Tuesday night's ugly loss to the Indiana Pacers was a microcosm of a more disturbing trend that has emerged: Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard may not work well together on the court. The idea of a physically dominant center paired with arguably the most skilled big man in the league would seem to be a great fit, but the results are beginning to suggest otherwise. Exhibit A would be Tuesday night's first half. The Lakers began the game with their typical twin-tower lineup and found themselves down 10 in first quarter. At that point Mike D'Antoni went to the bench and replaced Howard with Jordan Hill. The Lakers closed the quarter by outscoring Indiana by six points. To start the second quarter the Lakers went with Howard while Gasol took a much needed breather. During that stretch the Lakers continued to chip away at the Pacers' lead. The Howard-Gasol frontline dug the Lakers a hole, and the other line-ups worked the rest of the night to dig out of it. That is the reason that all the starters finished with a negative plus/minus stat while the bench players all finished in the positive.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a single half of basketball. Unfortunately for L.A., the same pattern is beginning to become evident on the season in general. The table below shows various statistics for the lineups featuring the big men. Only line-ups including Kobe Bryant have been included so that his on- and off-court presence doesn't distort the results.
The Lakers have been better on both sides of the ball when one of the two big men sits. Yes, sample sizes for the single big man line-ups are small and sure the competition may not be as tough since these line-ups often play the opposition's second unit, but the gap is quite significant. For example, there are only nine line-ups in the league that have played 100 minutes and produced a net efficiency rating in double digits and the leader is the Knicks' starting unit at +17. The Gasol-Bryant lineups have more than doubled this efficiency and the Howard-Bryant lineups are currently ahead of this pace as well.
Even if you disregard the small size of the line-ups featuring only one dominant big man, the line-ups featuring the duo of big men are both significant in minutes and disappointing in results. For the trio of Bryant-Gasol-Howard to have played 375 minutes and produce a net efficiency of just under 4 points per 100 possessions is a pretty clear indication that the twin tower line-up is not working. A net efficiency rating of 4 is roughly the equivalent of a 53-win team, or about a 4th or 5th seed in the Western Conference. Is that really what we expect from such a star-studded line-up?
Breaking down the offense statistics into the four factors of winning sheds some additional light on the reasons for the struggles of the twin towers relative to the dominance of the single big man units.
Outside of effective field goal percentage, the Twin Towers lineups produce the worst statistic of the group for each of the other factors. Offensive rebound rate can easily be attributable to the presence of Jordan Hill, the league leader in this particular category. Substituting him into the game is sure to help on the offensive glass. The free throw rate can be attributed to who is taking the free throws. When Howard is off the floor or Bryant takes a more aggressive role offensively (as he has typically done when one of the bigs is resting), then the Lakers are having more free throws taken by better shooters than Howard.
The turnover rate presents an interesting situation. When the duo of Gasol and Howard are in the game, there are always two big men near the paint. The extra congestion in the key leads to turnovers. For Bryant, the majority of his turnovers come as a result of him trying to dribble through the defense towards the basket. When only one big is in the game, a high screen and roll brings that big man out and leaves no one at the rim to help. When both bigs are in there is always another defender lurking near the rim to cut off penetration and give the defense time to collapse on Bryant. For Howard, his turnovers come primarily from being stripped of the ball when he brings it down to dribble. When Gasol is on the floor, his defender can sag off Gasol and help strip the ball from Howard when he begins his move to the basket. When Howard is surrounded by shooters the defense is spread too wide to reach in and steal the ball from Howard.
Beyond these observations one key takeaway is that few of these statistics seem like outliers that won't hold up. The 46% offensive rebound rate for the Gasol lineups won't stay quite that high. The league's best team in this stat is Denver at 35%, so this line-up could still produce a rate above 30%. The eFG% for the Gasol lineup of 55.4% is high, but Miami as a team is currently at 55.2% so something in the 53-55% range seems reasonable. Take a small reduction in shooting efficiency and offensive rebounding and this offensive efficiency would drop from 130 down to around 120, still a potent offense considering the league's best team produces at a rate of 112. For the Howard lineups the only thing standing out is the low effective field goals percentage. If that were to rise up to 50% then the offensive rating would increase to around 115. There isn't anything statistical suggesting the great offensive play by these single big line-ups isn't mostly sustainable.
