Whenever Pau Gasol decides he is healthy and ready to return, the Lakers will once again have the best back-up center in the NBA. Gasol may provide valuable starting minutes, but his real value to the Lakers is anchoring the second unit defensively and offensively.
As imperfect as Gasol may seem for Mike D’Antoni’s system at power forward, the agile Spaniard is a perfect center for D’Antoni’s offense.
Gasol can run the floor, pass brilliantly, and shoot comfortably away from the basket. As a center, Gasol can stretch the floor. Also, Gasol can jam the occasional dunk if Steve Nash were to hand him the ball under the basket (with healthy knees, of course). Were he to get fouled in the process, Gasol is a good free throw shooter.
D’Antoni may need to sacrifice his offensive system late in games to play defense with an extra 7 feet under the basket. Controlling the boards is a much easier task with a healthy Howard leaping and a refreshed Gasol reaching around the rim.
If he’s creative, D’Antoni will learn to use Howard early in the fourth quarter (when teams can’t Hack-a-Howard), Gasol in the middle of the fourth quarter, and finish the final two minutes with both Howard and Gasol on the floor.
Impatient Lakers fans don’t seem to fully grasp that Kobe Bryant can catch and shoot when Steve Nash comes back. Coming into the season, Bryant was working on his shot, and the fruits of his labor have him on track to record career highs in field goal percentage (45.4), free-throw percentage (87.0), and three-point field goal percentage (39.8).
The Mamba is doing a bit more than just finding his hot spot at the moment, and all that facilitating still hasn’t hidden the overall shooting improvement Kobe has made this past offseason. Before completely crucifying the Mamba on his turnovers on offense and constant ball-watching on defense, it pays to remember that offense—for Kobe especially—will come much easier for the Lakers when Nash gets back.
With Bryant not breaking his back on offense, Howard healed and healthy, Metta World Peace moving with pace, and Gasol gracefully galloping around, the Lakers defense will be better.
Offensively, World Peace is in noticeably better shape than in seasons past, and he is shooting a good percentage from distance. With Nash back, World Peace can find his spot and hit four of 10 open corner shots.
An eternity ago, a limping D’Antoni predicted World Peace would shoot 40 percent from three-point land and average 17-20 points per game. That was when the coach thought Nash would be back in a week or two. It has been four weeks now, and even D’Antoni has cooled on the Nash return talk for the moment.
If Nash doesn’t fix everything immediately upon his return, players and coaches would be wise to keep their bags packed.
However, D’Antoni still believes his team is close; his team is as close as Steve Nash’s return.