Pulling into a Staples Center parking lot Tuesday afternoon, I encountered the Lakers’ biggest, shaggiest dilemma.
“Hey, good news, Pau Gasol is coming back tonight, right?” said the attendant.
“Yeah, and you still probably want him traded, right?” I said.
“Well, yeah, he is a little soft.”
Can we take all this talk and park it? Just pull it into a back space on the bottom level and forget it about it? You want to jabber about shipping out one of the smartest and most skilled big men in basketball, can you do it outside of the glare of Gasol’s championship rings and endless basketball IQ?
Gasol’s return to the Lakers lineup in a 101-100 victory over Charlotte on Tuesday night reminded me how sick I am of hearing folks say the Lakers would be better off without him.
No, the Lakers would be better off with a system that fits him. They would be better off with a game plan that accommodates him. You don’t trade him. You work with him. You adjust around him. You win with him, which is exactly what they did Tuesday night.
Granted, the Lakers are a complete mess. They needed a last-second defensive stop to beat Charlotte a team that had lost 11 consecutive games. They didn’t guard anybody in the second half of a possession. They didn’t look for scoring from anybody but Kobe Bryant down the stretch.
The Lakers and their coach, Mike D’Antoni, looked completely baffled against the reckless young Bobcats, but Pau Gasol is not part of the problem, he is one of the solutions.
After the Lakers trailed by as many as 18 points midway through the third quarter — yeah, it was downright embarrassing — Gasol entered the game for Dwight Howard with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter and the Lakers trailing by 10.
By the time Gasol departed early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers led, 86-84, having outscored the Bobcats 16-4 during his stint.
During that time Gasol didn’t do anything flashy, but everything smart and strong. He set two huge picks that resulted in four points. He helped out on a double team that resulted in a turnover. He made two free throws after fighting for an offensive rebound. After his second pick set Bryant free for a layup and eventual three-point play to give the Lakers the lead early in the fourth, Bryant and Gasol literally bumped heads, two old guys reveling in the power of the savvy veteran.
“It was great,” Bryant said of Gasol’s return after an eight-game injury absence. “He makes the game so much easier for everybody. . . . He’s a great decision maker.”
Gasol returned later to grab two big rebounds down the stretch and finished with 10 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks.
“I’ve got a ways to go with my conditioning, but I felt energized, fresh, I was able to do a lot of things,” Gasol said.
But, of course, he was on the bench for the final 2:36 as the Lakers barely escaped. I wonder how this team is better without Gasol’s presence down the stretch of any game, but D’Antoni obviously doesn’t agree. He publicly ripped Gasol earlier this season, once saying he was benching him in the fourth quarter because he was “trying to win the game.” The coach wasn’t much more positive on Tuesday after another strange benching.
“I’m happy for Pau, it’s his first time back, the first five-eight minutes of each half he was really good, then he kind of went downhill when he got tired,” D’Antoni said.
Gasol was tired during that late third-quarter stretch when he helped save the game? It sure didn’t look like it. Gasol has been so downgraded under D’Antoni that if you trade him now, you won’t get close to full value. If you trade him now, you risk having a team with only one star — Kobe Bryant — if Howard leaves the team after this season.
You don’t trade him now. You remember how you won two titles with him. You remember how you could not have won Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics without him, as he led the team with 18 rebounds and four assists while completing the double-double with 19 points. That was less than three years ago. Gasol has aged, but he’s still 32, and he’s still 7 feet tall, and he still brings a focus that the Lakers are missing.
Gasol began this season with five double-doubles during the team’s first 10 games under Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff. Enter D’Antoni, who looked at him like Gasol looks at a comb. The coach clearly has no idea what to do with him. During D’Antoni’s first seven games, Gasol had one double-double while being benched during a couple of fourth quarters and slowly morphing into 7 feet of glum.
Gasol finally benched himself for eight games to rest his aching knees, during which time the Lakers went 3-5. Gasol returned Tuesday to louder Staples Center cheers than when he left.
There are more cheers for him than for D’Antoni, which makes sense, and I wondered if the new coach still thought Gasol could flourish in D’Antoni’s clearly failing system.
“I’d be shocked he can’t, he’ll be good in any system,” D’Antoni said. “There can’t be a system out there where, if you’re really skilled and know how to play, it doesn’t work for you.”
He’ll work in any system, it seems, but this one. Trading Pau Gasol should not be a question. Adjusting the system should be the answer.