Defensively the key differences between the single big men lineups are in opponent field goal percentage and defensive rebound rate. Gasol's defense at the power forward position is severely lacking. He simply does not have the foot speed to defend the majority of power forwards. If he sags off defensively the opponent gets an open jump shot. If he steps up to contest the opposition can blow right by him and either finish at the rim or draw Howard over to contest leaving Howard's man free to finish a miss. This problem was on full display Tuesday night with David West and Roy Hibbert. Put in a quicker Hill or Metta World Peace or even Antawn Jamison and the perimeter defense is much better. Will the full difference in eFG% hold up? Probably not to this extent, but a difference should still persist.
The statistics for defensive rebound rate are odd because Gasol and Howard are the best defensive rebounders on the team so I am a little surprised that the lineups including both players doesn't win out here. One theory could be that the opponent is more than likely the starters for the twin towers lineups but could feature bench players for the others who may not be as good on the glass.
The turnover rate and free throw rate can likely be explained by the quicker and more active Howard and Hill compared to the slow-footed Gasol. The aforementioned players cover ground quicker, interrupt more passes, and generate more turnovers. They are also more susceptible to fouling as a result of this. Meanwhile Gasol is slower and more of a positional defender who avoids fouling.
So what does all this mean going forward? It could very well be that what we have seen so far is the result of small sample size and that the two big men will figure out how to play together eventually. Of course we tried that before with Pau and Andrew Bynum and it never worked out. The Lakers won two titles with Gasol as the lead center while Lamar Odom was the main power forward finishing games and Bynum playing a back-up role (primarily due to injuries). Once the Lakers moved to a Bynum-Gasol starting and finishing duo, the Lakers never made it out of the second round. Given the multi-year failed experiment of Bynum and Gasol, I am hesitant to think the situation with Howard will resolve itself quickly.
The problem lies with Gasol. The "trade Gasol" bandwagon has been pickup up steam lately, but the anger is misplaced. Gasol has not regressed as a player, he is simply being asked to play a role that is not natural for him. He isn't a power forward, he is a center. Search the NBA and you will find only three players who are 7 feet tall and classified as forwards: Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, and Andrea Bargnani. The latter two are floor spacing shooters, Pau Gasol is not. He is the only non-floor spacing 7-footer asked to masquerade as a power forward. It speaks volumes to his skills that he is able to do it somewhat competently. A poor showing last week prompted him to request more touches in the post, not the perimeter, the post. Looking up the statistics from the lineups featuring Gasol as a center only cements the fact that it is his natural position. He is a center, period.
But therein lies the conundrum. Gasol is a center, but we have Howard. It would only make sense to move him for a true power forward, but who? Josh Smith's name is often floated around but if spacing with Howard is the issue then Smith isn't the answer. He is a worse jump shooter than Pau. Other than that it is slim pickings and people are ignoring the biggest contribution that Pau does provide: He is the best back-up center in the league. The value that Pau adds by being flexible enough to play both big man positions is understated. The Lakers have a great three-man frontline rotation in Howard, Gasol and Hill. Trading Pau is the equivalent of trading your starting power forward and your back-up center. The Lakers likely wouldn't get players at both positions in return if they dealt Pau.
So, there we have the Lakers twin towers troubles all laid out. They are better when one but not both are on the floor. They can't trade Howard, and the oft-discussed deals for Pau aren't necessarily an improvement. Could Mike D'Antoni look to stagger their minutes and play them less together? Perhaps, but what happens at the end of games? Do you really bench Gasol or Howard at the end of games to play Hill or Jamison at the power forward position because the results are better? Mike D'Antoni and Mitch Kupchak have their work cut out for them to maximize the potential of this title contender. I don't envy them one bit, but that is why they get paid millions to do what they do best. I'm sure they'll figure something out.