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

Posts

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

  1. One upside (to the team, at least) to Clark’s likely demotion is decreased minutes should drive down his value on the free agent market this summer. GMs will be more inclined to see him as a guy who had a decent but brief run, rather than a potential diamond in the rough at whom to throw a ton of cash.

    The Lakers will be hard pressed to cut salary over the summer, the biggest moves coming if Howard should leave town or, if he stays, by dealing Pau. The Lakers can’t justify paying both close to $20 million a year. Either way, the Lakers would seemingly have a need for Clark’s services in 2013-14 taking up for whichever big is soon to be gone. So let’s hope sitting Clark for a spell now improves the Lakers’ chances of keeping him next season. That never could happen if some other team throws a ton of money his way, so hopefully the expected benching tempers his value on the open market.

    Of course that outcome would suck for Earl, who earlier this year had to have visions of a fat contract offer. But as fans, most would probably agree he could be a valued piece next season — at the right price.

  2. Agree that Clark is playing out of position as backup C to Dwight, but technically most teams spend time with a center-less lineup so that should not be too much of a factor. The contenders these days go small and only have PFs as their bigs, you could see that with Bosh, Garnett, Kenyon Martin, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka.

  3. It isn’t a big thing, but I’m a little surprised by the declaration that Pau is going to be a starter. Seems to me that his play when he returns should determine whether or not he becomes a starter again.

    It’s undeniable that he was playing better before he was injured; but it is equally undeniable that the Lakers have played their best ball of the season without Pau. They clearly need him for any kind of playoff push, but I’m not so certain that they need him in a starting role. Starting or not, he needs to get a lot of minutes with the reserves and without Howard.

  4. As noted in the opinion piece, Earl’s injuries I’m sure have a lot to do with his decline. I’ve noticed his inability to grasp the ball authoritatively on rebounds and catching the ball in the lane. I propose that Pau be initially used as a backup to Howard for the time being. I don’t think his explosiveness on offense or defense will be immediately available. As a power forward he needs that to gain position on rebounding and playing positional defense especially in rotation. Eventually we’ll see a combination of Earl, Pau, Dwight and Jamison for different looks. I do know Pau offers another dimenstion to the team.

  5. I would very much like to see Pau hit the floor for at least a few minutes on Friday, assuming there is not a risk of reinjuring his foot. While we may not need him against Washington, we have a critical road game against Golden State on Monday (if we plan on moving up in the standings). Golden State does not have on overly difficult remaining schedule, but we do play them two more times. Their remaining tough games besides against the Lakers is twice against the Spurs and once against OKC. The rest of their schedule is pretty easy on paper.

  6. Pau will determine where and how much he plays. I agree he should start with the first unit as he has never been a player who responds positively to challenges. He needs his confidence. If he continues to play at the level he Howard this entire season he will be benched again… But if it were injuries that mainly contributed to his reserve level play early in the season he will of course remain in the starting lineup. It’s not rocket science. If I’m MDA I use Clark instead of Jamison the rest of the year. Clark is simply a better version of Antawn at this point in their careers.

  7. Excellent post Darius and while it’s quite obvious that E-Clark’s production has declined, it’s good to see the exact noted reasons that has attributed to said decline.

    With that being said, I believe that it would be in the best interest of the squad if D’Antoni settles on a consistent 9 man rotation if and when we make the playoffs. It’s understood that teams customarily shorten their rotation during the ‘First to Sixteen’ Journey and that the playoff schedule grants an older team such as ours some leniency, but factoring in the age and mileage of 3/4 of our front court (AJ, Pau & MWP), the athleticism, energy, versatility and youth that can be provided by Clark is a necessity in my opinion. Particularly on defense.

    With Pau’s return, Clark won’t be forced to play out of position at Center. Which, if one was to also take into account the fact that before this season, he barely registered on the radar mins wise, definitely wore him out. So, the Spaniard’s reintroduction, along with the aforementioned playoff schedule, will allow Clark to regain the stamina that’s required to defend more efficiently than he has as of late. I also believe that his board work can’t be overlooked.

    At the end of the day, with all that he’s contributed this season and the experience that he has attained, he’s earned the right to be part of the playoff rotation. As we all know, we have enough dead weight on the bench. Clark has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s not part of that weight.

  8. Tra,
    I understand that sentiment and, to a certain extent, agree. And if Clark can regain some of his form as a perimeter defender, I think he may be very useful as a back up to Ron that allows Kobe to play more SG rather than sliding up to SF.

    That said, I think it will be interesting to see how D’Antoni configures his back court rotation when everyone is back healthy. Recently, Blake has been stealing minutes from Meeks at SG. Meeks’ jumper has been off and Blake’s competitiveness on D has stood out. However, in the long run, having more size on the wing to defend would be nice and Clark, if able to play well, would provide that.

