"Your mom spots up from 18 feet." (Getty Images)
By now, over a year into their working partnership together, you’d think that Pau Gasol and Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni would have pat answers on the ready when any member of the media asks them why Gasol has struggled so much since D’Antoni took over. That they would give each other faint praise from afar, chalk up the ongoing issues as just part of the learning process, make some reference to Gasol’s lingering injuries and the hectic NBA schedule, and try to pour some baking soda on that potential oil fire.
Both player and coach didn’t exactly hurl a gas can at the situation on Thursday, but they did leave anyone reading Bill Plaschke’s discussion with the two in the Los Angeles Times wondering if this relationship will ever improve, and if the Lakers are best served attempting to find trade suitors for the big man.
"The fact that I'm not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness," he said. "When I'm not getting the ball where I want to, where I'm most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity."
"This year hasn't been ideal, certain things are not ideal for me, but that's not going to change any time soon," he said.
So why hasn't it been ideal?
"What do you think?" he said. "I'm not going to say anything, but it's easy to see. You see a guy with a certain skill set, where does it fit better, where it doesn't."
When asked about D'Antoni's sometimes pointed criticism of his toughness, Gasol shrugged.
"I don't pay attention. Mike is sometimes all over the place, I don't give much credit to things like that," he said.
When asked if D'Antoni has ever discussed this criticism with him directly, for the first time in the interview, Gasol sounded irked.
"Nope, zero. Nope, zero," he said. "Like I said, it's not ideal, but it is what it is."
It says quite a bit that Plaschke was able to get Gasol to open up so freely, but it also says quite a bit that Plaschke (and, more specifically, this Laker situation) was able to get the articulate and patient 7-footer to sound both irked and without words while offering an “it is what it is” platitude. This frustration has managed to both frustrate and flummox Pau Gasol, who eats koans for breakfast and sips poetry during timeouts. That’s significant.
D’Antoni is just as frustrated, and responded to Gasol’s comments with this aside:
"I can't lie to him… Our numbers tell us the worst thing we do is post up," he said.
D’Antoni’s not wrong. Not only has Pau had a poor year from the post, but each of the Lakers’ post-up players have performed poorly down there. And generally, because most post-up players in the modern game are limited offensively, post-up numbers usually aren’t all that great.
That’s not the point here. The point is to go inside-out, and create movement with an initial look inside that leads to myriad developing options after movement and quick decision-making is employed. A post-up doesn’t have to be an end-all, but at times Gasol’s rare post up opportunities are treated like token maneuvers, like Phil Jackson and Larry Brown symbolically giving Bill Cartwright or Ben Wallace the first shot of the game as a nod and pre-emptive “thank you” to the next 40 minutes they’ll spend banging away from the ball.
So for the scads of journalists and fans that have been pointing out how poor the team’s numbers are in the post, or Gasol’s personal shooting percentages down there … stop.
That’s not the function of the exercise. The point is to create something greater than the sum of the collective parts, and the Lakers have not been able to pull that off during D’Antoni’s tenure. And he’s certainly wasting the efforts and remaining years of perhaps the league’s most talented big man along the way.
D'Antoni's take? Pau needs to play harder. From Friday's shootaround, as quoted by Mark Medina at Inside the Lakers:
“It’s also a nice excuse not to play hard,” D’Antoni said. “That’s a classic, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ Well, you don’t have trouble getting up to the paystub line. You know what you need to do to get your check. You know what to do. They will. They’ll figure it out.”
“That’s one thing. They don’t want to do it that way. I understand that. That’s when you have to accept it or not. But there’s no reason not to play hard.”
Gasol, by his own lofty standards, is having an up and down year while in and out of D’Antoni’s sights with the Lakers. A career 51 percent shooter, Pau is down to 41.7 percent from the field. As a result of the Lakers’ pace, Kobe Bryant’s absence and those token nods I referenced earlier, Gasol is shooting more per minute than he has in his entire NBA career, though his free throw attempts per minute have stayed the same. His rebounding and assist percentages, however, have been fantastic.
It’s the shooting, mainly. A Pau shooting 41 percent is not a Pau at all.
This is why the Lakers could entertain thoughts of a trade, even if they’re not successful in scoring assets in return for Gasol at age 33. If this were 2005, Gasol’s massive expiring contract and skillset even in his early 30s would be a huge draw, but teams have been hesitant to pull the trigger for such deals over the last few years – even if Gasol’s $19.3 million only added a million or two to a team’s payroll. Because so many teams are close to or already paying the luxury tax, swapping in giant contracts (even in their final year) is a tougher sell to owners.
On top of that, teams might be loath to attempt to aid the free spending Lakers with their depth problems by potentially sending Los Angeles a point guard or outside shooter in return for what could be just half a year of Gasol. Because he’s a free agent this summer, coming off of two championships and tens of millions of dollars in his past, Gasol is going to go for the best situation first, and the heavy payday second in his free agent search this summer. Acquiring the ability to go over your cap to re-sign him may not be as big a sell as it is with other free agents.
This is why busting out hypothetical trades is pointless. We don’t know if Kobe Bryant will utilize his significant sway to keep him in Los Angeles from now until July, we don’t know what Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak is thinking in-season, and there are just too many disparate influences guiding the other 29 teams to try and anticipate such a move.
What we do know is that Gasol is not a fit for D’Antoni’s screen and roll offense, currently ranked 17th out of NBA teams in offensive efficiency.
And we also know that these two have just about had it with each other.
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