Separating Lakers' Silver Lining from Wishful Thinking in Wake of Gasol Injury

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2013

Feb. 5, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) is checked by the trainer after an apparent injury on the court against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center. Lakers won 92-83. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Pau Gasol's torn plantar fascia, which, according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, will keep the power forward "sidelined for an indefinite period," might have some pundits and fans thinking that head coach Mike D'Antoni will suddenly be able to right the Lakers' ship overnight.

Everybody knows that D'Antoni generally prefers to play with as small a lineup as possible. With Gasol out, L.A.'s mustachioed play-caller now has the ability (read: excuse) to trot out five-man units featuring, at most, one conventional big.

 Truthfully, it does seem possible that the Lakers offense could improve a bit without Gasol, especially considering his clear decline in play and the team's inability to maximize his still-valuable talents. D'Antoni will be able to insert a more useful perimeter threat in Gasol's place, which should space the floor for Howard.

And when D12 sits down (or misses time with injury), the Lakers can go even smaller. Both options seem to suit what D'Antoni has wanted to do with the team's offense all along.

Some might feel that such a change could help the pieces fall into place in the rotation and in the locker room, which could propel the Lakers to an inspiring postseason run.

But that sort of silver-lining outlook is really more like wishful thinking.


Better Offense? So What?

It's fairly obvious that if the Lakers have to make a go of it with just one of their two frontcourt stars, Howard is the better option. Even in his weakened state, D12 has soundly outproduced Gasol by any measure you'd care to use. As a catch-all, Howard's PER of 19.73 has been substantially better than Gasol's 15.90 this season.

And it's a fact that Howard has been slightly more effective when he's been in the game without Gasol. According to, Howard's plus-minus figure has been plus-3.2 per 36 minutes when he plays and Pau sits.

As a pick-and-roll threat, few bigs have been more deadly than Howard has over the past few seasons. With the middle of the floor more open, maybe the Lakers will finally feed opponents a steady diet Nash-Howard from the top of the circle.

Let's say that happens, and the Lakers bump up their offensive efficiency from No. 8 to No. 5 in the league. Even if that comes to pass, their defense will still be average, at best. And if D'Antoni opts for especially small lineups when Howard hits the bench, their No. 16 ranking on D could slip even further down the charts.

In other words, whatever the Lakers gain by playing with just one big man on offense (or none at all), they'll almost certainly give back on the other end.

Does anyone really want to see more of Antawn Jamison getting torched by power forwards? Or Earl Clark being eaten alive by opposing centers?

Didn't think so.


Dangerous Assumptions

The notion that D'Antoni now has the ability to save the team by implementing the offense that he wants rests on a faulty premise. It assumes that the Lakers' persistent infighting, especially over recent questions about Howard's toughness, will suddenly cease to be a problem.

And if we've learned anything about the Lakers this year, it's that there's no sense in assuming anything will work out for the best.

What if Howard decides to stick it to his questioning teammates by sitting out for a protracted period? He has certainly shown in the past that he's always going to be a guy who looks out for No. 1, so why would he jeopardize a big free-agent payday just to appease teammates who he perceives as calling him soft?

According to what Dave McMenamin of reported, Howard certainly sounds fed up with his current situation:

I mean, why wouldn't I want to play? But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else because nobody else is going to take care of me. So, if people are pissed off that I don't play or if I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what?

And even if D12 does put on his big boy pants and hit the floor, who's to say he'll be as aggressive on either end? He's always borne his share of hard fouls, and now teams are sure to target him if he rolls down the lane.

Considering how ugly the last one was, the next big hack could be the one that shelves Howard for good.

This year's Lakers have been a stunning case study in the accuracy of Murphy's Law. Whatever could have gone wrong has gone wrong. Why expect that to suddenly change just because D'Antoni now has a chance to implement the one-big system he loves?


Managing Expectations

Optimism is a healthy thing, so it's probably good to search for the positives in Gasol's injury. But there's a fine line between buying into those silver linings and succumbing to wishful thinking.

Believing that Gasol's absence has a slim chance of improving the Lakers' offensive flow is reasonable. Thinking D'Antoni will be able to magically use this opportunity to change the Lakers' fortunes isn't.