Throughout the Los Angeles Lakers' disastrous 2012-13 season — we'll pause here for the sighs of organizations who'd kill for "disasters" like a 45-37 record and a playoff berth — one of the more disheartening storylines was the persistent sputtering and marginalization of Pau Gasol. Mere months after starring for Spain as a low-post wrecker during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Gasol found himself miscast as a high-post-patrolling, pick-and-pop power forward alongside prized offseason acquisition Dwight Howard, and his offense struggled mightily in the early going.
Before long, the four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion was being benched in the fourth quarter because coach Mike D'Antoni "was thinking, 'I'd like to win this game,'" being benched in the first quarter because D'Antoni wanted to "go small" from the opening tip, being benched in crunch time to better match up with the lottery-bound New Orleans Hornets and being very surprised to learn from the press that his coach might actually return him to the starting lineup. It was a bad scene, it was everyone's fault (word to Jawbreaker), and it led to trade talk that just made things feel worse.
Now, though, the once-hoped-for centerpiece next to whom Gasol floundered has made tracks for Texas, replaced by someone who's made nearly the opposite journey and prefers to operate from a different spot on the floor, and Gasol sounds eager to relocate back to the low block he loves. And to hear D'Antoni tell it, that's not only for the best, but perhaps something that would've benefited L.A. last season, too. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
Some six months before the billboards appeared, in positioning Howard as the franchise's future, the Lakers put Pau Gasol in the past, and often, on the bench.
“We did have a free-agent market last year we had to be aware of, and you make certain arguments based on the future,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s the reality of it, and we went that way, but it was never meant to be a slight to (Gasol) or never meant to be that he was the cause of our problems.” [...]
“It was at times frustrating because of the reality of that specific situation,” Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview from Barcelona. “Obviously the franchise wanted Dwight to stay and everyone, or a lot of people, tried to make him comfortable and please him at times.” [...]
“There was just a lot of factors last year that won’t come up this year,” D’Antoni said. “I even told (Gasol), you make decisions based a lot of times on the future that probably, if you were just doing the competitive, basketball thing, the decision would have been something else.”
All this feels pretty frustrating.
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Yes, the Lakers obviously wanted Howard to re-up this summer, repeatedly emphasizing him as the future of the franchise and very publicly exhorting him to stay. Yes, it probably would've been a better use of both big men's talents to more prominently feature Gasol in the low post and Howard either up top as a perpetual screen-and-roll partner, on the weak side to crash the offensive glass or on duck-ins to take advantage of the attention Gasol draws and his ability to find cutters off the ball. No, that's not really what happened.
Yes, Howard bristled at D'Antoni's preferred offensive scheme and wanted more low-post touches. Yes, Gasol wanted more of a featured role, too. No, neither of those things happened enough to satisfy either player because, well, y'know, Kobe was there, and both he and D'Antoni seemed comfortable enough with Kobe's customary ball domination (third-highest usage rate in the league) being "the competitive, basketball thing" to play Kobe 40-plus minutes a night after March 1 and 45.5 minutes a game over the two-week stretch that immediately preceded his Achilles tear. Still, though, the general point — the Lakers as an organization were more interested in catering to a 27-year-old player they hoped to re-sign as the franchise flagship for years to come than a 32-year-old player with one year left on his deal — is a fairly logical thing about which we all pretty much knew.
Still, if D'Antoni is saying that he pushed Dwight over Pau because of pressure from on high and that, absent that, he'd have worked the offense more through Pau all along, that seems to speak volumes about the level of control he's got over his own roster, and it doesn't seem to speak well. Plus, hearing D'Antoni cast the Howard/Gasol issue as an either/or in which his hands were tied by management and in which he was forced to pick Dwight over Pau ignores the fact that, in the short runs of Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff, the Lakers played really well when the Howard/Gasol combo shared the floor. It ignores how well Gasol often worked alongside another post-dominating 7-footer in Andrew Bynum under both Brown and Phil Jackson, and it ignores that the twin-towers look only really became an issue under D'Antoni.
It skims past D'Antoni's inability to find something approximating a sonorous system — admittedly, injuries played a large part there — with the talent he was given, a similar problem to the one that led to his ouster in New York. It glosses over the dismissive snark he routinely served up when Pau's discomfort with his role came up in the press. It's a construct that seems designed to shirk any blame for the Lakers' failures last season by placing the lion's share of it on the guy who just left — a guy at whom D'Antoni seems to enjoy throwing shade these days — and that feels kind of cheap and disingenuous.
More than that, it feels tired and old. I know we're still just under three months away from the start of the 2013-14 season, but the Lakers' 2012-13 ended about that long ago and it's been a full month since Dwight's decision. Let's move on, huh?
By the end of last year, Gasol was doing his job, having fought through Mamba venom, tendinitis in both knees, a concussion and a torn plantar fascia to play his best basketball down the stretch — he averaged better than 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game on nearly 53 percent shooting over the Lakers' final 11 contests, posting triple-doubles in two of their last three games to seal a playoff berth. Eventually, Gasol put discomfort and frustration behind him and found his form. Now, with Howard in Houston, Bryant's status for the start of the season uncertain, Steve Nash still not yet at top speed and a slew of underwhelming signings (Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Elias Harris) filling out the roster, it's D'Antoni's turn to do the same. Letting go of this persistent Dwight side-eyeing ("I just see [Gasol and Chris Kaman] kind of blending in together pretty easily. A lot easier than it was last year (with Howard), let’s put it that way”) would seem to represent a good first step.
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