Posted by on Mar 21, 2013 in Dwight Howard, Lakers Analysis, Opinion, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash | 7 comments

Pau Gasol said Wednesday afternoon at practice (Lakers practice, for those needing more specificity) in El Segundo he felt “confident” about suiting up for Friday night”s game against the Wizards at Staples, but “we don”t want to get too ahead of ourselves.”

So whether it”s Friday or Monday night in Oakland, it looks like Gasol will be back on the floor sooner rather than later, meaning the whole “What happens when Pau comes back?” question finally gets an answer.

Here are a few things to consider…

1. Earl Clark”s return to Earth has made diffused the issue of whether or not Pau starts. 

Over the last couple weeks, our in-game timeline has featured a lot of “Earl Clark sucks!” Not fair. Earl Clark doesn”t suck, it just turns out he is, in fact, Earl Clark. The good news is it turns out Earl Clark is a useful NBA player, the type of guy who can be a solid addition to a team”s rotation. If he”s your seventh or eighth best player, it could be a good thing. If he”s your starting power forward, it”s probably not.

Clark”s high-end production wasn”t going to be sustainable, even if he didn”t get dinged up with injuries or the league, which had for into four seasons ignored Clark completely, didn”t start paying attention while he was on the floor. Both happened, and his performance suffered. In March, Clark”s, his 3-point numbers below 29 percent. His defense hasn”t been particularly good, either.

Still, lay off Clark, or at the least maintain a little perspective. The idea the Lakers were going to stumble upon a cheap, double-double machine who would lead their resurgence was a little far-fetched. Be happy they found a high end athlete who works hard, is coachable, has some utility, and will likely be affordable in the offseason.

At any rate, removing Clark from the starting lineup is hardly a controversial proposition.

2. Just because Gasol can start doesn”t make him a shoe-in to finish. 

Based on plus/minus numbers, features Kobe Bryant with Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Jodie Meeks, and Metta World Peace. Not coincidentally, that group — or a similar lineup swapping Meeks for Antawn Jamison — has finished most games, lately. In 101 minutes, the four-starters-plus-Meeks fivesome is a plus-58. The Jamison edition is plus-34 in 94 minutes.

The Lakers look like a good bet to finish no worse than eighth in the West — the Jazz are quickly devolving into  a quivering bowl of Jell-O – but still can”t be screwing around. Moreover, as AK pointed out during a podcast last week, the Lakers have very little time to find whatever rhythm they can going into the playoffs. I”m sure they”ll try, and still think the team”s best shot at playing to full capacity is with its best players on the floor as much as possible. Still, if it doesn”t work with Gasol closing games the Lakers really don”t have the luxury of forcing the issue, particularly to keep the peace. While he won”t rock the boat, Gasol won”t like it (and I”ll sympathize because Gasol is a Player Whose Talent Says He Should Finish Games) and some fans will howl, but in fairness to Mike D”Antoni the Lakers can”t be experimenting this late in the game.

That which works now needs to be the priority.

3. Watch the defense, not the offense.

It hasn”t necessarily altered the narrative, but D”Antoni has said over and over that despite the more ideal floor spacing skills of Meeks or Jamison, the issue with the Gasol/Howard combination isn”t on offense, but the other end. They can score enough, but haven”t done well keeping points off the board.

Which explains in part why as a two-man pairing, Pau and Dwight are -3 in 676 minutes.

That said, assuming Gasol can get his fitness back, it”s not ridiculous to believe he might be a little more mobile upon his return. All that time off his feet allowing his plantar fascia to heal had to be good for the tendinitis plaguing him throughout the year. Plus, he was playing much, much better before he went down with the foot problem. That Pau likely won”t have to be put on the bench. Matchups might still land him there, but D”Antoni”s hand is less likely to be forced.

UPDATE: Mike D”Antoni had this to say Thursday in El Segundo about why he believes the Gasol/Howard combo will be stronger this time around:

“Definitely, because there was two issues you have to factor in (when looking at previous results). I don”t think Dwight was 100 percent. Now with him 100 percent, that helps. I don”t think Pau was 100 percent early in the year. Just that alone will help. And I don”t think Metta (World Peace) was 100 percent. He was having trouble guarding guys on the perimeter. So we had a lot of breakdowns and stuff, and I think they”ve kind of corrected themselves lately. Pau has to get back in condition, but Metta is good on the perimeter and Dwight”s patrolling the middle. So we should be very good defensively.” 

Me: So your expectation is the combination will perform better going forward than it did before? 

“It better. It”s got to. We don”t have any other choice, so I hope so.”

While I don”t think Dwight is quite 100 percent (and certainly Pau isn”t), there”s no question Howard is healthier and more confident in his fitness now than he was earlier in the year, which will improve Pau defensively in the same way it has helped everyone else on the floor. 

4. Whether he ends up averaging 25 minutes or 35 minutes a night, Gasol”s return is a huge boost to the Lakers. 

That the bench has found a rhythm over the last few weeks is great. D”Antoni and Jamison have figured each other out. Meeks is serving as the floor spreader he was brought in to be (though he needs to bust out of his in a hurry), and sets a great tone with his effort level. Steve Blake has about a 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this month. Things are looking up. To that, add Gasol, who will spend a great deal of time playing with the reserves and provides a major boost.

First and foremost, the Lakers get a seven-footer to guard the rim when Dwight Howard isn”t in the game. Complain if you want about Pau”s defense at center, but it”ll be a hell of an improvement over the Lilliputians roaming the floor while Howard rests, lineups essentially laying a paint-long welcome mat all the way to the rim.

Offensively, Gasol provides a badly needed conduit for ball movement in the offense that ought to take some pressure off Nash, and in the process, Bryant. Gasol forces defenses to play the Lakers” pick-and-roll in totally different ways, both when he”s involved in the primary action and when he”s set up above the weakside elbow. Opposing teams have had some success blitzing Nash hard, sucking up his airspace and making it tough to turn the corner. Tougher to do with Gasol, because his perimeter game and ability to find open teammates must be honored.

Nash ought to find a little more room, which should help lighten the burden on Bryant.

And, of course, getting the Kobe/Pau pick-and-roll back as an option will be big.