The Los Angeles Lakers are a team on the rebound. The recovery process after Dwight Howard’s departure may not be brief, and it probably won’t be painless. Time will likely heal all wounds, but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers will be better off in the short-term.
But what holds true for the team doesn’t necessarily apply to the individual. Even though they occasionally flirted with great chemistry as a pair, Pau Gasol might actually be better off without Dwight Howard this season.
Part of that has to do with Gasol likely being better off, period. Last year, Gasol languished through 49 injury-riddled games, averaging career lows in points per game (13.7), field goal percentage (46.6), and PER (16.7). If he’s healthy, you’d assume there would be some return to the mean.
Howard’s exit might speed along that process. Last season, when the two big men shared the floor, Gasol averaged .92 PPP (points per possession) on 46.1 percent shooting from the field. In his 707 minutes without Howard, however, those numbers improved to 1.07 PPP on 47.8 percent shooting.
Of course, a big part of that improved effectiveness had to do with the spots on the floor from which the touches originated. With Howard on the floor, Gasol had 28 percent of his shot attempts come from within 0-3 feet, and 22.3 percent come from 3-9 feet. Without him, those numbers jumped to 31.8 and 26.9 percent.
It’s simple -- when Gasol was closer to the rim last year, he was a better scorer. Gasol averaged .87 PPP in post-up chances last season, compared to .83 PPP on spot-up jumpers. That’s atypical for most players today, but that’s how good Gasol is with his back to the basket.
Unfortunately, the spacing issues with Howard just didn’t allow Gasol to get on the block very often, and the number of touches he received in the post dropped considerably. In the 2011-12 season, 28.5 percent of Gasol’s shots came from the post. In 2012-13? That number fell to 24.4 percent.
So should Gasol be playing the majority of his minutes at center this season, despite the offseason signing of a more conventional center in Chris Kaman? It should certainly be an option.
Here’s a big reason why. When Howard was off the floor last year, Gasol posted a solid defensive rebounding rate of 22.6 – the same number as Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and a better number than mammoth centers like Nikola Pekovic, Roy Hibbert and Kaman. Gasol may look a little soft, but he can more than handle his own on the glass. Truth be told, his post defense (only .75 PPP allowed last year) was pretty good as well, even though his declining athleticism and foot speed and didn’t help much in the way of rim protection.
Kaman shares a lot of those same issues, and his health is also a constant concern. But for a team who needs to score the ball a ton to account for what should be a pretty bad defense, the offensive chemistry in the frontcourt will be particularly important.
That being said, the two big men should be able to co-exist together, primarily because Kaman is an excellent mid-range shooter. Kaman’s jumper is a weapon he’s relied on more and more over the years, and considering his deficiencies as a post passer and finisher around the rim, it may be his only viable weapon left. Hypothetically, Kaman’s ability to stretch the floor should allow Gasol to assume his rightful position on the block and get more touches with more space to operate. Actually getting the touches is important, though: Gasol’s usage rate somehow declined last year when Howard was off the floor from 21.7 to 20.8.
Gasol’s role may be a little ambiguous in Mike D’Antoni’s system, and that kind of speaks to a larger point. Call it the burden of skill. Because he can seemingly do everything well offensively -- facilitate, shoot, score around the rim -- Gasol is often charged with filling in the gaps of his frontcourt partners, regardless of whether or not it’s optimizing his own production.
Gasol’s identity (is he a 4 or a 5?) also seems to change based on his surroundings -- he’s sort of a basketball chameleon. His ability to play with virtually anyone during his prime made him a champion. Now a little older, and with a little more scoring responsibility, the goal for the Lakers accompanying frontcourt players should be to complement Gasol, and not the other way around.
For the Lakers to rebound successfully this season, they’ll need Pau Gasol to help out and fill the void left by an absent big man. He’s done it in the past, he did it in brief moments last year, and he’s still capable of doing it now.
But the question is this: Will the Lakers have the means to help the helper?
Stats from ESPN.com, NBAwowy.com, MySynergySports.com, and Basketball-Reference.com were used in this post.