On the evidence of his first five games in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers, coach Mike D’Antoni is facing a problem that will feel all-too familiar: he has an all-star player at his disposal unable to thrive in his system.
D’Antoni’s last season in New York was blighted by internal wrangling with Carmelo Anthony. Melo’s numbers and level of interest dipped as his game chafed with the run-and-gun principles of his coach. It was an issue that never looked likely to be resolved. D’Antoni was fired after asking Knicks top brass to trade Anthony for Deron Williams.
Now in Los Angeles, a similar scenario appears to be unfolding. Pau Gasol, an all star and two-time NBA champion, is slumping under D’Antoni’s tutelage. In his first two games under D’Antoni, Gasol played 38 and 37 minutes. In the next three his minutes dropped to 27, 28 and 32 minutes. Over those five games, Gasol has made just 19 of 49 shots and scored at 10.8 points per game.
Fans and observers have looked at Gasol’s struggles and D’Antoni’s recent history and reached the conclusion that the Lakers will pull the trigger on a Gasol trade. One rumour has Pau heading to New York in a swap for the uninsured max contract of the ailing Amar’e Stoudemire.
Gasol may indeed eventually be traded, but it won’t be because he has suddenly become persona non grata at Staples Center. And this situation is not the same as D’Antoni’s feud with Melo. If Gasol cannot fit into the Lakers’ new offence, it won’t because he and his coach didn’t try everything to make it work.
Gasol’s statistical decline did not start with D’Antoni’s arrival in Los Angeles. It dates back seasons to when Andrew Bynum was given a larger role. When the Lakers won their last title, Bynum did not play in crunch time. Gasol sat in the low post facilitating for Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant.
When Bynum’s role increased in the seasons that followed, Gasol’s effectiveness decreased. He took fewer shots at the rim and more shots from long range. Hoopsdata.com shows Gasol attempted 5.8 shots per game at the rim in 2008-09, a number that decreased every season to a new low at 3.2 this season. Gasol is taking 5.5 shots from 16-23ft compared to 1.6 in 2008-09.
Gasol has been unsure of his role and his own game for the last two seasons, not the last five games. Being traded to Houston in the Chris Paul trade nixed by David Stern at the start of last season probably made Pau feel even more, as Avon Barksdale would say, like a man without a country. The Lakers front office has slowly eroded his confidence.
Who better than D'Antoni, long acknowledged as a creative and innovative offensive mind, to find the way to get the best out of Gasol and restore the Spaniard to all star form?
Both D’Antoni and Gasol have recently made positive, constructive comments about Gasol’s future as a Laker. Unlike with Melo in New York, it appears – at least on the surface – that player and coach want to make it work. But it will take time to adjust.
Gasol has said he is ready to accept the challenge to adapt to D’Antoni’s system. But he must also impose his personality on games. If he gets his touches away from the hoop, he can’t simply settle for the 16ft jump shots that have caused his numbers to dip: put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop. He is too intelligent and too skilled to play tentatively.
Following the Lakers’ buzzer beater loss to Indiana, D’Antoni said of Gasol: “I don’t see how a player as smart as he is, as talented as he is and efficient as he is, doesn’t fit in anybody’s schemes. I got to reevaluate myself if I can’t play with Pau Gasol. Come on. He’s won two championships.”
Fan reaction to Gasol’s sub-par performances has been caustic. Most of the trade rumours that followed were widely unrealistic. But there’s no way the Lakers will pull a trigger on a Gasol trade until Steve Nash returns from injury.
D’Antoni is all in – and he has no choice – on the 38-year-old playmaker solving the Lakers’ problems, including Gasol’s ineffectiveness.
Unlike in New York, the struggling player and newly appointed coach appear to be on the same page. Unlike Melo, Gasol doesn’t carry the pressure of being the Lakers’ number one offensive option. Unlike with his failure to get the best out of Anthony, D’Antoni has the wise old head of Nash to be his floor general and reinvigorate Gasol.
For both D’Antoni and Gasol, Nash’s fractured leg cannot heal fast enough.