Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, & the Battle for the Low Block

Darius Soriano —  August 12, 2013

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’sbetter 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). The reality is, though, what we’ve really done is not looked closely enough at the advantages of him playing C.

That’s an excerpt from a post written last summer. At the time, Gasol was clearly on the trade block and the argument was pretty simple: Pau Gasol, to be at his best, needs to play more Center and whether he stayed in Los Angeles or was shipped to another team, he needed to get back to playing more in that spot in order to get back to being the player we knew him to be.

Well, we all know what happened next. The Lakers traded Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard and, with that acquisition, Pau spent another season playing a lot of PF and saw his offensive numbers and efficiency once again slip. It didn’t help that Pau battled numerous injuries, nor did it help that Mike D’Antoni initially jerked around his role by turning him into a sixth man where he clearly wasn’t as comfortable (or happy). But, ultimately, Pau’s struggles can mostly be linked to him spending more time away from the basket, roaming around the perimeter and becoming a stretch-y PF who didn’t spend enough time as a scoring option from his preferred spots at the elbow and the low block.

Heading into next season, however, that can all change. Dwight Howard is in Houston and Andrew Bynum is in Cleveland. There is no younger player to appease with touches or to feed the ball to encourage his growth. Pau is, once again, the clear cut best big man post option on the team and should see the majority of the touches on his preferred spot on the left block.

Of course, what should happen isn’t always what will happen. Especially not after the team signed Chris Kaman this summer nor with Mike D’Antoni hinting that those two may be on the floor together a fair amount. Per a conversation D’Antoni had with Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA:

“I think they’re very complimentary to each other in the sense of both of them can play 15-feet and in, both of them can post up, both of them move the ball real well, they can pass. So, I think their games will be kind of easily put together and I think sometimes, depending on the mismatches, who has the better back-to-the-basket opportunities and who needs to space a little bit. So, I feel a lot of things can happen and both of them can pass the ball real well, so, I just see them kind of blending in together pretty easily. A lot easier than it was last year (with Dwight Howard), let’s put it that way.”

It’s not like D’Antoni is off-base here. Kaman and Pau do have more complimentary offensive games, simply because Kaman is a more versatile offensive player than Dwight through his ability to hit the mid-range jumper. Theoretically, Kaman could play at the elbow or slide to the short corner along the baseline and act as a release valve on offense and still be a threat to score. Plus, picking on the opposition’s lesser big man defender by attacking him with either Pau or Kaman on the block sounds like a good strategy and could have its benefits by creating deep post touches that lead to easy baskets or quick kick-out passes to open shooters.

That said, my hope is that even if Pau and Kaman do spend time together on the floor, that Pau is still the featured post player on most possessions regardless of match ups. Gasol is the better player from the block (while Kaman, at least based off last year’s numbers, is the far superior mid-range shooter) and he should be dictating the flow of the game from the post rather than floating around the perimeter. In season’s past Pau has shown that when he’s encouraged to spend time on the wing, he’ll embrace that role and won’t always force his way to the block where he’s more of a threat to create his own shot. Drilling him that he needs to be in the post more should, hopefully, get him to readjust his game back to being more of a low post oriented one.

This doesn’t mean that Pau can’t play at the high post. He can do damage from the elbows out of the team’s HORNS sets and those options should not be abandoned; they open up options for multiple players (including Kobe and Nash) and give Pau the chance to be a playmaker from a spot on the floor where he can see the entire defense. Taking advantage of his elite passing skill is an excellent way to keep the defense off balance while also involving the rest of the team with motion based sets.

However, in the end, if the Lakers are looking to get the most out of Pau, his first priority should be trying to establish deep position and work to get the ball 12 feet and in. There are several ways to accomplish this — straight post ups, HORNS actions where he’s the screener rather than the passer, pick and roll plays where he dives into the lane looking for a secondary post up rather than a traditional roll — but the goal should be to make this happen as often as possible, regardless of who his big man partner is.

Because while Pau is supremely talented and can play from multiple spots on the floor, the data doesn’t lie. He’s still one of the better post up players in the league and still has the ability to create shots for himself and his teammates when he’s working from the post. The Lakers can’t afford to make the same mistakes they’ve made in year’s past by mistaking Pau’s ability to play away from the hoop as the best strategy to maximize his game.

Darius Soriano

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