Whatever Happens To Pau, He Needs To Play More Center

Darius Soriano —  June 18, 2012

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).┬áThe 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.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com, 82games.com, MySynergySports, and Hoopdata.

Darius Soriano

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42 responses to Whatever Happens To Pau, He Needs To Play More Center

  1. As a very smart person once pointed put… “Everyone posts better PER’s at Center since there are only two good Centers in the NBA and a ton of great PFs”. If you face bad players your PER will be better. Of course the real question is… Is your team better with Pau at Center? Of course not. He gets pushed around by tiny 6-6 PFs the last two post seasons… Can you imagine how he would look against Kendrick Perkins today? He looked wimpy enough against him in the 2008 Finals. There is a reason the teams that wanted to trade for Pau last offseason were looking to slide him next to Centers or guys that would be playing Center next to Pau. Pau Gasol was a great PF… The best in the NBA In my opinion for many years. But he is a PF and would be a PF playing Center. With a body and skill set similar to KG… Why is KG a PF and Gasol a Center?

  2. Great points and clearly a reason why the season was a failure. Also a reason the Lakers should trade Bynum first and then consider what they can do with Gasol.

    The Lakers were most effective offensively with Odom at PF and Gasol at C. Yes, you lose out on defense without Bynum (sometimes a lot, sometimes only a little) but look how much more effective OKC is with Collison and Ibaka rather than Perkins. Shaq’s not in the league any more.

    Besides, keeping both Kobe and Bynum doesn’t make sense. It’s trying to hang on to a closing window while rebuild at the same time. Bynum isn’t ready (and may never be ready) to be a mature player. Kobe and Gasol have been ready for years. Unless the rumors of a rift between Kobe and Gasol are true, the Lakers are better off building for the next couple years around those two with whatever Bynum can fetch (be it Howard, D-Will, or a package of players) and filling in some veterans (Odom, if he extends his buy-out and Dallas is able to trade him to another team as a salary dump for next year, and KG would both fit well).

    With those moves the Lakers become a much better offensive team, while Mike Brown can teach his defense. It’s abundantly clear that in this age of zone/help defenses that team defense and quickness is more important than sheer height. I think those moves give the Lakers a chance against OKC and SA for the next couple years, until Kobe and Gasol’s salaries come off the books and true rebuilding can start.

  3. Also… Notice the PERs of Gasol at “Center”. Those were the end of his prime years as a 27, 28,29, and 30 years old player. To compare that Pau to the last two seasons of Pau is kind of silly since he appears to be to about everyone a slower and less explosive player. The “quickness advantage” he used to have playing Center is all but gone.

  4. If the New York Daily News is correct — no given, but for the sake of argument — Pau’s best position may not be the Lakers concern next season.

    My two cents is the Twin Towers approach isn’t the best way to win anymore, not unless the Lakers can add one or two good shooters — basically, what they hoped they were getting when they signed Blake — to help spread the floor and unclogged the defense from the paint.

    Pau isn’t Dirk; he shouldn’t be the guy who receives kick-out passes to shoot threes from the corner. If dealing him will potentially land the team someone who is better suited to that spot-up shooter role, let’s see what the front office can do on the trade market.

  5. I love this piece. Absolutely love it.

    Pau has one of the best back to the basket arsenals as noted above. Can score equally as effective at the rim with both hands. One of only 2 Bigs to average 10 rebounds and 3 assists (B. Griffin the other).

    Pau is a euro and isn’t a traditional NBA center. With him at center an offense flows, cutters are more effective and all 5 guys are options. Teams doubling the post will result in great ball movement and high assists numbers.

    A system can help him with defense kind of like it did with Varejao. It’s best for the league Pau is at C so we can see what a true post offense looks like.

  6. I updated the post b/c I had an incomplete thought when making the Lamar Odom comparison. That’s now fixed.

  7. I don’t think it is exactly that “Pau is a PF or Pau is a C.” I think it is more that:

    1. Pau missed the Triangle.
    2. Pau missed playing with Odom, who had a face-up game as well as size and strength and so complemented Pau well.
    3. Pau will be 32 in August and his game is understandably slipping a bit due to aging.

