Not much went right for the Los Angeles Lakers last year. The star-studded foursome of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard played only 258 minutes together, with a net rating of minus-1.5 points per 100 possessions. All four were hit with injuries at various points in the season, no one more than Gasol, who dealt with tendonitis in both knees, a concussion and a torn plantar fascia in his foot.
At the age of 32, Pau's body started breaking down. As a result, he played in only 49 games, with career lows in points, rebounds, field goal percentage and PER. When he was healthy, Pau struggled with his role in Mike D'Antoni's offense, never getting comfortable playing next to Howard. His playing time fluctuated; for the first time in his career, he was sitting on the bench late in games.
But this season, with Dwight gone and Kobe coming off Achilles surgery, Pau goes from luxury to necessity. Can he turn back the clock?
At 7'1 and 250 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan, he is one of the longest and most skilled big men in the NBA. However, as Pau has gotten older, the range on his jump-shot has declined; he made under 37 percent of his perimeter shots last season. They were shots the defense wanted him to take, a significant problem when playing in the high post. The farther from the rim, the harder it is for Pau to use his length to compensate for his lack of foot-speed.
In the 993 minutes that Dwight and Pau were on the floor together, the Lakers had a net rating of minus-1.5 points per 100 possessions. In a league getting smaller by the year, Pau no longer has the athleticism to stay in front of quicker power forwards or the game to punish them from the perimeter. Last season, Pau had a 22.0 PER at the center position and held his man to a 14.4 figure. At power forward, he had a 15.4 PER while his man was over 17.
At this point in his career, Pau is most effective around the basket. For all his struggles last season, he still made 64 percent of his shots in the paint. With an excellent post game and the ability to score over both shoulders, Pau is a difficult cover on the block, especially given his high release point. Even at 33, he can draw double teams and have offense run through him. Pau, one of the best passing big men in the NBA, averaged over four assists a game last year.
A big man with his size and skill can be effective for a very long time. In the last few seasons, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, both 37, have found tremendous success as centers. The first generation of seven-footers to play as power forwards, they have been able to extend their careers by moving up a position on the floor. That's one of the main reasons that bigger players generally have longer careers. As they get older, a 7'0 PF has options a 6'7 one does not.
That's good news for the Lakers, since they have spent most of the off-season preparing for the summer of 2014. They brought in a bunch of free agents on one-year deals, wanting to keep as clean a cap sheet as possible going forward. That means relying on players other teams have given up on: Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young are all on their third team in three seasons. This season, L.A. can't afford to lose Pau for any significant amount of time.
The days when the Lakers overwhelmed teams with size and skill up front are over. If Pau gets hurt, they'll be counting on Kaman to play 30-plus minutes a night at the center position. Jordan Hill is the only other big man on their roster; he's played 187 games in four seasons in the NBA. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom aren't walking through that door.
L.A. has star power, but little depth. And while they have a $76 million payroll this season, they have only $12.6 million committed for 2014-2015. This is a team that could look dramatically different next season, starting upfront with Pau, who is in the last year of a $57 million extension. If he has a bounce-back campaign, he could secure one more big contract, if not with the Lakers, then with someone else.
In the NBA, a high-level 7'0 never really goes out of style.