Few, if any post players are as talented as Pau Gasol is. The only person who may have a claim to the array of post moves Pau possesses would be his brother, Marc Gasol. Combine that with his superb mid-range shot and Pau is arguably the most talented post player in the league.
At least that was the case coming into this season. Sure, Pau has his periods of ineffectiveness, usually a direct result of his attitude and demeanor. It’s no secret that Pau is a player that is easily effected by emotions, whether that be positively (see Game 7, 2010 NBA Finals) or negative (see 2011 NBA Playoffs series against Dallas).
For most of his tenure in Los Angeles, Phil Jackson balanced on the slippery slope of motivating Pau while not criticizing. It’s not a coincidence Pau’s best all-around seasons came in the triangle offense. And Jackson famously slid down the slope when he mentally lost Pau in the 2011 playoffs, leaving Phil to resort to hitting and screaming at Gasol in an effort to get him focused.
For most Lakers fans, this is basic common knowledge. Keep Pau happy, focused, and in the post, and the Lakers will succeed. That’s why the Lakers were shocked and even angry when Mike D’Antoni came in and not only moved Pau out of the post, but began openly criticizing him and even benching him at one point. And, unsurprisingly, Pau very noticeably struggled.
Not only was Pau being forced to take shots he wasn’t comfortable with, but he was being criticized for not performing at the high level that fans and coaches alike had become accustomed seeing Pau play at. Determining where D’Antoni went wrong in his handling of Pau Gasol is another article in itself and not what we’re here to discuss.
What was important for Lakers fans was that D’Antoni learned that, for Pau to be effective, he couldn’t be forced into a stretch four role and, instead, needed to change his coaching philosophy to suit Gasol. When Pau returned to the lineup late in the season following his battle with a plantar fascia tear, D’Antoni put Pau into a more comfortable role in the offense.
The result? Pau averaged 16.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists over the last 11 games while shooting 52.7% from the field. But what changed in Pau’s game from his first 26 games under D’Antoni and the final 11? Well, the short and obvious of it, is that they moved Pau closer to the basket and away from the 3-point line.
To first figure out what went wrong this year, let’s take a look at what worked so well for Pau in the past. Below is the shot chart from his 2010-11 season
The main focus here? While Pau shot well from farther than 15 feet, he shot just 159 shots from that range the entire season. His 868 shots from inside 15 feet is 545% more shots than outside that distance.
How did things change under D’Antoni? Here’s his shot chart from the first 26 games for Pau under D’Antoni, in which Pau averaged 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists on 46% field goal shooting.
It’s immediately evident that Pau’s shot were stretched out farther from the basket. Each red dot signifies a missed shot, while a blue one signifies a make. His 21 shots at or on the 3-point line is one less than his entire 2011-12 season. His 105 shots from 16 feet and beyond account for 37.8% of his shots, and his 36.3% field goal percentage from that range goes to show that he wasn’t successful in his ventures to the 3-point line.
As a result of his increased distance from the basket, he assisted on just 17.8% of his teammates field goals. 21 of 67 two-point assists went to Dwight Howard, accounting for 31.3% of his two-point assists. As someone known for his elite passing as a big man, assisting on just 17.8% of his teammates field goals was very un-Pau-like.
Another direct result of being pulled from the basket is a lower rebounding rate. He recorded just 47 offensive rebounds in those 26 games, which equates to Pau getting just 6.6% of the offensive rebounds available.
Maybe luckily, Pau went down for an extended period with his plantar fascia tear. After battling injuries while battling the coach, Pau likely needed the rest to recoup both mentally and physically. And when he came back, he looked like the Pau of old. After taking a couple games to get back into shape, he put up a stat line of 16.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists and shot 52.7% from the field over those final 11 games.
The above shot chart diagrams those final 11 games. Quite obviously, he moved closer to the basket and in spots he was comfortable with. Not only was he a more effective shooter, but he was a more assertive shooter. His 220 shots over those 11 games are just 58 less than he shot during the first 26 games with D’Antoni. And only 52 of those 220 shots came from 16 feet and out, a far more efficient 23.6% of his shots.
And, as expected, as he moved closer to the basket, he became an all-around more active player. Not only did his assist percentage sho0t up to 24.6%, but his assist percentage to Dwight went up also. He recorded 64 total two-point assists and 35 of those went to Dwight, 54.7% of his assists. He also found teammates behind the 3-point line better, assisting on 33 makes behind the arc, compared to his 29 prior to his injury.
Another direct result of moving him closer to the basket was his increased rebounding rate. He grabbed 44 offensive rebounds, an 8.9% rate. Maybe more surprisingly is that his defensive rebounding rate significantly, up over 5.1% from pre-injury. Clearly, engaging Pau offensively leads to him becoming more engaged defensively.
It appears D’Antoni learned and adapted to his team, utilizing Pau to the best of his capabilities down the stretch. Credit to both of them for working past their struggles as Pau was an integral part of the Lakers play down the stretch. On three separate occasions, Pau finished with 10+ assists, two of those times recording triple doubles. His 20-rebound effort against Houston in the final game of the season helped give the Lakers the seven seed.
What does this mean for the future? Much of that is still up in the air, as Pau’s $19.2 million is a big number on the Lakers books next year. And while rumors surfaced following the season that the Lakers Plan A was to keep Pau, the rumors will persist. However, for Lakers fans, it’s good to know that Pau’s struggles with D’Antoni appear to have been solved.