Last night, Pau Gasol, the same 7-foot Spaniard who was the best big man in two straight NBA Finals, scored five points on nine shots and one trip to the free throw line and grabbed seven rebounds in 36 minutes of court time. This was unacceptable if the Lakers are to succeed, because after Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Gasol (and Nash, who is hurt but looks bad anyways), the rest of the team is truly terrible. It is a wild leap of fantasy to imagine that any Laker bench player could start on any team expected to make the playoffs. So if the third best player on the team is a no-show, there’s very little chance that the Lakers will win.
So what’s up with Gasol? And why isn’t the high post specialist who was supposed to benefit most from the Lakers new emphasis on the Princeton offense playing well?
The first part takes some guessing, so let’s start with the second question.
Well, to begin with, the Lakers aren’t running the Princeton offense. Maybe 10-15 percent of their possessions actually resemble the ball and player movement one envisions when Pete Carril’s offense is mentioned. The Lakers are instead invoking the offense of Pete Carroll, whose Seattle Seahawks pound the ball up field with Marshawn Lynch. Similarly, the Lakers know who they want to get the ball to on a given possession and pretty much just hand it to that player, whether it’s Kobe Bryant in the mid/low post or Dwight Howard in the low post and let him go. Preferably this happens by pushing the ball up court and getting a deep post look early in the shot clock. There are also pick-and-rolls, yes, and even some called sets, but by and large that’s what the Lakers wanted to do every time down against Utah.
That’s really not a terrible plan — early posts for Dwight Howard are an excellent way to pick up points. But they don’ t much help Pau, who is a distant third option for a post isolation look, and he didn’t make the most of those opportunities when he had them.
To cherry pick one example from the third quarter:
Gasol and Bryant are running an off-ball two man game to get one man open and another post position while Steve Blake waits for one to pop to the post entry spot. Eventually 7-foot Gasol emerges, guarded by 6-8 power forward Paul Millsap. Gasol catches and enters the ball to 6-5 Kobe Bryant so that Bryant can post up 6-9 Marvin Williams. Height isn’t the perfect indicator of post defense acumen, but in this case Williams stayed on his feet instead of biting on Bryant’s pumpfakes and eventually forced a fading 16 footer that was doomed for the wrong side of the rim.
That’s an example of how Gasol can play 36 minutes and attempt fewer shots than Steve Blake or Metta World Peace.
Gasol was actually successful on three or four occasions as a high post passer to Metta World Peace or Dwight Howard, but that stuff happened mostly on fastbreaks or on called plays, not in the natural flow of an offense that orients the ball in Pau’s hands and sends the other four players in orbiting cuts.
(This is That Mitchell and Webb Look … get up on it)
Back to that first question, which is a tougher one to answer. What’s with this guy?
Subjectively, he looks out of shape. Or at least Laker fans better hope that’s the case. He’s 32 and is coming off of an intense, lockout-shortened season in which he played more minutes per game than every season of his career but one, which came when he was 25. He then played a couple rounds in the playoffs and went to London where he carried Spain to a Gold Medal game.
What if he’s just worn down, tired, emotionally and physically exhausted? He looked extra-slow in pick-and-roll coverage — the Jazz productively targeted him throughout the night — and seemed to be looking for every chance to save some energy. One notable Jazz fastbreak turned into rebound scrum under the basket with a single Jazz player surrounded by three Lakers as Gasol jogged in from the top of the key. It appeared likely that the rebound would be secured by a teammate so Gasol watched instead of participating … as the Jazz player came out with the ball and the bucket.
This is to say Gasol wasn’t exactly flying to the ball, though he looked genuinely engaged on both ends, which suggests to me he just ran out of steam, perhaps as a result of his long shifts (Gasol plays all 12 minutes of the first and third quarters).
But for the Lakers to win, not just in the playoffs against San Antonio or Oklahoma City, but in the regular season against Dallas and Utah, Gasol can’t be tired or bad — especially with Steve Nash out. Gasol, Howard and Bryant all must perform and produce. That’s the bargain the Lakers made when they invested in this incredibly top-heavy roster. Even with their relative surplus of top-end talent, the margin for error feels uncomfortably small.