    I actually think Pau is a “4.5″, to use the modern parlance. As was discussed all year, there is some skill overlap with him and Bynum, as they are both slow, both are back-to-the-basket guys, and neither jumps all that well.

  8. I have no problem keeping Pau and playing him at center. Is he as effective as Andrew – no.

    However, if the Laker’s goal is to serve multiple masters (win now as well as position themselves for life without Kobe) then Bynum is the only piece that returns a young star that can bridge the post Kobe gap.

    Its funny because Andrew now can hold the Lakers hostage. Any team trading for him will want him under contract for more than this year. By not agreeing to an extension he could kill a deal to any team he does not want to play for.

  9. Visibly we saw no decline in Pau’s game and the numbers say just as much. His role in the offense didn’t fit with how he’s played his whole career.

    Pau being a highly skilled player who doesn’t rely on athleticism will continue his stellar play. You can look at Duncan, Garnett for recent examples or even Nash. Pau’s technical game will allow him to score efficiently and play good positional defense.

    With speed taking over the league. We see Hibbert, Bynum, Perkins, Haywood, Jefferson get exposed in PnR defense. Bruisers are no longer as valuable and finesse is.

  10. 1/2decaf1/2regular: The team in that Dallas series was bad. From Phil, Kobe on down. Everybody on the Lakers was completely outplayed. The whole team’s statline was below season average.

    Pau is still a very effective player when utilized right. Whoever decides to play him exclusively at center will find that out.

  11. 1/2, 1/2… Watch out for the possibility of confirmation bias. We can look at Pau’s impact on the regular season as compared to his playoff contributions 2008-2010 and find numbers there that speak to a plenty fortified intestin. Obviously the 08 Finals were unfortunate, but that defense chopped plenty of great players down to bite sized pieces. We don’t have a definitive answer to “What kind of player is Pau” other then knowing he is extremely skilled and has both excelled and come up short in important games.

  12. P. Ami,
    Can’t we say the same thing about Lebron and Kobe — “…has both excelled and come up short in important games.”

  13. Does anyone have any insight into what the FO thinks we need to do? Are they in the camp that wants peripheral changes? Or, do they agree with most of us that a major move is necessary.

    Now, I realize that they may want to make a big move but it could fall apart (like the CP3) trade.

    I guess I’m just anxious to know how the next two years will play out: Go all in to win or if we’re just going to milk the last two years of Kobe and then rebuild.

  14. Has anyone heard that Kobe has had his exit luncheon with Mitch Kupchak?

  15. Terri:

    I doubt we’ll ever know what Jim Buss or Mitch are thinking until after the deed (whatever it is) is done. Perhaps then they will talk about their actions.

    I for one hope they make a big move and do so quickly. It would be nice to see them get a young talent as well as a draft pick because I think the overall need is talented youth.

    I think the FO knows something major needs to be done. If nothing significant happens I would take that to mean they could not pull off the deal they targeted as opposed to not wanting to get a deal done.

  16. Just asking for people’s thoughts:

    If the Laker’s make a move with one or both of their bigs would there be any interest in Spencer Hawes as a mid priced replacement?

    Half of me sees him as a poor man’s Pau. A decent inside game paired with a very nice outside shot. I think he would excel as a stretch 4.

    The other half sees him as a nice but not great player. Someone who is not good enough to put us over the top now and not young enough to be part of the post Kobe core.

  17. Todd:

    I would pass on Hawes. He would demand the type of contract that ends up killing teams (eg 5 yrs $7 mill= $35 million).

    Your second point is right on. He is a piece that could help you win now if the other pieces were already there. He is not someone that in 3 years, when Kobe is gone, that you could say “wow, am I glad we have Spencer Hawes’.

