Pau Gasol and Mike D'Antoni prepare for a whole lot of running (Getty Images)
Pau Gasol is 32 years of age, so it's natural for his production to start tailing off a bit as he heads into his mid-30s. Still, though the Los Angeles Lakers forward is a fine athlete overall that had some "in yo face"-moments during his first few seasons, Gasol's game was never predicated on jumping over other big men or streaking past helpless defenders. Because of his touch, length, and smarts Gasol figures to play capable and even All-Star level basketball at an age that most hit the skids.
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That style of play hasn't hit thus far, in 2012-13. In fact, even after entering the season knowing that this had to be a bounce-back year for the former All-Star, Gasol has disappointed with his play in his 12th NBA season. And observers inside (one teammate, in the midst of an MVP-season, his head coach) and outside (this guy, watchin' his tee-vee) of the Lakers organization are wondering whether or not Gasol's conditioning might be a factor.
"Pau is used to laboring up the floor and coasting a little bit," Kobe Bryant said. "In this offense, we have to put the motor on the first few steps we move up the court."
That didn't happen.
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins beat Gasol on two consecutive drives in the second quarter. The Lakers forward looked frustrated after defensive breakdowns. And as coach Mike D'Antoni noted afterward, "Pau didn't have his legs" after logging 37 minutes.
Those 37 minutes in the loss to the Sacramento Kings came one night after Pau played a hectic and fast-paced 38 minutes in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. And though Gasol's defensive struggles against the Kings could be blamed on the second night of a back-to-back, it's worth noting that he was strung up pretty badly by Brook Lopez the night before against Brooklyn.
Overuse of starters was one of the stronger criticisms lobbed at former Lakers coach Mike Brown. It's true that Brown never had much of a bench to work with in his 71 games as Lakers head man, but he often kept his veterans in games well past the point in which the game was probably decided. Gasol's minutes this season under Brown were the same as they were under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, though, and after 75 minutes with D'Antoni over two games Gasol is averaging 37:17 minutes per game on the season.
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That's a lot for anyone, much less a 7-footer. Amongst bigs, only Chicago's Joakim Noah plays more; but Bulls players don't count, because Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau is unique amongst NBA coaches in not caring whether or not his players are playing entirely too many minutes, or through injury.
Apologies for the aside.
Even fresh as a daisy, though, after a few days' rest or a summer off, Gasol has looked lacking. Mark Medina's notebook, quoted above, discussed his defensive woes. What stands out to me is his inability to knock in the sort of looks he's made for years.
After eight seasons in a row of making more than half his shots, Gasol is shooting 43 percent from the field in 2012-13. He's had his shot blocked eleven times this season through 12 games, and he appears to be fading on both his jumpers, and short hooks. The quick, improvised hooks or finger-rolls he puts up after an offensive rebound or extra pass? He's even leaning on those, and not following through. Gasol is so good that you'd hardly call him a millstone, he's kept the Lakers in several games with his brilliant overall play, but you look up that "43 percent" number after three weeks of Laker basketball, and it hardly surprises you.
Of course, we're only three weeks into the season. Statistically, for as long as the league has been around, offenses and shooting percentages improve as the year moves along and players re-acclimate to NBA speed. Pau is no different, in this regard, but a fall-off like this — this big, and with this many games under his belt — can't be characterized in the same way that you would write off a big slugger batting 2-for-12 in his baseball team's opening three-game homestand.
And, again, Pau's no ordinary professional.
His summers are spent doing massive amounts of charity work for UNICEF and other organizations, with heaps of frequent flyer miles under his belt, to places that badly need his presence and the exposure that comes with it. It's probably not true that Gasol barely touched a basketball between last May and training camp, but it's also probably a safe bet that he didn't play as many games to 21 as your typical NBA player during the last offseason — while doing fantastic work for people in need.
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In all, it adds up. And again, this team has 70 games to go. The wheels, more than likely, will come back.
And also, Laker fans? Atlanta Hawk forward Josh Smith is shooting 42.7 percent, worse than Gasol, on the season. And he's shot over 50 percent — exactly 50.5 percent, in 2009-10 — just once in his career. Be careful not to take your 7-footer for granted.
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