By: Dan Grant
STOP THE PRESSES!
Did you guys hear?!?
Pau Gasol is going to be starting for the LA Lakers when he comes back from his recent tendonitis in his knees!
I know, I know. I was shocked too. Just earth-shattering stuff.
You know it turns out that the 4 time all-star, 2 time champion, gold medal winner and international superstar they have on their roster is one of their five best!
In case you haven’t caught on, I am being more than slightly facetious.
The reason this is even a news story is because the LA media and subsequently, Mike D’Antoni made it one. He came right out and said when asked if Pau would come off the bench upon his return, ‘no, that’s not what we need to be doing right now’. He stuck to the line propagated by General Manager Mitch Kupchak earlier in the week stating, “I’m not going to mess with Pau. He’s too important to the team and he’s earned it and he’s too good of a player to even go there. That would be a last resort kind of desperate (move).”
Despite 10 years of coaching evidence showing that the contrary is more effective, and a fresh example in Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler of it not working, D’Antoni is apparently excited to once again pigeon hole two big men into his spread offense.
You may remember in an earlier article on this same site, we discussed the D’Antoni hiring and which player stood to gain or lose the most. This guy right here stated ‘I’m going to talk about Pau ‘I don’t even like people named Paul’ Gasol. He is the true X-factor for the Lakers now. Probably the person who stands to benefit the most or the least, with no in between. His elite passing skills and tremendous basketball IQ would have been perfectly suited for a reunion with Phil Jackson and the Triangle; where he fits into D’Antoni’s schemes is less apparent’.
Pau has been awful so far, posting career worst numbers while playing away from the basket and basically struggling in the same way he struggled last year when Andrew Bynum began to occupy the low post on a regular basis. The truth is that he’s a centre and he needs to play centre for a team in the NBA, rather than being forced to play out of position simply because he’s so much better than other centres at passing and spacing the floor. He’s a guy who needs to be featured on a team, not a guy who needs to be hidden.
So why are the Lakers trotting out the ‘we need to fully evaluate the team’ line and not even listening to trade offers for the big Spaniard?
The first is that yes, given that they added a two time MVP point guard over the off-season, who is also the man who was seemingly born to run Mike D’Antoni’s system, it makes sense to give the team a chance to play together once Steve Nash returns from injury, something that appears imminent.
Beyond that, there are whispers that Nash was assured on signing with the Lakers that Pau would be present for the duration of his (Pau’s) contract. This was of course before the mega-deal that landed the Lakers Dwight Howard. Whether or not Nash is still adamant about playing with Pau can’t be determined, but it’s apparent that promises were made.
However, the real issue and the one that underpins everything that’s seemingly sour in Laker land so far this season is, of course, Dwight Howard.
Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant’s relationship is developing interestingly, to say the least.
Kobe still has most of his ability on offense but can’t give 110% on defense every play anymore, nor should he; that’s why the Lakers got Dwight in the first place. He’s the fixer and he’s the future. Dwight doesn’t like that but Kobe really shouldn’t have to explain himself to the young and ringless D-12. Howard is an elite talent. But he’s also a head case, someone who strung along the Orlando Magic organization and fans with his hokey pokey ‘I’m staying, I’m going, trade me, don’t trade me’ stance for the better part of two years. This head case is someone who happens to be an unrestricted free agent at seasons end and someone who will attract max offers from any team around the league who the cap room. This is a guy, who while immensely talented, can’t be impressing basketball junkies like Kobe and Nash with his work ethic, as he continues to shoot abysmally from the free throw line and appears to be as light-hearted and goofy as always.
So why haven’t they traded Pau? It’s because Dwight hasn’t signed long term and he might not. It’s that and that alone.
If they trade Pau now, say, to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon or to New Orleans for a package built around Ryan Anderson (both rumoured as being on the table) then the Lakers personnel will fit Mike D’Antoni’s system better by leaps and bounds. Bargnani and Anderson are the types of stretch power forwards with range that make D’Antoni salivate. So they’d be better. For this year. But if Pau gets dealt and the Lakers implode somehow, or Dwight decides he doesn’t want to deal with Kobe anymore (and he wouldn’t be the first) then what are the Lakers left with?
A 35 year old Kobe and 40 year old Steve Nash, and not a whole lot else.
By keeping Pau, they’re hedging their bets. In that same article discussing the D’Antoni hiring, I said ‘With this hiring the Lakers are seen to be doing something radical, which will keep Kobe happy and they’re maximizing the talent of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the short term, while covering their asses in the long term. It’s evil genius level brilliant’.
This Pau Gasol hemming and hawing is almost at the same level. By keeping him on the roster, they have an option should Dwight refuse to sign long term (unlikely, but again, due to Dwight’s history, anything is possible) as well as keeping their promise to Nash, keeping around a player the fans love, who has Kobe’s support and has proven that he can actually co-exist with Kobe while competing at a championship level. If Dwight doesn’t sign and the Lakers are still struggling, who’s to say he doesn’t get dealt at the trade deadline? Is it likely? No. But he’d definitely fetch a higher price than the 32 year old Pau.
For a team that seems like they’re all in, they’re actually the furthest thing from it. All they’ve done is spend money. They’ve made the flashy moves, the moves they get to make because they’re the Lakers. But they haven’t really given up much to get where they are and they haven’t taken the chances they need to create a championship roster at this point. They have aging name players and the best young centre in the league. Not exactly rocket surgery to put this roster together and it’s definitely lacking in major areas, regardless of who the coach is.
Of course, as they haven’t ‘fully evaluated’ so I might be totally wrong. People forget that the new look Miami Heat started out much the same way in their first year together and they didn’t have to deal with injuries or age the way this group does. All these questions marks mean one thing.
Pau is safe.
Until Dwight signs. And not a second longer.