Not the tightest of bros. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA/Getty Images)
As I noted earlier Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol has turned in consecutive strong outings with Dwight Howard sidelined by a shoulder injury, averaging 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in nearly 39 minutes per game at the center spot in back-to-back wins. The 32-year-old Spaniard will get another chance to log heavy minutes at the five at Barclays Center on Tuesday night, as the Lakers will face the Brooklyn Nets without Howard and suspended forward Metta World Peace. Given how Gasol has bristled on multiple occasions about coming off the bench to begin games and sitting on the bench to finish them under Mike D'Antoni, it's a safe bet he prefers the present arrangement ... but, apparently, more starts, more minutes and more touches haven't totally wiped the slate clean between player and coach.
In an interview with T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, Gasol said that while he's sat down with D'Antoni to discuss his role shift, "I don't think it's translated to an understanding" and that their relationship has "probably even gone a little backwards." That, as Gasol said, casts his future in forum blue and gold into doubt:
"If this coach stays and Dwight Howard remains with the Lakers," I asked, "what about you?"
"It would be hard for me to deal with another season knowing the facts you just mentioned," said Gasol, 32 and with one year remaining on his contract.
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?"
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes."
It's a possibility for the offseason, that is — Gasol told Simers he wouldn't spoil for a swap before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, because he's "not a quitter" and "not going to take the easy way out." Which sounds about right, if only because "repeatedly making public pronouncements about how you don't like the way things are going" sure doesn't seem like it's designed to make anything easier.
To be sure, any journalist or writer can appreciate Gasol's candor in answering questions like the ones Simers poses. Anybody who's ever worked in a high-stakes, competitive environment can appreciate Gasol describing his Lakers tenure as an experience that's featured "a lot of great, amazing things" as well as "others that have been hurtful." And it's not like you can knock the way Gasol analyzes the situation in L.A., where the Lakers front office cast its lot by importing Howard this offseason without a guarantee that the 27-year-old wouldn't test the waters of free agency this summer, and then by firing Mike Brown after five games and tapping D'Antoni to turn around the underperforming group's fortunes:
"[D'Antoni] has his philosophy and system, and the Lakers hired him," said Gasol. "It's not his fault.
"His philosophy is to play with one big guy and four guys spread out, so then he had to make a decision: Dwight or Pau?"
It was an easy decision. The Lakers are committed to making Howard happy so he will return.
"That is correct," Gasol said.
And Gasol is under contract for next season.
"There you go," he said. "I understand that."
So what happens next?
"They try to decide how I can be productive in this mix, while I know I'm not going to be in position to do what I do best and help us win more games. It's frustrating, but it's not going to stop me from playing as hard as I can in whatever role."
It's true that, when sharing the floor with Howard this season, Gasol has been largely relegated to a pick-and-pop role where more of his touches have come facing up from midrange around the elbows than with his back to the basket on the low block, where he's been so successful in the past (and even as recently as this past summer in London with the Spanish national team at the 2012 Summer Olympics). And it's true that Gasol's offense has suffered with Howard on the floor and blossomed with him off the floor — Pau's averaging 12.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes on 42 percent shooting in 676 minutes alongside Dwight this year, compared to 16.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per-36 on 51 percent shooting in 492 Howard-less minutes, according to NBA.com's stats; his free-throw rate goes up by 2 1/2 freebies per-36, too. Howard's individual production doesn't vary a ton whether Gasol's on or off the court, but his plus-minus numbers look a bit rosier when the two are separated.
Those numbers would seem to lend credence to the theory that the best way to get the most out of the two 7-footers is to split them up, letting Gasol act as a super-sub and offensive focal point on the second unit to help add some punch to a Laker bench that often seems sorely in need of it. But as one Western Conference personnel executive told NBA.com, "There's no way you play to your strengths by doing that," and as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted last month, the stark on/off numbers are primarily an under-D'Antoni phenomenon — the twin-towers pairing was a net positive under both Brown and interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
As was the case with the New York Knicks, D'Antoni's inability to tailor his system to the disparate talents of his stars has been a major problem for these Lakers. And the way he's chosen to handle Gasol in the public eye — dismissively (answering why he sat Gasol in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies in November: ''I was thinking, 'Well, I'd like to win this game'"), sarcastically (on Gasol's displeasure with again being benched in the fourth against the New Orleans Hornets last week: "Well, you know, 'all for one' didn't last (very) long, did it?") and with little jokes (on the most recent comments: "He will probably do what we ask him to do. I'm not going to Spain to vacation with him this summer, but he's good") — seems like exactly the wrong way to manage a player who's shown himself to be sensitive in the past. It's difficult to see what D'Antoni thinks he's going to accomplish by repeatedly poking fun at the Spaniard in public; it sure doesn't seem to be motivating him to a higher level of play, and it makes it easier for those on the outside looking in to see and empathize with Gasol's side of this story.
Gasol's insistence on publicly telling his side of the story, though, seems unlikely to do anything other than keep this wound from scabbing over and going away. I can understand Gasol being unhappy. I can understand him wanting to answer questions truthfully. But, sympathy aside, I can't understand what he thinks he stands to gain by making sure people know he's unhappy with the way things are going; it's great that he says he's ready and willing to play as hard as he can in whatever role he's given, but it's way less admirable to say that directly after saying he's mad at the role he's been given. There's plenty of blame to go around with this year's Lakers and plenty of deserving targets, but with the team nearly three-fifths of the way through the season, four games south of .500 and 3 1/2 games out of the eighth seed, what's needed now is determined commitment to finding solutions rather than continual reminders that someone is, as Gasol said of D'Antoni, "in a way [...] messing with my season." It sounds tacky, counterproductive and self-serving — basically the opposite of the kind of professional Gasol's been for the lion's share of his 12-year NBA career.
The rumors have roiled for months, and time and again the Lakers have shot them down — L.A. seems intent on moving forward with both of its 7-footers and trying to use the second half of the season to get healthy, get rhythm, make a push for the playoffs and let the chips fall where they may thereafter. Whether that's all just lip service or (perhaps more likely) they're having trouble finding a taker for an about-to-be-33-year-old with tendinitis in both knees and plantar fasciitis in his right foot who's owed $19.3 million for next season is immaterial — the point is, it's unlikely Gasol's going anywhere in the near or slightly further future, whether Gasol asks to go or not. The sooner he accepts that and — as teammate Kobe Bryant put it earlier this season when questioning Pau's pant size — quits whining and complaining about his lot in life, the better off he might be.
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