  18. Craig W- You can say it about any good, or great player. There was a time when the press used the term Tragic Johnson because he came up short in a finals against the Celtics. You’d have a hard time thinking of Jordan or Russell as human but the rest of the NBA is filled with guys who both failed and succeeded at the biggest stage and few of them have succeeded to the degree that Pau has. Three finals appearances and 2 rings, coupled with a FIBA World Championship in 2006 and a silver at the Olympics in 2008. Lets see how he does this Summer in London. Point being, he has been a big time player and one can easily contextualize his issues of the last couple of post-seasons in a manner more consistent with his history and the history of uber-skilled big-men then convincing one’s self that he has just lost his ability or gotten soft.

  19. Todd:

    I forgot to add that if the Lakers did trade one or both of their bigs I would pursue front court depth with the Sacramento Kings.

    I believe they will be letting Jason Thompson go and I see him as a starting PF or a backup center. Also, I think that Donte Green would be a really nice SF – shoots 40% from 3. He needs work on defense but would benefit from MB’s teaching.

    I think the FO would be open to trading a big chip if it gave us a young stud at a position of need (PG or SF). However, I think they would also have other moves in place to back fill the holes they created. Thompson and or Green would be nice additions if we needed help.

  20. Seems like we are seeking answers to questions from the FBG family. If that is the case this evening, I have a question.

    We seem to always look at trades from our Laker perspective: eg we want DWill so we assume that the Nets will of course want player X.

    Does anyone happen to know what teams out there have a strong interest in any of our players? I mean are Pau and or Andrew legitimate targets for other teams?

    From my perspective, I like Pau and would want him on my team. However, I wouldn’t trade fair value for him because of his age and contract.

    Andrew is clearly the 2nd best center in the league. So of course he is desirable. However, would I trade fair value for someone who has only been healthy once in his 7 year career? I’m not sure I could sell such a deal to my owner.

    What does this mean for the Lakers? Are we really fooling ourselves about how much we can improve this off season?

  21. Random Serious Question: Is Bynum a good screener?

    We rarely see him do it. Screening is a skill like passing out of double teams.

  22. Kevin

    AB is a bad passer out if tge post.
    A bad screener because it’s not fun
    A rebounded only when he wants.
    A defender only when he wants.

    He is a good pouter.

    He us also the only player on the team that can bring 2 or 3 good young players in return.

    Case closed.

  23. Thanks, Kevin. Good article.

  24. Leo

    Houston, Philly and the T-Wolves are the teams I hear are interested in a Pau trade, with the T-Wolves involved in a few 3 team rumors. If we went after D-Will i would bet one of those would be the 3rd team to make it work.

    Kevin

    on Andrews screening ability, who knows, we don’t do a lot of pick and roll. That’s why you haven’t seen him screening much. He will go out and set a pick for Kobe once in awhile but Kobe plays ISO alot so really the jury is out on that one.

    On obtaining Spencer Hawes, I would pass on that one. We might as well keep Pau. what we really need is a stretch 4 to open up the lane. Michael Beasley would be a great pick up for that. He can also play SF.

  25. Terri @14: If #14 is any indication of your thoughts, please keep posting, so redundant Robert is not the only one asking those questions. The FO needs to make such a choice as you have outlined. My concern is that they are avoiding the choice for the next two years. And they will “milk”, as you say the Kobe pursuit of the all time scoring list in lieu of title pursuits. Further, the FO has given me no indication that they have given this much thought at all, but rather they are just “futzing” around our existing core, because they fear going backwards, but also have no plan to move forwards. Hence we are stuck at our “6th” position.

  26. Very few on this blog seem to think as Brendan does. They seem to feel if the FO doesn’t tell us they think like we do, they are just dummies who are simply riding the wave of the Laker name.

    The Lakers have made mistakes – tell me a club that hasn’t – but this is a proud franchise for a reason. I’m not sure the fan base is able to live up to the organization’s quality, however.

    This blog is driven by really thoughtful articles that are a joy to read and think about. When we respond with simple insults about our organization’s competence, I question our understanding of running a sports franchise.

    First and foremost, this FO keeps its own council and neither announces nor comments on various rumors – just like Darius tries to run this blog. How about we respect that about them, even when it frustrates our curiosity.

