Los Angeles Lakers

Pau Gasol Will Be Most Important Piece of LA Lakers' Roster Down the Stretch

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 27:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to his score as he leaves the court after a timeout during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on January 27, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Ethan GrantAnalyst IFebruary 13, 2013

Pau Gasol is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. When he returns in what would be mid-to-late March, he'll be the most important piece of this Los Angeles Lakers team as it tries to defy the odds and make a deep run in the postseason.

He returned to Lakers practice on Monday, and tweeted this out to his fans to ensure they were staying positive about the injury:

Not all fans are mourning the Lakers' latest loss from the roster, but they should be.

While Gasol has struggled to fit in Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo, high-volume shooting offense, he's poised to play a pivotal role when he returns from injury. Being forced away from the basket has hurt his shooting percentage and role with the starting five—especially with Earl Clark playing like a seasoned veteran.

If the Lakers are done accepting trade proposals for Gasol (and it seems they are, for now) then the next month-and-a-half should be about getting better within this system while waiting for Gasol's return. When he does return, his presence will be invaluable to helping the Lakers get back in the playoff mix.

Just look at the month of February.

The Lakers were 3-0 after he was re-inserted into the starting lineup for Dwight Howard and looking like they had finally found some much-needed offensive rhythm. Gasol then went down with injury, and L.A. has now proceeded to lose two out of three.

Kobe Bryant knows that Gasol is important to this team's makeup, as evidence by his quote in Eric Pincus' latest Los Angeles Times piece:

"I know the significance of Pau being out, said Bryant. A lot of people don't really understand but I understand the significance of it."

Aside from the obvious friendship the two share, Bryant knows that Gasol is one of very few people on this roster that has championship experience. Metta World Peace has some, but Gasol has been through battles with Bryant in three NBA Finals—winning two.

That knowledge will do wonders for a team up against the odds, as will his new role as the backup center of this club.

Before Howard's injury, Gasol was coming off the bench. His minutes might have been down, but his field goal percentage and effectiveness were way up, and that's a testament to using him the right way.

Gasol is not a perimeter player. He thrived in Phil Jackson's offense because he was lining up primarily at the free-throw line and on the block; D'Antoni's "4" is forced out to the three-point line and into 20-foot jump shots.

However, as a reserve center, Gasol can make things happen inside, be a facilitator the way he has over the course of his career and spell Howard when things aren't going well for the embattled starter. If this season's start is any indication, he'll have plenty of chances to shine with Howard struggling to regain his elite form.

For now, the Lakers have six-to-eight weeks to see where this season goes. It could be that they are out of the playoff picture upon Gasol's return. However, Bryant and Steve Nash seem to have this offense running smoothly (for the most part) and it would take an epic collapse for L.A. not to at least contend for one of the final three seeds.

When Pau is ready to return, he will be the most important piece left to the puzzle. His versatility, experience, mid-range game and basketball IQ are his biggest assets to this franchise, and a spell on the bench for the next two months will help reinforce how important he is to any championship plans.

It's a far cry from the guy that many want traded away, but as long as Gasol is playing his basketball under the dark lights at Staples Center after Feb. 21, he's going to be critical in determining how far the 2012-13 season goes for the Lakers.

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