Leading by 17 points with 10:46 remaining in Sunday's victory over the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Lakers removed Marc Gasol from the game for what they likely assumed would be the final time. By that point, he had given them 14 solid minutes, a roughly even split with his fellow Laker centers Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond, and in what looked to be a blowout, they had little reason to mess with the rotation.
And then, Chris Paul started hunting Drummond in pick-and-roll ...
And Drummond started missing gimmes at the basket ...
And DeAndre Ayton went at him in the post ...
And suddenly, a lead that was once as high as 23 points had been cut to seven. Frank Vogel had seen enough. Drummond was pulled. Gasol was put back in the game. Order was restored. The Suns never got closer than that seven and ultimately wound up losing by 13. This was a fairly predictable outcome. It has been evident since Drummond arrived that the Lakers play best with Gasol at center, and the plus-minus numbers bear that out.
|Los Angeles Lakers centers||Point-differential since Drummond's debut|
But what happened on Sunday was notable less for the result and more for the process. Gasol was a starter before the Lakers signed Drummond, whose arrival knocked him out of the rotation entirely. He has been held out of seven games in which he was active since Drummond arrived, which sent a very clear message: He was being replaced. The Lakers were adamant that they planned to use all three of their centers, and Drummond needed the most minutes of the trio for the sake of acclimation, but Gasol was the clear loser of the arrangement early on. Drummond's debut came on March 31. Harrell wasn't benched for a game until April 24. This suggested a clear preference of Harrell over Gasol for the non-Drummond minutes rather than a three-way timeshare despite the fact that Gasol had been the starter. Add all of this up and the implication becomes dissatisfaction with Gasol's play early in the season. He was a clear third in the pecking order.
Now? He may not be starting games, but when the Lakers needed to stop messing around and actually win on Sunday, they chose him to finish it. That's not the first time they've done so in a big game recently either. In a win over Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets last Monday, Gasol played only two first-half minutes, but 15 second-half minutes. Vogel frequently used him as a spark in games that weren't going well. In a four-point loss to the Kings, for instance, the Lakers didn't insert Gasol until they'd fallen behind 28-15. When he left the game, the Lakers led 41-37. Things didn't grow dire enough to reinsert him aside from a brief stint at the end of the first half and they lost.
But that's a mistake they've learned from, and those seven DNP-CDs now appear to be in the rearview mirror. As unremarkable as this sounds, Gasol has now played in four straight games. This is the first time he's done so with a healthy Drummond on the Lakers. He averaged 20.1 minutes per game prior to a midseason bout with COVID, which is roughly where he's been over the last two Lakers games. For now, it appears as though Gasol has resolidified his role in the rotation, and the ironic part of it is, it's not as though he's done anything all that differently to regain his position. He's doing exactly what the Lakers signed him to do in the first place.
Take this fourth-quarter sequence. There are no highlights here, just a series of good decisions leading to a positive outcome. Gasol cuts off Paul's drive which leads to a miss, initiates a fast break, and when that fast break doesn't lead to anything, his presence deep behind the arc draws the tallest Sun on the floor, Ayton, away from the basket. That takes away any meaningful resistance for the Anthony Davis dunk:
Sequences like this are the epitome of Gasol's value. He doesn't have to make the big play himself. His presence in the right places at the right times allows others to do so, even in ways that are counterintuitive. Consider the Lakers' transition offense. In theory, having the NBA's best rebounder should be triggering fastbreaks frequently. Yet, since Drummonds arrival, the Lakers have scored more fastbreak points per 100 possessions (12.8) during Gasol's minutes than they have during Drummond's (11.8). Why is that? Gasol may get fewer rebounds, but he makes the most of the ones that he does pull in. Look at his eyes on this one:
It's cliche to say that he's a step ahead of his opponents, but it's obvious in moments like that. Normal big men focus only on securing the board. Gasol's eyes are down the court looking for the right pass before he even lands. Sometimes, it's even quicker than that. Only one play earlier, he noticed the outlet opportunity before the ball even hit the rim. When he got it, he could immediately turn and pass in one fluid motion:
These are the little things you get when you sign a basketball genius. They don't show up in the stat sheet, and Gasol's individual numbers are mostly uninspiring. But the team plays better when he's on the floor because he's doing things like this. Those things are only amplified when he's playing with superstars. The original Lakers starting lineup of Gasol, Davis, LeBron James, Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions before Davis got hurt. At this rate, there's a good chance this is the starting lineup we see again in the playoffs.
It leaves Harrell and Drummond in a somewhat precarious position. Both post far more impressive numbers than Gasol, yet neither fit the rest of the roster as comfortably. Spacing, passing and defensive positioning are perhaps the three most important traits a teammate of James and Davis can have. Gasol brings all three. Harrell and Drummond, for all of their other gifts, do not. The math isn't in their favor. Davis is going to play a meaningful amount of minutes at center in the playoffs. If Gasol is, too, there are only so many left to go around. Vogel experimented with a Gasol-Harrell pairing on Sunday. It's not defensively viable in the playoffs, nor does it make sense given the rest of the Lakers rotation at full strength.
There's value in having stylistic diversity. The Lakers can play bully ball with Drummond for stretches if they'd like. They can unleash Harrell's offensive energy on unsuspecting bench units in the right matchups. But as the postseason approaches, the very things that may have frustrated them about Gasol suddenly become more appealing. Having a player who doesn't need or even want to monopolize possessions is significantly more valuable when James and Davis start to monopolize more of them.
The space he provides makes their lives easier. That he's shot over 61 percent on 3-pointers since Drummond arrived is almost a bonus. It's not as though he'll ever make five of them in a game. He just needs to take and make those shots often enough to force defenses to respect them. Harrell and Drummond will never be able to do the same.
And that is fundamentally why Gasol is gaining ground on them right now. Even if they are better individual players, their skill sets don't complement the existing core nearly as well. The Lakers have spent the season trying to fit that square peg into a round hole, and the closer we get to the end of the season, the less interested they seem to be in doing so when the stakes are at their highest. In seven-point games against contenders, the Lakers have learned to trust the center who amplifies the rest of their players above all else, and the results speak for themselves.