What Will Earl Clark’s Role Be When Pau Gasol Returns?

Darius Soriano —  March 20, 2013

Pau Gasol’s recovery is on schedule and his return is imminent. And while there’s no set date yet, he could be back as soon as Friday when the Lakers face the Wizards.

When Pau does return, head coach Mike D’Antoni has already stated that Pau will come back as a starter — with the only caveat being he may come off the bench for a game or two in order to get back in game shape. When asked to clarify what had changed from the time that he’d stated that the team would go small with Pau on the bench to now saying Pau would return as a starter, D’Antoni said the following:

“I think Pau went up to another level with his play, so that changed. I think as you get to playoffs that experience and being able to perform under certain conditions is a big factor and he is more comfortable starting, so there’s a lot of things you got to think about and we’ll look at it. As soon as he gets healthy.”

I couldn’t agree more with D’Antoni’s assessment about Pau and am glad to hear him acknowledge the Spaniard’s improved play. In the 10 games Pau played before tearing his plantar fascia, he shot 52.8% from the field, was drawing more fouls, and was still rebounding at a good rate. The team was better with him on the floor than off, on both sides of the floor, and he was beginning to flourish not only as the anchor of the 2nd unit, but even when playing next to Dwight Howard. The fact that D’Antoni would want to start this player is easy to understand.

However, when discussing why Pau would start when he came back, one thing D’Antoni didn’t say was that the player he would replace — Earl Clark — had started to play worse and probably deserved to go back to a reserve role. There’s no reason to say this publicly, of course, and it’s better that Clark’s game was never mentioned at all. But, if being 100% honest, I’d imagine that the decline in Clark’s play is also playing a part in the decision to move back to Pau as a starter.

The downward trend in Clark’s game was something that was always a strong possibility. We said as much in this space when discussing his hot start:

The disconnect between the player who was essentially a mid-round bust and the guy who has played for the Lakers the past several games is mostly about shot making. On the Lakers, Clark is hitting his jumper. Since becoming a rotation player, Clark has hit 11 of 19 (57.9%) from beyond 15 feet from the basket (including 2 of his 4 three pointers). The Clark that played for Phoenix and Orlando, couldn’t sniff those percentages.

In other words, some of what Clark is doing on offense simply isn’t sustainable. There is a regression coming and when it comes we’ll all be wondering what happened to that guy who was hitting all those shots against the Cavs and the Spurs. The good thing is that even when Clark regresses, it may not be as bad as the numbers from his previous seasons suggest it would be. Clark shows excellent balance on his jumper. He’s also shooting mostly wide open shots under a coach that will encourage him to continue to shoot.

Defenses will start to treat him differently when they get more tape on him and that will require adjustments. A lot of players go from being effective to struggling when they are forced to adjust. We’ll have to see what happens to Clark and how he deals with defenses paying more attention to him.

As we mentioned in that post, Clark’s shooting numbers were never sustainable. And, lately, we’ve seen that anticipated drop off. In his last 20 games Clark is only shooting 41.4% from the field, including 32.4% from 15-19 feet and 23.8% (10-42) from behind the arc. The increased rate of misses can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the fact is the numbers don’t lie.

But it’s not just a decline on offense that has plagued Clark. His defense has also taken a hit. Clark is getting lost off the ball more when guarding perimeter players, giving up open jump shots in the process. He’s also not doing as well helping on screens when his man is setting picks on and off the ball. When he’s defending his own man in isolation or in the post, he’s still able to mostly hold his own, but he is giving up dribble penetration more often. Ultimately, we’re now back to Ron guarding the main perimeter threats more frequently than he did when Clark first emerged, especially at the end of games.

What we’re seeing with our eyes also bears out in the Lakers defensive numbers with Clark on the floor. In the last 20 games the Lakers post a defensive efficiency of 110.6 when Clark is in the game. That mark is nearly 4 points per 100 possessions worse than Jamison’s number and 6 points per 100 possessions worse than Nash’s (the two players who are often cited as the team’s worst defenders and who hurt the team the most on that end of the floor).

All of this is just a long way of saying, don’t be surprised if Clark’s time on the floor is greatly reduced when Pau returns to action. Clark’s minutes have already seen a steady decline, down to less than 24 a game in his last 6 contests. And with Pau and Jamison likely to play the majority of the minutes at power forward, Clark may be left chasing the scraps at that spot and whatever minutes Ron and Kobe don’t play at small forward. Doing the math, that doesn’t leave a lot of floor time for Clark.

It’s important to note that Clark hasn’t exactly been fortunate in terms of the circumstances he’s faced as he’s seen his game take a step backwards. He’s not been 100% healthy, evidenced by the sleeve he wears on his knee, the reports of an ankle sprain and a lingering finger injury. He’s also been pressed into action as the backup center to Dwight while Pau heals and Sacre rides the bench. Playing out of position for stretches each game and doing so while not physically at your best is a lot to ask of any player, but especially one who doesn’t have a lot of experience as an everyday player.

All that said, there’s likely to be a squeeze coming and Clark is the player most likely to feel it. It’s not necessarily fair and considering how vital Clark was to keeping the team afloat as Dwight and Pau suffered through their various ailments, it will be more than a bit sad to see Clark relegated to a bench role should things play out as I think they will. Clark was ready to take advantage of his opportunity and seized his chance when it was presented. You can’t say the same about some of the other players on this roster (I’m looking at you, Devin Ebanks), and for that Clark deserves a lot of credit.

But when Pau returns and this team gets ready for what’s hopefully a trip to (and sustained run in) the playoffs, the odds are that Clark will be the 9th man in an 8 man rotation. Some of that is his own doing and some of that is just circumstance, but that’s just the way it’s likely to be.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Darius Soriano

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