was in five of them. In ’10-11, four again. Last season, his career year, he was in seven of 10. To boil it down, Bynum was never a more regular presence in L.A.’s most-used lineups than Gasol, even when playing his best basketball.
This season has shown a minor reversal. Despite his bad back, Howard is present in eight of the Lakers’ top-10 most-used five-man units. Gasol, meanwhile, is in just six of them. Howard and Gasol, to no one’s surprise, are both included in four of the Lakers’ five most-used five-man lineup combinations. The bigger issue for Gasol, though: Lineups that pair Jamison and Howard at power forward/center have produced uniformly positive results. If D’Antoni wants the Lakers to go smaller and faster, there’s nothing yet numbers-wise that suggests Jamison/Howard is a bad idea.
It’s new and different and weird not to see Gasol out there when it matters, but D’Antoni wasn’t nuts for making the move and he won’t be nuts if he does it again. It can be difficult to play two traditional bigs at the same time these days, and there’s not much question who should stay on the court when it becomes “Howard or Gasol” time. Howard is averaging 18 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.4 steals. Most important, he’s shooting 58.8 percent from the field. Even with his free-throw-shooting limitations, this is an easy choice, one that often went in Gasol’s favor in past seasons when it came time to pick him or Bynum.
Nash’s return promises to be a reckoning of sorts for Gasol. Nash will either incorporate Gasol into the offense in ways that haven’t yet occurred, ways that did occur in past seasons, or he will wind up kicking Gasol down another peg. As it stands, Gasol is the clear third option and he’s struggling. If you’re Nash, or D’Antoni, is the priority to improve the play of the third option or to maximize the whole? How critical, exactly, is Gasol’s individual play to the Lakers’ big picture?
The Los Angeles Times reported D’Antoni’s take on Sunday.
“Pau’s a great player and he always will be a great player, so we’ll keep tinkering and working. … We’ve got to figure out how to get him more involved. Not just him, how to get Dwight more involved. We can’t have our big guys just shooting four, five or six times.”
The Orange County Register reported Bryant’s thoughts.
“It is still a work in progress as far as trying to figure out what we’re doing. We are trying to figure out a balance of when we want to attack. Getting up and down is obviously a big part of it, which we are still trying to work on. It is a balance. If he [Gasol] feels like he needs more touches, then we will give him some. … I don’t think it’s really a big deal.”
Gasol would be forgiven if he read that as lip service, especially in light of D’Antoni’s recent statements that he wants more from small forward Metta World Peace and shooting guard Jodie Meeks. Even if the pace picks up substantially and Nash gets back to his full maestro capabilities, it’s impossible for everyone to do more. Bryant has stood up to protect Gasol from endless trade rumors in the past; he’s also stood up for his own role as the No. 1 option in the offense time after time. Who, exactly, will be giving up looks to placate Gasol’s concerns?
The Lakers have asked Gasol to sacrifice plenty over the years, and this sure looks like another case where he will need to bend to the team rather than the other way around. His play is virtually guaranteed to improve, considering how slowly he started and how distorted his shot-distribution chart looks. Featuring him a bit more on offense when he’s on the court with the Lakers’ substitutes should be able to turn the rough start into a more acceptable product, but Howard isn’t going away anytime soon. Gasol had to know that a transition was coming with Howard’s arrival, but it’s unlikely he expected that it would take place so swiftly and come so directly at his expense.
Kudos to Gasol, again, for pushing back a bit, but it’s quite possible this train will move along with him as a passenger rather than as one of the conductors. That approach could still produce a title for the Lakers, but Gasol would probably do well to leave thoughts of how he “earned his contracts” in the past. The truly high-achieving days are likely gone for good.