This off-season one of the questions the Lakers’ front office will need to ask and answer is whether or not their big man tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum works together well enough to keep in tact. Even with the financial concerns of keeping both in house through the end of Pau’s contract, the decision will likely come down to their utility as playing partners rather than what their cost is on the ledger. The Lakers understand that they’re going to be a high payroll team (Mitch Kupchak said so himself in his exit interview), so the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily saving money but optimizing their roster through right fitting personnel.
It should be said from the outset that having two of the better big men in the league is an embarrassment of riches. Before this past season Gasol had made three consecutive all-star teams while also being named either 2nd or 3rd team all-NBA. During long stretches of the 2011 season Gasol was widely considered the ‘most skilled’ big man in the league. Meanwhile, Bynum too has developed into an all-star and made 2nd team all-NBA this year. Both are fantastic players individually and having both on the same team is a luxury many teams would love to have an opportunity to try and make work.
This season, however, the Lakers were the team that had to make it work and the results were mixed.
Bynum and Gasol shared the court for 1,492 minutes this season, the third highest minute total of any pairing for the Lakers (behind only Kobe/Pau and Kobe/Bynum). In those minutes the team essentially played to their season averages in terms of every major statistical category both traditional and advanced/efficiency based. This, of course, makes complete sense – they played so often together that of course the team’s statistical output would be highly influenced by this paring.
Of course, the stats are only one part of this equation. What matters more is how the players actually meshed. And, this is where we start to see how it didn’t work as well as hoped.
Simply put, Gasol never really seemed comfortable playing the role he was given when sharing the floor with Bynum. As we said all year, Pau traded post touches for perimeter ones. He often acted as a facilitator at the elbow (or higher) in the Lakers’ HORNS sets, catching then holding the ball as the primary decision maker for how a set would evolve. When he wasn’t facilitating, he was spacing the floor, evidenced by his increase in long two pointers attempted and decrease in shots taken close to the basket.
Despite this shift in his offensive role, Pau was still effective if not nearly as decisive. He may have hit 50% of his field goals on the year but he often passed up shots in an attempt to involve others, showing difficulties in balancing his role as a distributor and scorer. He spoke at length about this after the season, saying that he’d need to find ways to be more aggressive while admitting that adjusting to his new role where he had to pursue his looks (rather than having them worked into the general flow of the offense) was challenging.
That said, Pau’s big picture offensive numbers were remarkably consistent whether Bynum was on the floor or not. The difference in FG% was minuscule (.3% better with Bynum on the floor) and his per 48 minute numbers for offensive rebounds were nearly the same. The only marked difference was that with Bynum off the floor Pau scored more (while also taking more FT’s) and assisted less, a natural result considering his role as a distributor when he shared the floor with another offensive threat the caliber of Bynum.
Bynum, on the other hand, did see a pretty big difference in production when Pau was on the floor vs. on the bench. When playing without the Spaniard, Bynum shot 4% better while scoring 4 more points per 48 minutes but also did worse on the offensive glass and committed more turnovers. As an offensive focal point Bynum had much more responsibility as a scorer and much more defensive attention shifted his way. The result was better scoring with the tradeoff being his offensive rebounding and ability to keep possession of the ball suffering. These are products of Bynum’s relative inexperience in being an offensive focal point and will likely improve over time but it’s interesting to see how Gasol’s presence affected his game in both positive and negative ways.
Defensively the Lakers saw the types of results you’d expect when Pau and Bynum shared the floor versus when one of them sat. With both of them in the game the Lakers’ defensive efficiency and rebound rate were both better. Per 48 minutes they blocked more shots, forced more steals, allowed less second chance points, and fouled less. Where they had issues were in transition defense and in points allowed off turnovers. P&R defense also gave them problems as Bynum didn’t always hedge and recover properly and the duo’s lack of foot speed meant that weak side rotations weren’t always timely. These last points are, of course, a major concern for the Lakers and has been for some time so it’s difficult to pin this solely on the Pau/Drew pairing even though their play is symptomatic of the problem.
So, what’s the final conclusion? It’s honestly not as easy to answer that question when you dig in further. Keeping both can definitely still work. The Lakers would need to continue to tweak their sets to better take advantage of each players’ strengths while also adjusting rotations to find personnel groupings that better mesh. And while some of the defensive issues that exist may not ever go away, there are ways to scheme around those as well. We never did see the Lakers play any zone D this year nor did we see any tweaks to the scheme that would sometimes have the bigs playing 20 feet from the hoop trying to contain a ball handler after switching. There’s refining to be done on both sides of the ball and the skill of the players involved is so high it could be worth exploring making some adjustments and gauging the results after a full off-season to better prep.
But, even the most optimistic view can’t hide other truths. In limited minutes this year, some of the Lakers best units were small ball lineups that featured Ron at power forward playing next to Gasol or Bynum. Those sample sizes are extremely small but do fall in line with what we saw in previous seasons where Lamar Odom playing next to either Pau or Drew produced results better than those that featured the twin towers. There’s also the point of whether this coaching staff – or any coaching staff for that matter – has the acumen to integrate two post players into a system that produces elite offense with today’s defensive rules that allow the clogging of the area in and around the paint. Phil Jackson was as great a coach as you’ll find but even he limited their minutes together – their 2 man pairing ranked 16th in minutes played together after Bynum came back from knee surgery – preferring instead to play Gasol and Odom for nearly 300 more minutes together than Bynum and Pau. Some of these results – both this year and last – are due to the Lakers lack of outside shooting but there’s still strong evidence that even with better shooting the spacing will still suffer with two bigs on the floor.
What the Lakers do to try and remedy this remains to be seen. If a trade is made I would not be surprised, though working around the edges wouldn’t surprise me either. However, the fact remains that there’s work to be done to make the Pau/Bynum pairing work for both players and the team at large as long as they’re both on the team.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com