Yesterday, when asked about his thoughts regarding watching the end of the 4th quarter from the bench, Pau Gasol made his opinions known with a clear and direct message. "It's something I don't like, and don't appreciate", the Spaniard said. One can understand his frustration, since he's had a nice run of form the past few games. He has rediscovered his efficient scoring touch, and even in games like yesterday's in which he only scored seven points, he still has an overall skill set that leads to other contributions. Yesterday, it was 7 boards and 7 assists (in just 21 minutes). Then again, it seems pretty clear that his demotion to the bench has "worked". Earl Clark is continuing to provide great energy and versatility in the starting lineup, and Pau Gasol is far too smart not to realize that the lineup change is what is affording him all those low post touches he craves.
But this isn't about who starts the game. It's about who finishes it. Whether Pau Gasol should finish the game is an interesting question. There's little question that the Lakers' best defensive unit is one that has Pau sitting on the bench in favor of Earl Clark. If Kobe is engaged, a Bryant-MWP-Clark-Howard lineup can help to erase the defensive sieve that is Steve Nash. The middle part of that lineup is especially versatile, because Clark, MWP, and even Bryant (against small ball fours) can all guard any of the 2-3-4 positions. So, in certain situations, there is a strategic case to be made that Pau Gasol would be on the outside looking in to close a contest.
There's just one problem: Pau Gasol wasn't sitting last night so that the Lakers could play their strongest defensive lineup. He was sitting so the Lakers could play one of the weakest defensive players in the NBA. Antawn Jamison had a pretty good game yesterday, scoring 16 points off the bench on close to 50% shooting. He even scored a basket in the final minute that sealed L.A.'s victory. But there is simply no logical explanation for what he was doing on the court in the last four minutes of the game, as the Laker lead plummeted from 18 points down to a one possession game.
Jamison is a terrible defender. Always has been. I've actually been mildly impressed with what he's done on defense this season, but only because the bar of expectation was so low, he could have impressed me by having two working arms. If defense is the motivation behind the end game lineup, then the aforementioned Bryant-MWP-Clark-Howard lineup is the only acceptable option. However, MWP was struggling yesterday, so Mike D'Antoni understandably decided to go a different direction down the stretch. What isn't understandable is how that direction wasn't Pau Gasol.
If offense was the motivation behind having Jamison in the lineup, that still doesn't make any sense. Gasol is a better overall option than Jamison is. He's a more efficient scorer. He's a better rebounder. He's a better defender. He's a better passer. He's better in the low post. Jamison is a better outside shooter, but he wasn't knocking down outside shots last night (1-5 from 3 pt range). Gasol had just seven points, and Jamison had 16, so you could say MDA was going with the hot hand, but that's pretty stupid too. Pau Gasol scored 7 points on 8 possessions (including free throws). Jamison scored 16 points on 16 possessions. That's not a very big difference, and the difference is erased (and then some) when you consider Gasol's 7 assists with just 1 turnover.
So, how did Mike D'Antoni explain this fallacy of a decision? Here's what he said about the decision to stay with Jamison over MWP.
If you can guard and hit shots, you're going to play over the guy who can guard but was not hitting shots.
Please, tell me he was kidding. We've all heard many times that Mike D'Antoni doesn't know how to coach defense, that it's not a huge focus of his game. But I've never before thought that he is incapable of even recognizing what is and is not good defense. To drop that line as justification when Jamison's defense had a direct impact on the Lakers losing their big lead in a hurry (Jamison's defensive marks scored 7 points on 3-3 shooting as part of the 14-2 New Orleans run once the starters returned to the game) is a huge blunder. And the blunder is made even bigger when you consider that D'Antoni thought of Jamison as the only logical replacement for MWP when he routinely has Earl Clark guarding shooting guards.
There are scenarios in which Pau Gasol's limited defensive mobility ensures that he should not be considered as part of the Lakers end game lineup. There are nights when Metta World Peace's offense is so limited that you might need to avoid having him on the court in crunch time. Neither decision, by itself, is any cause for alarm. But, for both to happen at the same time doesn't seem very sound, and more importantly, Antawn Jamison is not the end game answer, no matter what the end game question is.