Lost in the dust of the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades and even taking a backseat to the signings of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks was what the Lakers didn't do this summer: trade Pau Gasol.
When LA fell to the Thunder in late May, the general consensus, including here on SS&R, was that the Spaniard had almost definitely seen his last days in purple and gold. And why not? He went through his second lackluster postseason in a row and didn't seem to fit in with the offensive schemes coach Mike Brown was putting together. Whether it was injury, personal issues or just complete fatigue from two seasons of trade rumors, Gasol seemed to have grown weary of the team that had brought him his greatest professional success. Even more shocking, the Lakers fanbase was just as ready to send Pau packing. The Lakers weren't winning as constructed, and without cap flexibility and any assets besides the 7-foot infirmary Andrew Bynum, Pau was the best trading chip the Lakers had. Or so it seemed.
Through either blindingly good dealing or some of the most lurid blackmail material ever, GM Mitch Kupchak was able to fill the Lakers' ample holes without giving up anything besides a handful of late round draft picks, a trade exemption and the aforementioned Bynum. Gasol remained a Laker, transforming from a sacrificial Spanish lamb to the best fourth option in the NBA.
Yesterday, C.A. Clark broke down the Lakers center position, as thin as it may be. Let's check out who will be manning the power forward position for LA this season:
It's hard to say exactly what scheme Brown was trying to run last year, seeing as from the opening bell after the lockout to the buzzer at the end of May, the Lakers were a team of players trying to acclimate themselves to one another. Whatever it was, Pau found himself struggling as a third option behind Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. Gasol's role had changed, as he was moved further and further from the basket. Look no further than Pau's 2011-2012 shot chart, when he took 259 jumpers from 16 feet to the 3-point line. In 2010-2011 (and in 20 more games), the Spaniard took nearly 100 fewer shots from that distance. His field goal percentage last season fell to just 42% from out on the elbows, down from nearly 50% the year before. If you watched any games last season, it was pretty apparent that Pau was somewhat out of his comfort zone, constantly being used as a spot-up shooter from the free throw line outwards.
Combined with his declining performance in the playoffs, the demand for Gasol to be traded was at an all-time high. I didn't see it at the time, and still don't now. What I did see was a head coach who didn't know how to properly utilize his all-world big man, especially without a capable point guard for most of the year. I saw a former All-NBA forward who had two poor postseasons in a row, each with teams and players (Tyson Chandler, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, specifically) that could specifically exploit his weaknesses. Most importantly, I saw a man playing out of position in a offensive system that was constantly changing, after nearly being jettisoned from the team and taking it as professionally as humanly possible. Before the Nash trade, I thought Gasol would leave LA only to put back up the monstrous numbers he had under Phil Jackson in a different system that better utilized his strengths. Now with the team fully formed after an unbelievable summer, I'm glad to say that this different system is being implemented right here in Southern California.
For the offense the Lakers want to implement--which will be different parts Princeton, pick and roll as well as a good amount of fast break opportunities (compared to last season)--Pau Gasol might be one of the best fits possible. Mike Brown and new assistant Eddie Jordan have created a scheme that puts an emphasis on passing, slashing and cuts from the high post and wing positions. In some ways, especially in terms of player movement, it's reminiscent of the triangle offense--the exact one that Pau Gasol thrived in for years under Phil Jackson.
I suspect that Pau's role will still be away from the basket, but in a capacity that much more utilizes his passing ability and seemingly tailor-made skill set for constant pick and rolls or pick and pops. Last season, Bynum's inability to step out from the painted area (well, he could. And he has. But you know how that turned out), put Gasol's devastating array of post moves mostly to waste. However, with the injury to Jordan Hill (more on that in a minute), Pau may play extended minutes with the second unit, which would put him as the team's de facto back-up center. One of the game's best post scorers will be given ample opportunity to do what he does best. I like to think about Gasol as a conductor for Nash's extraordinary point guard abilities, in that Pau's ability to see the floor will help amplify his point guard's passing acumen, as well as clear space for perimeter shooting.
As Ben R noted yesterday in his excellent Beast or Burden post, Pau's preseason has been somewhat lackluster. Over three games he's shot a pretty low percentage, but all expectations here have to be mitigated; after all, a) it's the preseason, b) it's not a fully integrated offense after just two weeks of training camp, c) it's games without Dwight Howard's huge influence in the paint, on both ends and d) it's the preseason. I suspect Pau's numbers during the regular season might actually hover close to his Lakers career 18/10 mark, though I wouldn't be surprised if he came close to 5 assists a night with Nash and Howard to his left and right. I'm not sure if he'll ever make another All-NBA team, but I wouldn't be surprised if Gasol made the All-Star team this year. This should be a huge bounce back year from a (hopefully) more comfortable Pau.
