We’re going to play a little guessing game. Are you ready? Good. Let’s go.
Below are the stats of four players, all adjusted per 36 minutes of production:
- Player A: 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 50.9% shooting
- Player B: 12.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 41.7% shooting
- Player C: 16.9 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 51.4% shooting
- Player D: 17.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 60.5% shooting
All four players are pretty productive in their own way. Players A, B, and C are all good scorers who shoot a high percentage and grab rebounds at a very good rate. Player B isn’t a great scorer (mostly due to his poor shooting percentage), but he’s a very good passer who still rebounds well. Any of these four players would help a team win games and would likely be a welcomed addition to any team looking for a strong big man option to anchor them in the pivot.
Ready to find out who’s who?
Player A is Pau Gasol when Dwight Howard is out of the game. Player B is Pau when he shares the floor with Dwight. Player C is Dwight Howard when Pau is out of the game. And player D is Dwight when he shares the floor with Pau. To some, these numbers probably reflect exactly what we’ve seen with our eyes for most of this season. They also reflect a certain dilemma the Lakers face this season. Namely, that getting the most out of their big men isn’t as easy as it may seem.
First, let’s look at Dwight Howard since his production is mostly consistent. For all the talk that Dwight is having a poor season, I’d claim that those conclusions are a bit off base. Dwight has not been the dominant player he was before his back surgery. You see it in how he moves around the floor, how active he is on defense, and (especially) in how he’s been turning the ball over when he’s swarmed inside.
However, what’ also true is that Dwight’s been a pretty productive player when he’s been on the floor. He’s shooting a high percentage, is one of the best rebounders in the league, and is still an intimidator in the paint. Furthermore, what we see is that Dwight is productive whether he’s sharing the floor with Pau or not. His numbers are mostly flat and it’s clear that he’s able to do what he does best whether Pau is flanking him or on the pine.
What we also see, however, is that Dwight does benefit from having Pau on the floor with him. Dwight’s scoring is slightly better and his field goal percentage is much better. This should not be a surprise. When they share the floor, Gasol is consistently looking for Dwight inside to try and set him up for easy baskets. When both bigs share the floor, the Lakers play a lot of high-low with Pau at the elbow and Dwight carving out space in the paint. This action develops in the Lakers HORNS sets and when Pau acts as a release valve in the P&R where, after Dwight rolls to the hoop, Pau gets a pass and then floats up a lob that Dwight snatches from orbit and flushes through the basket. There is definite chemistry between the two, even if it’s a one way chemistry (where Pau is setting up Dwight).
Pau, on the other hand, has not had the same success next to Howard. From the list above, player B is the least productive of the bunch and, based off his shooting efficiency, could even be described as a liability on offense (though that’d be a stretch and wouldn’t be a term I’d use). We’ve been over this multiple times and the reasons are clear why. Pau, when next to Howard, isn’t as aggressive as a player in terms of his shot locations. Pau trades shots inside for those further away from the hoop and his efficiency suffers because of it.
The Pau we see when Howard is out, however, is a different player. He shoots nine percentage points higher and is better from every spot on the floor except for the 10-14 foot range and shots behind the arc. When Howard is not in the game, 60% of Pau’s shots come inside of 9 feet with 38% of those coming in the restricted area. Basically, Pau becomes the player that Kobe described as “they guy who helped us win back to back championships”.
The issue, of course, is finding a way to get the most out of both players over the course of an entire game. And, namely, getting more out of Gasol when he shares the floor with Dwight. After all, Dwight’s already a slightly better offensive player when Pau is in the game. The problem is that Pau’s production falls off a cliff when they play together.
The running narrative, of course, is that Pau needs to play more in the post. But I’d posit it is actually much more complicated than that. While the numbers I posted above are true (Pau does shoot closer to the basket when Howard is on the bench), Pau will always be a player who plays an all court game offensively. Even with Howard on the bench, 35% of Pau’s shots come between 10 and 24 feet. We see this play out in games all the time when Pau still floats around the perimeter even though he’s the only big man in the game.
So, I’d argue the key is less about finding more ways to get Pau closer to the hoop, but instead finding more ways to utilize him as more than a release valve who is put in position to be a scorer so far from the hoop. Too often, Pau becomes the player who receives the first pass out of the P&R even when he’s not the player who set the screen. When the defense takes away the roll, it’s Pau who gets the ball and he usually gets it without a defender near him, giving him a chance to shoot a wide open jumper. In D’Antoni’s offense, when in that position, you’re supposed to shoot the ball. More often than not, Pau obliges even though it’s not a shot he should be taking so often.
How to fix this isn’t that easy, but there are ways to do so. One way is to use Gasol more as a screener while Dwight camps along the baseline. This can be a very effective action and has proven a real weapon for the Lakers this season (and last) and for other teams that have the ability to run the P&R with one big man while the other occupies defenders waiting for a secondary pass around the rim. Another is to have a secondary action available after the initial P&R to run with Pau after he acts as a release valve. The Spurs often run a secondary hand off action on the weak side between Duncan and Ginobili after Parker runs a P&R on the strong side that doesn’t yield a quick basket.
Pau can also get more aggressive by working off the dribble after making the catch rather than just settling for the jumper. That would require Howard to vacate the lane so Pau has time to use his dribble to maneuver closer to the rim, but that’s a minor adjustment that can come with better chemistry as both guys start to read each other better.
Ultimately, though, we do need to start to see more from this duo when they share the floor. To be fair, the Lakers have already started to play better as a group when Pau and Dwight share the floor. In their last 5 games together, Dwight and Pau have shared the floor for 64 minutes and the team is a plus-11 in those minutes. And Pau, individually, has been putting up much better numbers of 16.3 points on 59% shooting (per 36 minutes) when on the floor with Dwight in that stretch. But, for the season this has not been a positive pairing and is one reason that Pau moving to the bench was a supportable decision. The recent trend will need to be a long term shift for the Lakers to really succeed.
Recent games tell us that Gasol is far from in decline as a player. Against a good, young Pistons’ front line Pau more than held his own while playing heavy minutes. His offensive game is just as refined as it has been throughout most of his career. And while his defense needs work, he’s worlds better than what he was earlier in the season when he suffered from knee tendonitis. They key, now, is to get something close to this level of production when both share the floor. The recent numbers are encouraging, but the team needs more of it.
If they get it, watch out. The team will be ready to make a run.
*Stats for this post courtesy of NBA.com