    Ideally, I’d love to go to the lineups I’ve been pushing since Nash and Dwight were acquired:

    Starters: Nash, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Dwight
    Bench unit #1: Nash, Meeks, Ron, Jamison, Dwight
    Bench unit #2: Blake, Kobe, Pau, and two of Clark, Ron, or Jamison

    Two bench units with two of the Lakers big 4 on the floor at all times would, I think, maximize the production over the course of the entire game while also keeping everyone sufficiently rested. Staggering the substitutions to make these lineups work can be a bit tricky but it can work, especially since Ron, Jamison, and Clark are pretty much interchangeable parts on offense and defense (with Clark and Ron typically guarding the more threatening perimeter player and Jamison guarding the less threatening big man who the C isn’t guarding).

  9. darius: that’s a perfect poser: what will be earl clark’s role (bench warmer) be exactly when pau gasol returns to play? you are spot on. the trick of course will be to re-integrate pau into playing the power forward position alongside howard who will be at the center position. can almost read between the lines and sense an awareness and reservation at the same time in coach d’s assessment and reason for starting gasol upon his return to play and in particular, to the starting line up. kind of a blessing in disguise for pau gasol. of course we’d all like to see this part deux work itself out because part one was a mixed bag of sorts. of the two big men, pau is the more versatile. unlike tim duncan, is not a true power forward. this will test the creativity and skills of the coaches and the players but we have more to go on this time around because we have the past to compare. we’re counting on it that this time around it works.

    aside from upcoming games vs the grizzlies, clippers and the spurs and not to take lightly any team for that matter for the remainder of the regular season, a healthier and not necessarily healthy laker team should continue to improve team play; ie continunity, win a few games and develop a winning formula going into the playoffs.

    that paper we were all talking about earlier in the season; turned two-ply perforated prior to the all star break is starting to turn back to money, the folding kind.

    Go Lakers

  10. Knowing D’Antoni I think its actually more likely we go with just a 7 man rotation if Blake keeps up his level of play, as he can play the 2 I dont see Meeks getting much burn either

  11. Darius,
    Your rotation pattern is something that I definitely agree with. I believe Rr and a couple of others have also advocated for such a lineup in which 2 of our Big 4 are on the floor at all times; with Kobe & Pau leading one unit and Dwight & Nash fronting the other. I’m of the belief that D’Antoni views it the same way, but due to circumstances (injuries), we haven’t seen it play out that way.

    Speaking of Meeks, it’s imperative that he regains his stroke. Especially with Dwight starting to round into shape. Defenses are going to be forced to double down, leaving Jodie wide open to do what he was brought in to do; which is knock down open jumpers. So while his energy and his defensive effort (tho undersized) is something that I’m appreciative of, if his j’s are formulating houses at the rim and as you mentioned, SB continues to show out, Meeks’ spot within the rotation could be jeopardized. I hope that this doesn’t turn out to be the scenario.

  12. Clark’s Role?: I will be happy if Pau gets a well defined role.
    Aaron: Completely disagree with you with regard to AJ. He is our only hope of significant offense off the bench. I agree that using one instead of the other is the way to go. My fear is that we start “experimenting” again, and when Pau and Kobe return the rotations will once again be in flux.

  13. Clark’s role should be a limited bench role when Pau returns. When Pau is in playing shape and able to play 33+ minutes a night then it should be reduced even further to the first man off the bench when there’s foul trouble or for matchup purposes. Nash, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Dwight, Blake, Meeks, Jamison was the plan coming into the season.

  14. Haha. max kellerman:

    kobe sound bite: “how do you know when you are in the Kobe system…”

    :interupted: “when you don’t get the ball?” Kellerman

    That was when he was defending Kobe, btw. I just thought it was funny.

    And yes. I always thought that bench players have trouble as starters (down the line) because they are not use to playing that many minutes and they get tired.

    I call this the “Greg Popovich Syndrome” because his team always gets outplayed in the forth quarter in the playoffs because his best guys are not in shape to play 38+ minutes continually, game after game. How did that Memphis series work out pops?

  15. CLE 66, MIA 40–about 8 minutes left in the 3rd.

  16. Two bench units with two of the Lakers big 4 on the floor at all times would, I think, maximize the production over the course of the entire game while also keeping everyone sufficiently rested

    Well, here is one issue on which Robert, Darius, and I (and others) are in agreement.

  17. darius: in a perfect world, pau will anchor the 2nd unit as the “starting” center, not the power forward position he’s been relegated to this current season. due to that “for basketball reasons” dysfunctional non-trade for chris paul, what we got here is two high quality bona fide nba centers and a question mark as to how to formulate the starting five best laker players based on position. what to do from this point forward?

    the answer best lies in the coaching philosphy and abilities of the players. so far what we’ve seen from coach d is his ability to rethink his offensive philsophy by slowing the game down. this could be due to the fact that steve nash, in particular and at his age and current physical condition has us seeing a point guard moving in slow motion. this is not necessarily a bad thing as the bulk of the starting five move pretty much in a similar motion. point to coach d. on the defensive end, more energy can be spent in matching up with the opposition. point to happenstance.

    so until we see where we’re at, health wise as it pertains to pau gasol. kobe bryant and to some extent earl clark will we be encouraged by the bottom line, barring further injury, will we continue to put enough w’s together to create that team “chemistry” everyone talks about and enough w’s to create that real confidence to make a real dent in the playoffs? the pieces appear to be falling into place. greatest season ever? only time will tell.

