It’s been the running narrative for a few seasons now and I’m as guilty as the next person. When Andrew Bynum emerged, we rushed to classify Pau Gasol as a Power Forward and hailed his move to that spot as one that placed him in his “natural position”.
The logic was simple, really. Pau, and his willowy frame, would be better off not dealing with the constant pounding of playing Center. As a PF he’d no longer be exposed to the physical toll of being guarded by the big bruisers of the league and instead would play more against guys that weren’t as strong and not as tall. It would be better for his career; better for his production.
Well, I’m now of the mindset that those opinions miss the mark. Pau is not a Power Forward. Pau is a Center. Consider the following:
- Pau Gasol has posted a better PER at Center than at PF in all but one season since he’s come to the Lakers (this includes the 2007-08 season).
- Including that first half a season of his Laker career, Gasol has posted PER’s while playing C of 26.7, 26.3, 28.1, 24.3, and 21.7.
- As a PF (excluding that first half season, as he didn’t play any PF for that stretch), Gasol has posted PER’s of 21.0, 21.4, 25.4, and 20.1.
- As a post up player, Gasol has ranked in the top 26 players in the league in points per play in two of the past three seasons.
So, in essence, what we have is a player that in 4 of the past 5 years has posted better PER’s as a C while also being one of the best post up players in the league. Yet, the running notion is that he’s better off playing a different position.
It seems, what we’ve done is mistaken Pau’s versatility to play PF as an indicator that he’s better playing that position. We’ve overvalued his height advantage, overplayed his strength deficiency, and concluded that his best fit is one that explores the facets of his game that aren’t as strong (his mid-range shooting) as the ones he’s used to his advantage his entire career in both the NBA and internationally (his post up game). The reality is, though, what we’ve really done is not looked closely enough at the advantages of him playing C.
Today’s NBA is really about speed. The quicker and more athletic the player, the better suited he is to today’s NBA. If that athleticism comes in a physically imposing frame (think LeBron or Dwight Howard) the better, but this is not a requirement to be effective. In playing Pau at PF he is effectively surrendering his quickness and athleticism advantages on nearly every night.
This really can’t be overstated. When a player has a quickness advantage it makes every part of his offensive arsenal more effective. If on the wing or at the elbow, it’s easier to beat your man off the dribble. If cutting off the ball to either catch a pass on the way to the basket or to establish prime position on the court, that advantage can be all the difference. When working in the post, quick spin moves or drives after turning/facing are much more effective. Even in pick and roll situations, a big man that can screen and then use is quickness to dash into the open spaces on the floor is immensely valuable. As a C, Pau has that advantage almost nightly. As a PF, it diminishes greatly.
(As an aside, I liken this to the Lamar Odom at SF experiment we saw for brief stretches under Phil Jackson. The idea was that Odom’s guard skills would translate to playing SF and it would give the Lakers an unprecedented size advantage against teams. However, what actually happened was Odom’s quickness advantage disappeared against traditional SF’s and his size did little to give him an edge if he couldn’t use his quickness to get to the spots on the floor he favored. Phil ultimately scrapped the idea entirely.)
But, Gasol has been put in a position where he cedes that advantage more and more with the emergence of Andrew Bynum. This isn’t to blame Andrew for anything. He’s earned his increased role on offense by becoming one of the most difficult big men to manage defensively. But with Bynum becoming more of a focal point, Gasol’s role has shifted. He’s been asked to space the floor, be more of a distributor, and operate as a 3rd option. It’s a testament to him that he remains as effective and put up the numbers he does while playing more and more minutes as a PF when he’s been much more effective as a C throughout his career.
What this means for Pau’s future remains to be seen. He will likely be shopped on the trade market this off-season and whether he remains a Laker will depend greatly on how much his value to the team can be replicated through what he’d fetch from another team. However, after the last few years it’s become more and more clear to me that whatever team he suits up for next season should try to better optimize his role by playing him more at C. It’s the position he’s shown to be most effective at and the one where he’s also shown the most comfort. Whether it agrees with the narrative or not.