Pau Gasol was as surprised as anyone when told that he could be a Laker starter

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Contrary to the storyline we’re all assuming, the Los Angeles Lakers were playing pretty well when Pau Gasol went down with a plantar fascia tear. The team had won six of seven before he hit the shelf in the first week of February, improving its record to 23-26. Of course, the team has gone 11-6 since Pau went down, which leads to the whole “is this team better without this very good player?”-argument that isn’t unique to basketball, but probably should be.

Technically, the Lakers have been better with Gasol in street clothes. Happily, Gasol could return way ahead of the prescribed “six to eight weeks” prognosis he was given after the tear, possibly as soon as Monday. Happiest, and most surprising for him? Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni told the media on Thursday that Gasol will be a starter at some point between his return and the Lakers hopeful playoff run. And, typically, Pau Gasol was the nicest, least affected person on the planet after hearing the new news. From the Los Angeles Daily News:

“He’s going to be a starter at some point and is going to be a big part of what we do,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll work from there. Whether it’s the first day, fifth day or 10th day, I don’t know. It depends on his conditioning and how everything is going. But we will work that in where he starts.”

As Gasol exited the arena following his workout, a reporter told him of D’Antoni’s plan.

“Really?” Gasol said with his eyebrows raised. “That’s news. Big news!”

(Anyone who is familiar with Pau Gasol’s Twitter feed would not react to Gasol’s reaction with raised eyebrows.)

Through that feed, Gasol has been detailing his rehabilitation from what sounds like an incredibly painful injury. Plantar fascia strains are painful enough to cause players to miss months at a time, so when that “six to eight week”-designation came down following Pau’s injury, I actually doubted anyone could return from a tear like this in that amount of time. Regardless of the diligence inherent in Pau.

[Related: Kobe Bryant has no time for pain in race against the clock]

D’Antoni picked Monday the 18th as a possible landing point, seven weeks after the diagnosis. That’s as optimistic a time frame as they come, right in line with Gasol’s cheery attitude, and a worrying one considering the rest needed to overcome plantar fasciitis, much less a tear to the tendon.

What’s more worrying for Laker fans is Gasol’s fit within that Laker system. Still. Even four and a half months into this season.

Again, the Lakers had won six of seven and were riding a three-game winning streak when Pau went down. And Pau was playing terrific basketball during that three-game streak, averaging 20 points and nearly nine rebounds with seven assists and five blocks tossed out during that run. He was starting, to be sure; but Gasol was starting at center with Dwight Howard sitting out due to a shoulder injury. At this point in Gasol’s career, center is likely his most natural position – and in the games prior to Howard’s injury Pau was struggling as usual trying to fit in next to a player in Howard that is generally regarded as the game’s top center.

“Center” doesn’t have to mean “low post player,” though. And low post players don’t have to play center. This has been the rub throughout Gasol’s tenure with Howard. Mike D’Antoni seems D’etermined to play Gasol as a stretch power forward, hitting set shots from all angles, instead of utilizing his significant low post strengths. Gasol was playing well before the injury, but at a position that will be filled once he returns to the starting lineup.

[Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley now works as a school crossing guard]

A technical position, though. Dwight Howard isn’t a classic pick and pop guy, but he’s one of the more effective screen and roll players in the NBA when his head is in the game and his angles are on point. Gasol may be listed as a power forward in the starting lineup, but he could act as your classic reverse option in the low post, someone to dump down to when the initial option on the strong side doesn’t work. From there, the cutters can cut, Howard can watch from the weak side, and Gasol can do what he does best – create myriad options from the low post with his scoring touch and passing acumen.

That’s assuming that D’Antoni allows for this orthodoxy to take shape, and that’s assuming Gasol isn’t rushing back from a significant injury too soon. Those are two things to be dubious about, to be sure. And that’s not even getting into Kobe Bryant’s looming presence, and if his ankle injury forces him into a spring full of angry hero ball, after a season’s worth of marvelously efficient work.

Whatever the result, it’s nice to have this combustible mix to worry over again. And it will be nice to have Pau Gasol’s effusive nature and charm, to say nothing of his passing and low post work, back on the scene again. Big news!

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