On an interesting sidenote, as Gasol enters his sixth season with the team, he's coming close to being the slam-dunk "greatest power forward" in Lakers history. Unlike the four other positions, LA's great docket of players doesn't include that many great PFs. As far as I can tell, AC Green may very well be Gasol's nearest competition, but it's mostly based on solid defense and a perfect attendance record than it is on extraordinary play. Green certainly had nine solid to very good seasons with the team, but the weight of Pau's seven spectacular seasons far outweighs that, in my mind. Gasol's achievements, including one 2nd Team All-NBA spot and two 3rd Team All-NBA nods, two championships and three Finals berths should place him as the greatest power forward in Los Angeles history already. Strange to think about, isn't it?
What seemed like such an easy paragraph to write just ten days ago isn't so simple anymore. We're just a week removed from the devastating news that Hill suffered a herniated disc in his back, taking him out of action indefinitely. The latest is that the former Wildcat does not need surgery, but will be re-examined this week. There still isn't a timetable for his return and even more troubling, there isn't any real indication yet of when he'll be back, or if he'll be able to perform at the same high capacity he was during early training camp and the end of last season.
Assuming that Hill is healthy, or at least can perform well while injured, he's exactly what the Lakers need off the bench: a willing defense and rebounding-oriented energy guy, who's not upset at sacrificing shots and offense. Hill surprised many people (including myself) when he started hitting 10-foot jumpers in the Lakers first preseason game, showing that the team's offseason 2-year, $8 million dollar pact was perhaps more of a steal than any of us originally thought.
The Lakers' offense this year, as long as implemented correctly, will be nigh unstoppable. However, it's the defense that leaves a ton of questions when Dwight Howard is off the floor. Hill's tenacity and ability to snatch rebounds seemingly out of nowhere are of the utmost importance for the second unit to keep up the defensive intensity at all times. Hopefully he's going to be healthy enough to compete and contribute this year. Stay tuned to SS&R for more news.
The former two-time All-Star and 2004 Sixth Man of the Year was brought onto the Lakers for one reason: to stretch the floor by dropping buckets from distance. It certainly wasn't for his defense; John Hollinger of ESPN.com has Jamison ranked as one of the worst defenders in the league, and rightfully so. 'Tawn's willingness to defend has never been Dwight-esque, and it certainly hasn't gotten any better with age. Though strong and tough, Jamison's lateral quickness is actually closer to 2012 Phil Jackson-esque, and he won't be able to lock down anyone on the perimeter. Hopefully he'll get a lot of minutes with Hill and Howard backing him up in the paint, or with Metta World Peace helping him on the wing. His only plus on this end of the floor is that he's still a pretty solid rebounder, though not great for the power forward position.
However, we're getting away from the main point here--the man can score, and by the boat-full. On an awful Cleveland team, Jamison still dropped 17 points a game, albeit at low efficiency (40% FG, 34% 3P). However, he's still a very capable, confident shooter who opposing defenses have to respect, and is solid slashing and finishing at the rack. He'll be slotted in as either Dwight's or Pau's replacement off the bench, and will thus be spotted at his usual perch beyond 16 feet.
For the price the Lakers got him (league minimum!) and role the team needed him to fill, fans should be ecstatic that a veteran player whose main strength is scoring came to help the team's much maligned bench. He'll hurt the team with his matador D, but on the whole should contribute 20 solid minutes a night. I do worry that at age 35 he is a candidate for a steep and sudden regression, a la Troy Murphy, but reports from training camp don't support my fear...so far, at least.
Earl's role on the team was at a point where if you mentioned "Clark" and "Lakers" in the same sentence, I'd think you were talking about our own C.A. Now with a groin injury that has put him on the shelf "indefinitely", his spot on the team could very well be in question. Clark has only played an average of 9 minutes this preseason, scoring only 1 point in 3 games. I've never seen anything redeeming from Earl in his short NBA career, aside from the fact that he has long arms and was a former lottery pick for the Orlando Magic. I'm not sure what he does exceptionally, but I do know the only reason the Lakers would keep him on the team is their lack of big man depth and his guaranteed $1.3 million dollar contract. This injury, as well as Robert Sacre's emergence, may spell the end of Clark's short time with the team.
Overall, the Lakers' power forward corps should be a point of strength for the team, but not without questions. Hill's back puts the unit at a severe disadvantage, as well as hoping for a bounce back season from Pau and that Jamison still has enough in the thank for another run.
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