Pau Gasol may be having the worst season of his career, but his concussion, along with injuries to Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill, have put the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff hopes, which were weak to begin with, on life support.
As ESPN's Dave McMenamin reported on Monday, Howard and Gasol are both considered to be out indefinitely with injuries. Both were injured Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets, Howard with a torn labrum and Gasol with a concussion.
Though "indefinitely" is a rather abstract term, Gasol will not travel with the Lakers on their two-game Texas road stop, and Howard is expected to be out for at least a week, per McMenamin.
If that wasn't enough, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski might have twisted the knife by reporting that backup Jordan Hill will also be out a week with a hip injury:
Lakers forward Jordan Hill will miss a minimum of a week with a small muscle tear in his hip, league source tells Y! Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 8, 2013
As if the Lakers' 2012-13 season wasn't already bad enough.
They were already without point guard Steve Nash for over a month, and now, just when the team starts to build a modicum of chemistry, its frontcourt is depleted.
One has to wonder whether the Lakers are just snakebitten, and this is just the latest evidence. From beginning to end, this attempt at a super-team to challenge the Miami Heat has been an unmitigated disaster, and this is just the latest setback.
As someone who picked the Lakers to make the NBA Finals in the preseason, I had mostly assumed that these are growing pains and that they would at least make the playoffs. After all, this is the NBA. Teams that have talent win, and the Lakers certainly have enough talent to make the postseason.
Each of these injuries slightly changes that perspective. However, it's Gasol's absence that surprisingly feels the most weighty.
It's a fact that few will discuss, but an underrated subplot to the Lakers' injury problems is that Howard and Hill being out could have been a good thing for Gasol in the short-term. Their absences would have allowed him to retake his natural center position, which could have done wonders for his confidence.
Sure, that sounds almost laughably cliche. But it's almost inarguable that something is mentally wrong with the Spaniard. He's obviously lost in Mike D'Antoni's offense, partially because of Howard's hulking presence in the post. Gasol's stat-line (12.2 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.4 BPG) is his worst in the NBA, and he's doing it all on a career-low 41.6 shooting percentage.
Has Gasol suddenly became a below-replacement-level player more than a decade into his career? Of course not. Instead, it's always better to look at the underlying numbers and see where we can pinpoint a problem.
Luckily, for Gasol, it's not quantum physics. He's spending more time away from the basket than he ever has, and it's hampering his efficiency.
Last season, Gasol's two most prolific areas on the court were at the rim and between three and nine feet from the basket, per basketball-reference.com.
This season? He's shot more from 16-feet out to the three-point line than anywhere else on the floor.
The margins aren't jaw-droppingly massive, but they are significant. There's a very good reason the Lakers are infinitely better (albeit with a limited sample size) with Gasol playing center (per 82Games.com) than they are with him at power forward: It's because he's a post player who has the ability to stretch out, not vice versa.
Playing without Howard and Hill for a week or so would have given D'Antoni an opportunity to see what Gasol could still do as a top post option. The Lakers wouldn't suddenly start shopping Howard if they were winning without him, but an ascent from Gasol could have led to a critical shifting in rotations.
As it stands, though, the Lakers are now without all three, and that's the worst possible scenario.
Even if Gasol, Howard and Hill are only out a week, it couldn't have come at a worse possible time for the Lakers. They play Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City this week, all three of which are playoff teams, with the first two contests coming on the road.
At this point, Los Angeles would have been at best a "pick 'em" in each game with all of its players healthy. But without their three top big men, the Lakers will need epic performances from Bryant or Nash just to avoid going 0-3.
Just to play out the worst case scenario, let's imagine they lose all three games. That would put the team at 15-21 and no fewer than 3.5 games (its current standing) out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
If we assume that the winning percentage of this season's No. 8 seed will carry over this season, then the Lakers would need a 45-37 record to make the postseason. Assuming they lose all three games this week, they would have to finish the regular season on a 30-16 run to hit that mark. That's a .652 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 53- or 54-win team over 82 games.
With the talent on this team, that's not an impossible feat. This Lakers team still has the best center alive, Bryant playing his best basketball in years, and Nash, who has finally started looking like himself of late.
But by getting injured, Gasol will ostensibly still be a nonentity when he returns. Lest we forget that the Lakers made these offseason moves to create a Big Four, not a Big Three.
It may seem like a short-term problem, but Gasol's concussion could make that Big Four plan a long-term pipe dream.