  27. It’s takes time to learn certain parts of the game. Footwork, defense without fouling, sealing you man for position to receive the ball, passing out of double teams, setting screens, etc. If Pau is dealt Bynum becomes a primary screener. If he needs work on that it’s another developmental stage he has to go through. And Lakers don’t have that kind of time.

  28. As far as personnel the backcourt has to be the main focus. Don’t get the Beasley thing. I guess the feeling is he can be another Lamar type get for them.

    ChrisJ: I’m thinking those reports are spot on. The past year is evidence. Guess that means they won’t use the TPE, sorry Robert.

  29. Getting really tired of all the naysayers.
    Glad to see the fabulous forum appreciate one of our recent greats(Pau) with costant lack of appreciation for the mans game. That said, lakers or bust. I’ll go to war with the guys who have brought us all the way home(more than once I might add) anytime.

  30. Craig,

    Again: these are not your daddy’s (or Jim Buss’ daddy’s, even) Lakers. Jim Buss, Mike Brown, Glenn Carraro, and several Buss progeny/new scouts have replaced Jerry Buss, Phil Jackson, Ronnie Lester, and some old scouts as well as the training and video staffs. Add that to the veto of the Paul deal and the new CBA and Jerry West’s no longer being here, and we are in new and uncharted territory. Yes, Kupchak is still the GM, but he is one guy. Asking questions is a a reasonable and intelligent approach–although it can get very overdone, particularly during the Finals before FA, when no one is doing anything and nothing is happening anywhere in the league.

    Also, you need to remember that the Paul deal WAS rumored for a week before it went down and there were Sessions rumors for weeks and weeks. Keeping anything a secret is tough in the digital age.

    As to the question from Leo about how much value Pau and Bynum actually have, that is one reason I think talking about and wondering what the FO is thinking right now is mostly fruitless. I really think there is likely a lot of variance in how Gasol and Bynum are seen around the league, and there are only about 5-7 teams that would want Pau. Nothing big will or can happen until the Lakers know whether they have a shot at Deron Williams. Everything is on hold until then.

  31. So the Bobcats go from courting Jerry Sloan and Brian Shaw to … hiring a college assistant coach. A D2 assistant coach.

    It’d be funnier if it were a surprise. My only question is – when you knew you were going to go the cheap route anyway, what was the purpose of the elaborate interview show? To impress upon all 14 Bobcats fans that you’re trying your best? Or was the point of the interview to ask the candidate to name the smallest amount of money he’d be willing to work for?

  32. kehntangibles June 19, 2012 at 8:41 am

    The team undoubtely was better with Pau at center; though you can attribute that in part to the team as a whole being better. Pau spent more time at center between 2008-2010 b/c of Bynum’s injuries and those happened to be our championship years where Pau and Kobe were peaking.

    That said, I looked at 2008 Finals Pau vs. 2012 playoff Bynum – where they both primarily faced off against Perkins – and the comparision is actually more even than I woulda initially thought. Pau had 14.7 ppg / 10 rgp / .532 fg% in 39 minutes per game vs. 16.6 ppg / 9.4 rpg / .435 fg% in 37 minutes per game. There are mitigating circumstances in both instances, though it’s probably particularly noteworthy that 2008 Perkins also had KG at his side, and KG – last I checked – is at least a passably good help defender. Pau shooting a decent 53% against that front line is a testament to his relative quickness advantage at the 5-spot.

  33. Warren Wee Lim June 19, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Took me some 13 hours to finally make a post so pardon me if this post has been posted or seemingly out of line now. I didn’t wanna read through everything (although 33 comments is but a breeze) …

    Pau Gasol IS a center. Like it or not, he IS a center. Its not about comparison its not about a bloated PER its not about anything else, he’s 7 feet, he plays postup, he IS a center.

    Now the argument can now be said about his physicality (or lack thereof) and his passing skills (amazing) and his dribbling skills (yes he can run the break too)… but thats really more of a plus to Pau rather than putting him out of position as a “power forward”. This concept I don’t understand why so many great minds, including alot of people I admire in this site, make a mistake about.

