Pau Gasol started a game, for only the second time in his Laker career, as a reserve. The first time could be semi-excused as it was his first game back from concussion after not playing for more than a week. Taking into account the fast paced Miami Heat on the other side of the floor, and a plan for Pau to ease his way back into the fold could be easily explained.
Yesterday’s tilt against the Bulls was different, however. Gasol was placed on the pine in favor of the surprising Earl Clark. Easy Earl, as he’s been called previously in his career, has flashed of athleticism and a well rounded game on both ends of the floor that’s been a real plus for the Lakers ever since he got his shot to play. Combine Clark’s play with the fact that Gasol hasn’t been anywhere near his best this season (on either side of the ball) and his questionable fit into D’Antoni’s system as a power forward, and it’s no surprise Pau was demoted.
The fact that Clark is a better fit in any system over Pau Gasol is another story entirely, and that begins our trip down the rabbit hole of what the Lakers’ problems are this season.
In the interview that occurs between the quarter breaks of nationally televised games, D’Antoni was asked about the benching and rattled off a reason that spoke entirely to issues on offense. The Lakers needed the spacing that Clark provides. To be more direct, Dwight Howard needed the space that Clark provides. In the spread pick and roll attack that the Lakers want to run, spacing is everything and as Steve Kerr would mention later in the contest, Dwight’s desire to bull his way to the basket with a less refined post game requires even more space. It takes time to power through your man the way that Howard wants to. The implication is that Pau doesn’t provide that space, hence he’s on the bench. You see, it’s that simple.
So, there are issues of the Lakers’ current personnel fitting within the scheme their head coach wants to run.
When D’Antoni was hired, there were questions about how the roster would fit together and those were answered with words into microphones in front of cameras to a throng of media lapping up the answers like thirsty kittens do a bowl of milk. I admit, I was one of those kittens. The thought of Nash operating in a high P&R with Howard while Pau either circled along the baseline or camped near the elbow as a release valve makes all the sense in the world. Pau is a world class passer in his own right and a fantastic finisher from all over the floor (at least he is historically). However, the words offered to the masses haven’t translated to the hardwood. So Pau Gasol will now start games on the bench.
This, in and of itself, isn’t really the biggest problem, though. Pau is a center and he can play the same role that Howard plays and do it on the second unit. Pau can pick and roll, pick and pop, facilitate from the elbow or the post, and help the team on offense all the while. He can do this as the solo big man on the floor for most of his minutes, but can also find ways to do these things when paired with Howard. If D’Antoni’s biggest task is maximizing the talent on his roster, this is one way to do it. I’ve argued for staggered lineups that play to each player’s strengths and approaching this issue from the angle of “Pau Gasol, reserve big man” is one way to accomplish this goal.
So while there may be some bruised egos, the players will ultimately have to be professional. Pau will need to adjust. I have a feeling he will, even if he’s not happy about it. He’s done it before for these Lakers, after all.
Of course, this shift didn’t lead to a Laker win against a depleted Bulls team. No, the Lakers lost again, their ninth time in eleven games (to be exact) because of the same issues that have plagued them all season continue to attack their innards like a ravaging disease.
This team doesn’t defend. They don’t help each other on defense. When the ball is penetrated, the big man may step up or he may not. If the big does step up, a teammate may cover for him or he may not. If the teammate does cover, then the ball is kicked out to a shooter and when that happens, the wing may recover to his man or he may not. If he does, he’s likely to be beat off the dribble again and the endless cycle of sometimes helping and sometimes recovering begins anew. Sooner or later, a defender decides that he will not do the thing he’s supposed to do and a breakdown occurs that leads to a basket. If you are unsure of what I mean, watch any 5 minute segment of a Laker game and you’ll see it happen several times. If you want a specific example, watch the final 3 minutes of the loss to the Bulls.
This team also has issues on offense. As I’ve said before, the Lakers’ offense is a high functioning work in progress. They have the numbers of an efficient offensive team, but continue to have the types of issues that bad teams have. The ball sticks too often. Players shoot when they should pass and then pass when they should shoot. They are turnover prone and lack the type of ball and player movement that define great offenses. They also lack the teamwork that make ball and player movement the natural default.
Dwight Howard wants the ball in the post to wreak havoc, but has been turnover prone and isn’t as explosive as he’s been in season’s past. And while Dwight is a willing passer, it’s his finishing that’s come under scrutiny as he labors more often than he ever has before. Kobe moves the ball freely in many contests, but when things start to fall apart, he reverts to shouldering too much of the offensive burden. Shots are taken that shouldn’t be and he gets himself in trouble too often by dribbling to spots on the floor without a plan to escape should an easy shot not be there. Nash remains a fantastic set up man and excellent shooter, but is more vulnerable to double teams than at any other point in his career. He speaks about moving the ball on in order to create 3 on 2’s and 2 on 1’s on the backside, but, in the midst of a trap, the ball isn’t getting out of his hands fast enough to make that work.
I’ve already mentioned Gasol, but it bears repeating that he’s not been himself this season. He floats too often and, though claiming to want more touches in the post, will wander around the perimeter even when he’s the only post player on the floor. When he does get into the post, he misses more than he has at any other point in his career. He lacks balance when shooting his hook shot and relies on a fadeaway jumper even though he’s lacked lift. Maybe it’s the tendonitis in his knees or the plantar fasciitis in his feet, but he’s not been the player he was in season’s past; he’s not been the player he was in the London games this past summer.
The role players on the team are also too trigger happy, taking the first available open shot even if it’s not the best shot available. Every player is guilty of this, but Ron, Meeks, and Jamison are especially guilty. Maybe this is a product of the system they’re asked to run, but it’s an issue when Howard is an entry pass away and he instead must turn to find a shot that’s being launched towards the basket.
This team plays too fast for their personnel and takes bad shots in the process. The fact that they can score with the efficiency that they do is a testament to their talent and the ability to get hot from the outside, not the fact that they are picking apart a defense that they’ve ground into submission.
So here the Lakers are. Seven games under .500 and a myriad of issues to work through. The losing has led to veiled (and not so veiled) critiques about teammates to the press and a lack of spirit on the court when it’s really time to compete. This team is not a team at all, they are a collection of talented individuals that seem to pay lip service to what they need to do on the floor and then when given the chance to do it, don’t.
Is it a coaching issue? Yes. Is it a personnel issue? Indeed. Is it a personality/cohesion/chemistry issue? You betcha. Is it a minutes/fatigue/health issue? Sure is.
So while Pau Gasol coming off the bench is the story of the day, that’s really all it is. It’s today’s story. The issues the Lakers face go much deeper than what’s happening today. Their issues are today’s and from every other day that’s come before it, culminating in what we see now. This team doesn’t look like they know how to win. And even if that’s not actually true, their record is evidence that it is.
How, or if, it gets fixed with only a half season left is an open question. I can only tell you it’s going to take everyone being on the same page for them to find the right answer. Wether or not this coach is capable of corralling this group of players to get them there is another question entirely.
Maybe that’s tomorrow’s problem.