The Los Angeles Lakers’ pitch to try to convince Dwight Howard to stay started long before billboards sprung up around L.A.
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.”
While health certainly had something to do with it -- Gasol’s knees, feet and head (a concussion) caused him to miss 33 games last season -- Gasol was aware of the ground shifting beneath him as the Lakers gravitated towards Howard.
“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.”
Now, with Howard out of the picture, the Lakers’ Plan B is to go back to Plan A and make Gasol the team’s primary option down low.
“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.”
The decision going forward, at least for next season (with Gasol in the last year of his contract and the Lakers set to pay him $19.3 million), is to go back to orbiting around the four-time All-Star.
“I expect him to have the best year he’s ever had coming up,” D’Antoni recently told ESPN LA 710 radio.
Whether that’s just lip service or not may be up to Gasol.
“I’m excited about next season,” said Gasol, who is still recovering from the procedures he underwent in May to alleviate tendinosis in both of his knees. “I’m going to work really hard to get myself in the best shape that I can and hopefully my body will react well. The main thing is if I can start healthy and stay healthy. And the rest, with my skill set and the team that we have, everything will happen well. But, it’s just a matter of being healthy and wanting it and working hard. I’m committed to having a great year and I hope our team, we have a great year together. So, great expectations for next season individually and also collectively.”
He’ll have the starting point guard, Steve Nash, on his side to help those expectations from going the way of Dickens’ Pip.
“I thought the games that Pau and I played together where Dwight didn’t play, I thought we really played well together and the offense really flowed,” Nash told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “So, I’m not concerned about that. That’s going to be great.”
Despite the Lakers being swept out of the playoffs to end last season, Gasol was playing his best basketball of the season at the finish. Gasol shot 50 percent or better from the floor in eight of the Lakers’ last 11 games in the regular season (L.A. went 9-2), and he registered three triple-doubles in a six-game span from April 12-26, becoming the first NBA big man to do so since Chris Webber had three in five games in Feb. 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“To me, it worked well when we started playing a little more inside-out instead of outside-in,” Gasol said. “One, we slowed the game down a little bit adjusting more to our personnel and our roster and then when there was better ball movement, whether if it was through the post or through the elbow or pick-and-rolls, when there was better ball movement we played better and our defense was better. We had better defensive balance, and things worked out better, so it is something we need to keep in mind.”
D’Antoni said next season he plans to go through Gasol down low, to give him opportunities at the elbow where he’s “devastating” and to have him run pick-and-rolls where Gasol can either receive the pass for his own scoring play or be positioned to make the next pass -- ideally, either a kickout or a lob -- to find an open teammate.
The coach also thinks that Gasol and newly acquired center Chris Kaman will be a natural fit together in the starting lineup.
“I just see them kind of blending in together pretty easily,” D’Antoni said. “A lot easier than it was last year (with Howard), let’s put it that way.”
Now, after three coaches in the past three seasons and after being bumped in the pecking order for both Howard and Andrew Bynum, Gasol will take up the task of reminding everyone that he can be more than just one of the game's most skilled big men.
"You don’t get to be one of the best by just being talented or skilled," Gasol said. "There’s certain things you also need to do in the game defensively, being physical and decisive out there. Being a presence. Those things are also very important. Talent and skill don’t mean that much if you don’t play as hard as you can or you don’t do other things because there are a lot of talented players in the league.
"To be one of the best, that’s actually what I’m going to work for again."