After game 4’s brutal come from ahead loss, the Lakers started to analyze what went wrong. And those moments just after the game, when emotions run highest, several had a lot to say about how the game was lost. Chief among them were Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Their opinions on the matter differed more than slightly and the story-lines today are of bus tracks on Gasol’s back with Kobe’s hands at the wheel and his foot on the pedal. Of course, this is one way – the popular way, really – of looking at this. But, for my money, it’s actually a symbol of something else. It’s a symbol of these two players who’d once been so in synch, now decidedly now. This idea was expressed wonderfully by Andy Kamenetzky at the Land O’ Lakers blog:
Kobe and Pau aren’t on the same page. At all.
And this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, since it feels these days like they barely share the same court. As this season progressed, the once-electric chemistry and byplay between Bryant and Gasol has increasingly gone the way of the Dodo Bird. They don’t work off each other with nearly the same frequency as the previous four seasons. This is in part a byproduct of Andrew Bynum’s increased prominence, which means more possessions beginning (and often ending) on the low left block. And the addition of Ramon Sessions, a ball-dominant guard while playing to his strengths. Plus, Gasol’s 2012 role, which either parks him in the high post as a general offensive conduit or an anchor for the reserves while Kobe rests.
All of these factors have emerged to practically transform Kobe and Pau into strangers. They’ll occasionally run pick-and-roll together — ironically, often as a means to ultimately to create lobs for Drew — but it’s just as likely, if not more, to see that action between Sessions and Pau or even Pau and Bynum. Bryant and Gasol barely feel like they complement each other any more. They’re no longer killing opponents with beautifully meshed skill sets. They’re arguably the best guard/big man duo since Kobe and Shaq, but you’d never know based on their current usage. This separation of stars is a huge reason, even beyond the inherent roster flaws, the Lakers haven’t been able to consistently maximize their assets this season. Even if you think Bynum has become a better player than Gasol, it’s nonetheless impossible to argue Kobe and Bynum play better together than Kobe and Gasol. And that ultimately leaves the Lakers wanting for more.
AK goes on to explain these players’ different personalities, how they’ve helped each other grow as players, and makes a fantastic comparison to two music legends. I suggest you read the entire thing for a fantastic, nuanced take on an on court relationship not what it was, nor needs to be.
My quick two cents on the matter: What made the Lakers such a fantastic team after the acquisition of Gasol was that his skill set was a perfect fit for the Triangle and his IQ allowed him to pick up the offense like he’d been running it his entire career. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant actually had been running the offense for (nearly) his entire career. This fact allowed them to find symmetry quickly and naturally. They grew together as teammates, building a foundation on an understanding of how to play together within the beautiful confines of a system that both could thrive in.
For better or worse, that system is now gone. When combined with the emergence of Andrew Bynum and his “thirst” for the ball and ability to help the team, Pau has become marginalized. He’s no longer the hub of the offense from the low block, but rather works from the shallow wing and high post. He’s a facilitator of the Lakers’ sets from places where he can be effective but also from a place where his skills aren’t maximized. Meanwhile, Kobe and Bynum’s strengths are played too on every possession.
This isn’t to make excuses for Gasol, but fleeting chemistry is more likely to occur when one of the key variables isn’t put in a position where it can flourish most. It’s like trying to grow a plant in soil with an out of balance pH. If the right balance isn’t struck, the plant can not thrive and will ultimately wilt.
I’m also not out to skewer Mike Brown. He’s working with pieces that may not entirely fit well together and trying to come up with a workable plan. However, one of the tasks of a head coach is to maximize the skill sets of the players he coaches and to put them into positions to succeed. Gasol is so talented he could succeed from anywhere on the floor but to claim he’s being maximized now would be a lie.
And now, what this team has are two founational players not really working as well together as they did before. And, for both players, the team, and its fans that is a shame.