The Los Angeles Lakers have a great many problems which have gone unsolved this season. Their defense has been a struggle all season long. Injuries have prevented any kind of consistent rotation or game plan. Turmoil behind the scenes lends credence to the notion that the team is hardly united. But the biggest problem of all might be the inability of the team's four star players to integrate their games to become the sum of their parts, to say nothing of being anything greater. Whether talking Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash's role, or whether to involve Dwight in the offense through straight post ups or as the screener in the pick and roll, the Lakers are still struggling to find the right way to play together. However, when it comes to the topics above progress has been made. There is only one combination of superstars that had led to abject failure unilaterally: the combination of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
The twin towers ... they just do not work. If you were to "blame" somebody for this, the blame would have to go to Pau, because he is unable to play the role in a twin towers lineup that the Lakers need him to, as a release valve from 15-23 feet which prevents the defense from sagging to the basket too much and clogging things up for Dwight to operate. Based on his career numbers, Gasol should have been able to play that role. But, Gasol is not the player he was 3 years ago, and ironically, it is his outside shooting where that has been made the most clear. Bottom line, as has been pointed out many, many times in this space, Pau Gasol is a center. His problem is that the Lakers have another center who is better than he is.
Except that's only half true. There's no doubt, in anybody's mind, that Dwight Howard is a superior package to Pau Gasol. If you have to pick between the two, you pick Dwight every day and twice on Sunday. But basketball is not played all at once all the time. There are two very distinct aspects of the game that are almost entirely unrelated. And to these eyes, Pau Gasol is better at one of those two aspects than Dwight Howard is. On the offensive end of the court, if you give me a choice between dumping the ball into either Pau or Dwight, I'm going with the Spaniard. As discussed above, we've talked many times before about how much more successfully Pau operates on the low block than when he operates from 15 feet. But what is less rarely mentioned is that Pau Gasol is more successful in the low post than Dwight Howard is.
The difference, statistically at least, is not eye-popping. Dwight Howard post ups average .73 points per possession, whereas Pau Gasol's post ups average .8 points per possession, which means neither guy is all that effective over the entire season. Gasol's shooting % is actually far lower than Dwight's, 34% to 42%, but Pau also turns the ball over significantly less, hence the overall lean towards Gasol in general. But conceptually? I think a compelling case can be made for a strategy centered around Pau Gasol in the post, even when Dwight Howard is on the court. Especially when Dwight Howard is on the court.
The logic behind such a move is based on one overwhelming principle: If there is one skill in Pau Gasol's repertoire that has not diminished a bit, it is his passing. He remains one of the best passing big men, if not THE best, in the league. He also has great footwork and a huge arsenal of offensive moves to utilize on the low block. What he doesn't have is power. He can't overpower a guy like Dwight can. But he doesn't usually need to. If Pau has his game working (and yes, I know just how big of an if that is), he can do whatever he wants on the low block, and punish any team that tries to double him with passing. So let him do it. Make Dwight Howard be the "stretch 4".
No, I'm not insane. Obviously, Dwight can be a stretch 4 about as well as Lindsey Lohan could be a guidance counselor. But he doesn't need to stretch the floor, not with Pau on the low block. The purpose of stretching the floor is to provide space for someone to operate on the block, so the help defender won't be able to get there in time to prevent the player on the low block from being successful. But with Pau on the low block, you want the help defender coming. Dwight Howard doesn't have to play 20 feet from the basket if Pau's in the post. He needs to play 3 feet from the basket on the opposite side of Gasol. I beg any big man to leave Dwight to help on Pau Gasol in that situation. Gasol would destroy any big man help with lobs from all number of angles. Or, Gasol could simply perfect the art of the Kobe Bryant assist and start tossing up shots if Dwight's man is shading towards him. Sure, a lot of those shots will miss, but if Dwight's man isn't 100% focused on him, one has to believe Howard's offensive rebounding opportunities will be through the roof. And for the record, Dwight shoots 60% from the field and scores 1.1 PPP on shots after offensive rebounds, with only 5% turnovers. Giving Pau Gasol, and not Dwight Howard, the ball in the post might be the best thing that could happen to Dwight Howard.
Gasol in the post could also go a long way towards reducing the number of turnovers the team produces. As previously mentioned, Dwight turns the ball over nearly 18% of the time he posts up his man, and Gasol only turnsit over on 10%. I don't need to tell you how terrible the Lakers are in transition defense, and turnovers are the easiest way to create a transition opportunity. Gasol is better both at keeping the ball high when making post moves (so as to avoid being stripped) and at passing out of double teams than Howard is. The bottom line is that good things happen when Pau Gasol touches the ball on offense, assuming he's touching the ball for more than just a 15 foot jumper. It always has.
Briefly, the Lakers tried this last night against Milwaukee. The results were promising. On five possessions over a four minute span early in the 3rd quarter, the Lakers made a clear effort to get the ball to Pau on the low block. On the first three possessions, he scored three times on 3-4 shooting (with an offensive reebound). On the next two possessions, Kobe's man doubled Pau from the top of the key, and Pau turned the ball over twice. (One of the turnovers was a bad pass that got picked off, but the other turnover was Kobe's man essentially tackling Pau without a call.) Still, even though he did turn the ball over on two straight possessions, I don't think that would be expected if the Lakers were to more fully commit to the strategy. We know Gasol is an excellent passer, and if he is allowed to build a rhythm in the post, there's no reason to believe he would turn the ball over excessively on double teams. And, as alluded to above, Dwight Howard's man was nowhere to be seen on Gasol's post ups, sticking with Howard 15 feet away from the basket. That's all the spacing you could ask for from a stretch 4.
On defense, Pau Gasol is a liability as a power forward. There's no getting around it. But the Lakers have liabilities at power forward no matter what. Gasol isn't any worse defensively than Antawn Jamison. Gasol won't get eaten alive by the bigger power forwards in the league like Earl Clark does (and besides, what Pau adds on offense more than makes up for what he loses on defense in comparison to Clark).
Whenever we've had the chance to see Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard take the court together this season, we've been unimpressed. Dwight Howard is a center. We thought Pau Gasol could play power forward to Howard's center, but we were wrong. He, too, is a center. Having two of your most talented players play the same position is normally a bad thing, but in this case, it doesn't have to be. It might seem like having two talented centers means it will be difficult to get the most out of both of them, but Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard excel in two very, very different ways. Let Pau be the offensive center. Let Dwight be the defensive center. Then, just maybe, they might both be able to bring everything they are capable of to the table at the same time.
- Stats provided via MySynergySports