Pau Gasol started this NBA season off with a bang. I'd say he started the season like a man possessed, but Pau's never been that kind of player. A more apt description would be that he started the season like a man in full control of all his faculties. Using music as a metaphor, Gasol's game has never been a solo act. He's no Hendrix, no B.B. King. Instead, his game has always been comparable to an orchestra: so many tools, so many instruments. And to start this season, that "orchestra" was playing together in flawless harmony.
Gasol's play caused some rather complimentary talk to head his way. Lakers nation always gets a little nervous at any suggestion that Gasol has surpassed Kobe Bryant as a player, but the early returns this season had many, both in and out of Los Angeles, considering that the Spaniard might have surpassed ... well, everyone, at least in terms of production. He was being lauded as an early season MVP candidate, a suggestion that passed both the statsitical test and the eye-ball test.
In case you missed the last 10 days of basketball, my usage of the past tense should be all you need to figure out what happened. In the last four games, including most the first four game losing streak of the Pau Gasol area in Los Angeles, we've seen Pau's form dip tremendously. Over the four game stretch, Pau has averaged 13 points and 10 boards on 41% shooting, a far cry from the 20 and 12 on 55% shooting he has provided on the season overall (numbers which have been watered down by the four game sample we are looking into). The consensus regarding his dip in form is that Gasol is tired, and that's tough to argue against. Despite his reputation as one of the fittest bigs in the league, Gasol has often looked gassed towards the end of games, and has been clearly out-hustled by other bigs on the boards. Even worse, Gasol's defensive effort has been severly lacking, and that is possibly the primary reason for the Lakers' dip in defensive efficiency as compared to last year. In fact, Gasol has been so "over-worked" that it seems he has picked up a minor hamstring injury. There can be no doubt that the "Gasol needs more rest" storyline has an undeniable if the shoe fits quality to it.
But why is Gasol so tired? We've been in this situation before, under circumstances that seem more difficult than the situation Pau and the Lakers are currently in, and it's never been that big of a problem.
To boil down the current situation to it's most simplistic form, Pau Gasol is being asked to play a lot of minutes because Andrew Bynum is hurt and the Lakers have little depth at center without him. But this is hardly Gasol's first ride on the carousel that is Andrew Bynum's health. Gasol has had to pick up slack at center quite a bit over the past few years, and he's usually done it with grace and aplomb. Last season, as Bynum missed the end of the regular season, Gasol had one of his better statistical months in April, playing a season high 38 minutes per game, with 24 points and 13 rebounds on 61% shooting. In 2008-2009, when Drew went down with his second serious knee injury in two years, Gasol was a monster of production while eating up minutes like Godzilla ate Tokyo. In February 2009, Gasol went for 21 and 11 on 59% shooting in 40.5 minutes per game. He followed it up in March with 21 and 10 on 61% shooting in 38.5 minutes per game. So there is a pretty extensive precedent to Gasol playing well, even in extended minutes, for long periods of time.
And we haven't even begun to discuss the role Pau's off-season schedule plays in all this. Before the 2008-2009 season, the same season previously mentioned as the best example of Gasol's high fitness level, Pau played for the Spanish national team that won silver to the USA's gold. Before last season, Spain called on Pau again to play in the European championships. This season, Gasol should be theoretically fresh, because he didn't take part in any non-Laker basketball competitions. Considering that fatigue was a concern towards the end of each of the last two seasons, the news that Pau would be taking the summer off from basketball was greeted with smiles and cheers around the southland. Which makes it all the more curious that he is struggling due to heavy minutes so early on into a season in which he should be more rested than he's ever been as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
No matter how you look at it, Gasol's minutes struggle doesn't seem to fit the mold we've come to expect. Don't get me wrong, playing close to 40 minutes of NBA quality (to say nothing of the All-Star quality that Pau provides) is in no way an easy task. But Pau has established a precedent when it comes to these situations, and that precedent is what has us all confused at the lack of (relative) fitness we've seen out of him this season.
So what, exactly, is going on? There's no way to know, but I have two theories. The first theory is that, while Pau's offseason actually being an off season is surely a good thing, it might actually be harming him in the short term as he logs these heavy minutes. It is important for professional athletes to give themselves a break for their overall health. The body needs time to recover from the rigors of the travel and pounding on the body that all athletes go through. However, it is considerably more difficult to build day-to-day stamina than it is to maintain it, and we might be seeing that with Gasol now. It's may not be good for Gasol to play 40 minutes a night for long periods of time, but it might be easier for him to have done so when his body was used to playing basketball all the time.
The other theory is a little more worrisome. Perhaps Pau's play in the last few games has been more injury driven than fatigue driven. We all know that reports of a slight hamstring strain surfaced after Pau's anemic nine point, eight board effort against the Houston Rockets, but that was hardly the first game of Gasol's fall from the statistical top of the league. Considering the sharpness of Pau's decline (the game before the four game sample given above, Pau shot 9-14 en route to 21 points and 13 boards against the Utah Jazz), it seems far more likely that Pau's hamstring has been an issue for longer than we've been made aware of it than the alternative explanation that Gasol quite suddenly got too tired to play up to his high standards.
Either way, the return of Andrew Bynum should go a long way towards helping whatever ails Gasol, be it minor injury or major fatigue. And AB's return can't come soon enough, because the sooner we get our old Pau back, the sooner we can start another 2 year streak without losing 3 games straight.