    Pau Gasol is a center. Like it or not, whether you contend he gets pushed around by bigger and burlier forwards, Pau Gasol is a center. Therefore the best thing to do about him is, guess what, play him at Center. You can’t have it all, but he’s a damn good one still.

  34. rr,

    If they don’t get D’Will, no problem maybe they can woo Nash or Kidd just one year deal. Kidd said he’s willing to play as a sub. At the end of next season, CP3 contract is expiring with the Clippers, i don’t think he could get Championship with Clips nor willing to spend his career with a Don Sterling’s team. (What I don’t know if Jimbo might be a worse deal than DS, that remains to be seen.) Another way of putting it, Don has extracted the best juice out of Paul, this is similar to what happened to his former stellar stars who played with the Clips – Brand, Sam I am, Gordon, after exhausting their values in promoting his other businesses, they were gone for good. Nobody last long with this team not even their GM’s like Neil Oshley.

    Lakers should define what they want in going for role players. Will they play Eyenga, McRoberts, Goudelock, Morris, Hill or Ebanks or just let them rot on the bench? If they don’t like these players, then trade them on someone who would play consistently.

  35. Kevin,
    I love how you mention how teams will be in trouble when they double Pau in the post when he is playing Center because of his passing ability. It’s funny becauese he wasn’t doubled at all last year when there was a average sized PF guarding him. With a Center on him he won’t be doubled at all either. The days of teams doubling Pau Gasol are over.

  36. And that isn’t to say Gasol was utilized perfectly. He is a high post face up one on one player. That’s what he has been his entire career. But because there were two better offensive players on the team (Kobe and Bynum)… Pau didn’t get many ISO opprotunities and instead was asked to be a role player. He did that job very well during the regular season but seemed afraid to hit these same spot up shots in the postseason.

  37. With all that said, the bottom line is this: Gasol has been the best, most productive 4 to ever wear a Laker uniform. The main reason is simply because with the Hall of Fame 5′s the Lakers have had (Mikan-5 titles, Chamberlain-1, Kareem-5, & Shaq-3) they never needed a top shelf power forward…until recently. And that was because of a Bynum’s injury. 3 trips to the finals & 2 titles. I like Pau and if this is his last season with the Lakers, I look forward to seeing his #16 in the rafters soon. Because Pau doesn’t strike me as the type of player who’s going to hang around until he’s 40.

  38. As far as Pau goes, I wish he wasn’t going. The best place for Pau on this team is coming off the bench as Bynum’s backup, not because I think he’s less a player than Bynum (he has a more complete game than Bynum does)—-but because he and Bynum have never developed true synergy together and Bynum is entering his prime years while Pau is heading toward decline. If Pau comes off the bench and is put back into his natural position, he feasts on other teams’ backup centers and has the court vision and passing chops to make the other guys look good, too.

    Unfortunately, his salary is a starter’s salary and I don’t think he’d necessarily be willing to come off the bench.

    But we need to realize that if we jettison him and we don’t get something substantial in return, we’re probably making a very big mistake. The shadow of Greg Oden is always going to be hanging around Bynum. If Bynum goes down midseason next year and we’re minus Pau as well, our season is tanked.

  39. kehntangibles-Add to your stats the fact that Perkins was 3-4 years younger and probably more mobile before his hip injury.

    The Lakers are going to keep Bynum which is fine as both he and Dwight Howard when healthy can sway the league back to teams with post players. Everyone is buying the model of speed without centers because these two guys were not consistently dominant this season. D-Ho due to injury only played half of the shortened season and Bynum had two over-powering games in the playoffs but his team struggled against Javelle McGee and the Denver Nuggets and was ran out of the gym by Serge Ibaka and the Thunder.

  40. Wow, Phil Jackson agrees with you concerning the change of focus from Gasol to Bynum negatively affecting the Lakers:
    http://losangeles.sbnation.com/los-angeles-lakers/2012/6/19/3098061/andrew-bynum-phil-jackson-jim-buss-lakers-rumors