It's all a bit stunning. Mike D'Antoni has thrived with skilled big men. He basically turned Boris Diaw into an NBA player, and pretty much all Diaw ever had going from him was skill. (Those first two seasons of success in Phoenix basically won Diaw $54 million in NBA contracts.) Pau Gasol is quite possibly the most skilled big man of this era, with Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and DeAndre Jordan also vying for that honor. Add in that the Lakers have a (man who was recently an) elite defender at center and a brilliant scorer at two-guard, and this should work. D'Antoni knows how to yank all the value out of his big men. Pau knows how to do things. This is a good core, even with Steve Nash on the shelf. This can work!
It's not working. Pau has been yanked from multiple fourth quarters, Kobe Bryant has called him out twice, the Lakers are flailing as they depend on Dwight Howard to carry the offense late and now Gasol is sitting with alleged tendinitis. None of us know if that's a smokescreen and the team is just resting him while it considers his future, but let's just say that if the team were winning and all was rosy, Pau probably wouldn't be resting in December.
But is this all just a sign that Pau, now 32, is on his way out of the league? If the Lakers trade him, can he even offer anything to that new team ... or is he toast?
Let's look at the data.
Age is on the x axis there. I would say only four of these "box score" stats have fallen precipitously in recent years or specifically this year: field goals made, field goal attempts, free throw attempts and points. Those first three all inform the fourth. Rebounds, assists, blocks, turnovers -- all things that have helped Pau be one of the best big men in the game -- have remained rather stable, even as Gasol digs into his 30s. This is a scoring problem.
The scoring problem is that Pau has had fewer scoring opportunities, and is doing worse with them. (Gasol is shooting a career low 42 percent this season. Our review of Pau Gasol's Shooting Percentage, now playing at the Small Sample Size Theatre, will be published later this week.) But Pau's scoring was down last year, too. What's happening here?
Let's look at where Pau is getting his shots, and how he's doing with them. HoopData.com has the best source data for this type of investigation, so we can only go back to 2007. Note that I'm omitting three-pointers, because they still make up only a tiny percentage of Pau's game.
This is the third consecutive year in which the share of Pau's shots coming from the long two-pointer range has increased quite a bit. Long twos made up about 10 percent of Pau's offensive repertoire in 2009-10 (L.A.'s last championship season), but are up to more than 40 percent this season. Note that this directly impacts those free throw numbers: the further you are from the rim, the less likely you're getting a foul call. Surely, the rise of post beast Andrew Bynum and acquisition of post beast Dwight Howard have contributed. But maybe Pau has abandoned the post because he's become less effective there? Let's look at shooting percentages at those ranges.
And there it is. Pau is shooting inordinately low on short and mid-range jumpers. Shooting percentages at these ranges can have some crazy volatility -- ask Ersan Ilyasova, who shot brilliantly on them last year and is struggling this year. So Pau's scoring drop -- which has been nearly the complete source of his apparent decline in quality, with the caveat that defense is really difficult to measure on an individual basis -- is based on fewer attempts and stunningly low conversion on short and mid-range jumpers. That's all of it. Pau Gasol looks like he sucks because he's missing those half hooks, those pop-out jumpers, those extended post turnarounds. History says he shoots those pretty well. This 2012-13 drop in efficiency at those ranges was not preceded by gradual declines in this area -- it is steep, sudden and based on 17 games under three head coaches with a brand new frontcourt cohort and basically a new point guard (whether he's named Steve Nash or Darius Morris).
Pau's still got it. This is a blip. He's not getting better at this point, but he's not as bad as everyone seems to think. If the Lakers keep him, Andrew Sharp's admonition that they slide some of Dwight's supper back in front of Gasol is strong. But man do I hope the Lakers peddle Pau for spare parts and give Antawn Jamison the keys. Pull the trigger, Kupchak!
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.