    Go Laker

  18. Rusty Shackleford March 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Bottom line – it’s all up to D’Antoni to what the rotations are. Is expecting him to open his rotations up this late in a season realistic? I’m surprised about his statement about Pau starting. Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something he’s forced to backtrack on later. He has a better idea than the rest of us on what Pau looks like but if he plans on him sharing a lot of minutes with Dwight to start the game does it mean they are going to basically freeze Dwight Howard out of the offense to begin every game? Between the touches Kobe, Nash & Gasol require on offense how do they expect to get Dwight going to start the games?

    If D’Antoni wants any sort of fast pace to this team I’d like to see him go to more rapid subs in the front court for times Kobe is not in the game. Keep fresh bodies on the court and keep the ball moving when your best (and only) player that creates on his own.

    Whatever happens let’s just hope it doesn’t end in a crash and burn trying to figure this out going into the playoffs.

  19. Robin:

    Annnd… The Heat won. That’s 24.

  20. I don’t believe in jinxes.

    But man, rr, you TOTALLY jinxed that.

  21. Nah. If I had said, “Cleveland is going to win”, then maybe.

  22. Realistically, I dont see the heat losing anytime soon and the lakers 33 game streak record may be in jeopardy. Popovich might even tank the miami-spurs game just to spite us.

  23. off topic but wondering where we would be if we could have traded bynum(injured) for pau and kept marc.

  24. Jamison on playing with Kobe:

    http://espn.go.com/blog/los-angeles/lakers/post/_/id/36158/antawn-jamison-on-the-kobe-bryant-teammate-experience

    “It’s great to be with him,” Jamison said. “I love a guy who expects so much from his teammates. He pushes his teammates. After games, we’re traveling, guys are on their laptops, their iPads, watching movies, listening to music, this guy is watching film. He’s breaking down situations. I’ll be watching a movie, he’ll tap me like, ‘Come here.’ He’ll dissect plays like, ‘This is what we got to do, me and you got to get this going.’ I mean, this guy eats, sleeps basketball and the only thing he wants to do is to win another championship and I’ve never seen anybody as focused, as dedicated as Kobe.”

  25. I haven’t read everyone’s posts yet but Earl is “plum tuckered out” to quote a country saying. Here is a guy who never played any major minutes in the pros being asked to not only play them but at various positions. Since it’s his first big chance to shine, he is playing hurt (like Kobe would). He has had several injuries that should have kept him out of games, yet you seem him every game giving it his all. It will be a major injustice if he doesn’t play because he is our one athlete (capable of playing and guarding multiple positiions). He is classified as a 4.5 but a 4 is a perfect moniker because he can play and guard 3 thru 5.

  26. Excellent rotations Darius.

    It would be super if Pau would relegate himself to the bench to help us win, but he is showing his pride. I also think that Kobe would prefer him in the game because of his versitality. The only problem is that he is just so damn slow. He can only guard centers. Does that mean he plays the center on defense (switching assignments with D12)? Howard is a truer rebounder so that probably wouldn’t happen, plus Pau is not the intimidator that D12 is so teams would attack the rim. The Lakers were playing much slower with Pau, but the ball moved better when D12 was injured. Those two together will not work with a D’Antoni coaching strategy. It’s a shame that we are so late in the season because we may regress while Mike D tries to figure it out.

    Off subject: Why are we not going after Jeremy Tyler?!!! He would be a steal just to see how he works out. See if he’s smart and dedicated enough to learn our system. He could be this year’s Jordan Hill. The kid has a 9.5′ standing reach and a 7.5′ wingspan. The kid could do wonders in the paint if given the proper tutelage (read Kobe). He gets knocked for his work ethic but playing for GState and Atlanta aren’t the Meccas for development for bigs. Young 6’11” talented athletic mobile bigs don’t come along often. 10-day contract anyone?

  27. It would have been such great karma if Cleveland had beaten Miami last night, what a waste of a great opportunity.

  28. Do you think he can flourish at the three spot with the second unit? Metta is playing well, but he may be even better if Clark can play 20 solid minutes as his back-up.

  29. Miami’s run is amazing. But I am wondering if they are peaking too soon. Remember LA’s 17-1 run in 2011? By the time the playoffs started they were out of gas. Having made three straight trips to the Finals didn’t help. Miami has two straight trips to the Finals under their belts now. And its not like Wade and Bosh are the most durable players in the world. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  30. If this guy were one of NBA’s more established players/superstars, he would likely be off the roster tending to his injuries. But being a contract year, and with so much competition, I think he would rather minimize the extent of his injuries and, as we all can see, try to play through them. The fact is he is afraid of losing the limelight and a potentially big pay day. He is clearly hurting.

  31. Bad thing about his demotion though is that D’Antoni doesn’t know how to manage a lineup including Pau and Dwight on the floor. Clark didn’t require the ball and it made the offense simpler which is the only thing D’Antoni understands. I’ve got a feeling we’re in for a world of pain coz Pau and Dwight don’t know what is expected of them in D’Antoni’s world.

  32. @TC

    Agree wholeheartedly.