Pau Gasol had a down year in his first season under head coach Mike D'Antoni. Some players enjoy bounce-back years after spending a summer rehabbing and preparing for a fresh start. Gasol has not.
Instead, he's shooting a career-low 42.8 percent from the field on a career-high 16.8 attempts per 36 minutes. Pau's nosedive last season has only become steeper, and the tension between D'Antoni and Gasol is firing back up one cryptic quote at a time.
Gasol is finishing the highest percentage of possessions since being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, mostly because of the absence of Kobe. But despite all those opportunities, he's failing to deliver. It's gotten so bad that, for the first time in the last five seasons, the Lakers' offensive efficiency is actually much better when Gasol is on the bench:
His drop-off comes at the worst possible time for the Lakers, who are playing shorthanded while attempting to integrate Kobe Bryant into the lineup. Steve Nash has been out since early in the season, Steve Blake is out for at least five more weeks, and Jordan Farmar is still rehabbing a torn hamstring. This emphasizes the necessity for Gasol to be productive while soaking up $19 million.
His lack of production has frustrations bubbling to the surface with D'Antoni. Both sides are pointing fingers. Gasol blamed his lack of aggressiveness on being misused in D'Antoni's' offense. D'Antoni responded by ripping Gasol's lack of effort and calling his complaints "an easy excuse not to play hard." It's not surprising a rumor was floated suggesting Lakers will consider trading Gasol if both his on-court production and off-court attitude don't improve.
When considering Gasol's complaints against D'Antoni's rebuttal, we must figure out where his shot attempts are coming from this season. Is Gasol forced to linger outside of the post, as he's suggested?
A higher percentage of Gasol's shots are coming from the perimeter, but he isn't taking a significantly lower amount of attempts in the paint either. With Kobe out, Pau's had plenty of chances to do both. D'Antoni is not asking Gasol to float around in the mid-range area and has nearly gone blue in the face from constantly telling Gasol and all frontcourt players to dive to the rim on pick-and-rolls instead of popping to the perimeter.
Take this loaded statement from D'Antoni, where he clearly states what he expects from his team. Via ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:
"We have a system that we play, and our bigs are urged every day to put themselves in every play and to roll hard every play, to post up every play, and to get the ball inside," D'Antoni said. "That's the best thing we can do. And so it's up to them to put themselves in the play. The more energy you bring to the game, the more you're going to get the ball. That's always been the case, and if you don't have the energy, then you probably won't get the ball much. So, if they supply the energy, they'll get the ball and then we'll go from there."
In pick-and-roll situations, Gasol frequently has taken it upon himself to pop out for a jump shot after setting the screen, rather than roll to the hoop, which D'Antoni said is not how the team coaches him to play.
"I guess that's what he wants to do," D'Antoni said. "He does well doing it, but he knows our preference is to dive and post up."
Shot type is clearly a work in progress. D'Antoni has a system in place that he hopes can maximize a roster filled with reclamation projects, but Gasol is not following the blueprint. If Pau isn't following the team's design, this is a huge issue for the Lakers.
But what if he is?
Gasol is getting plenty of raw post-up attempts, something both he and D'Antoni want emphasized in the offense, but he's averaging a lowly .72 points per possession on scoring plays in there. according to MySynergySports.com. His 35.5 usage rate in the post is also the highest it's been over the past three seasons, a time span alternatively known as "since Phil Jackson coached the Lakers." That's another reasonable and expected outcome without a second elite big man next to him to absorb post-up attempts. What's surprising is the numbers show Gasol taking plenty of pick-and-roll attempts despite the noise about him not doing his part.
So, where's the disconnect? The problem comes back to Gasol settling for mid-range jumpers instead of diving to the rim after he sets a screen.
Manually sorting data available through MySynergySports.com and tracking where Gasol's pick-and-roll attempts are coming from revealed exactly what D'Antoni has been saying. The majority of Gasol's attempts after he sets a screen are jumpers. The team needs him to dive to the rim because it opens the floor if the defense collapses, but it's much simpler than that. He also makes way more shots when he rolls hard into the paint. But despite data that clearly shows he's more effective when he rolls to the rim, he's attempting 2.5 times as many jumpers as paint shots. The numbers support what D'Antoni is asking for and are damning evidence that Gasol is lingering on the perimeter instead of cutting to the basket.
It's not a fluke that he's much more efficient when he isn't taking jumpers either. Jordan Hill almost exclusively takes shots around the restricted area when he rolls and he is one of the NBA's best roll men this season, ranked ninth overall, according to MySynergySports.com. Even Robert Sacre, an unexpected contributor in the Lakers' frontcourt, is putting up 1.44 points per possession in the pick and roll. The sample size is extremely limited, but he's made 10 of his 13 attempts and only two conversions were on jumpers. Everything points to setting a screen and getting to the basket as the best way to be an efficient big man for the Lakers.
Pau can't post-up defenders in isolation anymore and isn't playing to his strengths in the pick and roll. The numbers lead to one grim conclusion: After multiple deep playoff runs since joining the Lakers, going through the grind of the NBA for 12 seasons and spending summers playing for Spain, Pau Gasol just isn't what he used to be.
The five most efficient mid-range shooters, minimum 50 mid-range attempts, according to NBA.com:
|Cleveland Cavaliers||Anderson Varejao||61||33||54.1%|
|Indiana Pacers||Luis Scola||89||47||52.8%|
|Phoenix Suns||Marcus Morris||65||34||52.3%|
|Atlanta Hawks||Kyle Korver||50||26||52%|
|Phoenix Suns||Goran Dragic||62||32||51.6%|
The five least efficient mid-range shooters, minimum 50 mid-range attempts, according to NBA.com:
|Charlotte Bobcats||Cody Zeller||50||12||24%|
|Golden State Warriors||David Lee||59||15||25.4%|
|Detroit Pistons||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope||53||14||26.4%|
|Los Angeles Lakers||Steve Blake||52||14||26.9%|
|Detroit Pistons||Greg Monroe||52||14||26.9%|