How Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol Proved Mike D'Antoni Wrong

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 17, 2013

April 5, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) speaks with power forward Pau Gasol (16) during a stoppage in play against the Memphis Grizzlies in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For the vast majority of the 2012-13 season, Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni had been sure about one thing—Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol weren't an effective on-court duo.

But now, with the Lakers' season hanging in the balance, it appears as though Howard and Gasol have finally proved him wrong.

Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reported on his Sulia page that D'Antoni acknowledged his mistake:

D'Antoni coming clean on his "preconceived notion" that Dwight-Pau couldn't play well together: "It probably wasn't right." He also said he came "to realize that we can play with two big guys. I was a little skeptical at first."

What sold D'Antoni on the big frontcourt? "Because they kept getting better at it...pretty easy assumption." D'Antoni also said Howard and Gasol played better together once each got healthier, with D'Antoni pegging them as "close to 100 percent" now.

To be fair to D'Antoni, who hasn't gotten very many things right in his tenure as the Lakers coach, he was correct in his belief that Gasol and Howard were a tricky tandem to have on the floor together.

Part of what made them look so bad on the court was a lack of inventiveness from D'Antoni himself, but there was also a physical element—namely, the duo's shared injury woes—that prevented them from realizing their potential as a combo.

On the year, Howard and Gasol have played nearly 1,000 minutes together, but have amazingly posted a negative differential per 100 possessions when they've shared the floor. The figure is only minus-0.8 points, but to put that in perspective, there are no fewer than 46 other two-man Laker pairings that have been better this year on a per-possession basis.

But as D'Antoni said, the improved health of Gasol and Howard has changed things for the Lakers.

For one, the Spaniard has been playing his best ball of the season in the month of April—by a wide margin. Averages of 17.6 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and 53-percent shooting this month have most Lakers fans acknowledging that Gasol finally looks like himself again.

Howard has been excellent in April as well. He's shooting a ridiculous 65 percent and scoring a season-best 21.6 points per game. His decreased rebounding numbers (9.4 pulls per game in April) are actually a positive sign in their own right, as they indicate that Howard is putting himself in better help positions, and that Gasol is contributing more on the glass by hauling in his share of rebounds.

Strategically speaking, the sample size of games to help explain how Gasol and Howard have proved to D'Antoni that they can work well together is small. The pair have been featured as L.A.'s primary options just once—in the first game of the post-Kobe Bryant era against the San Antonio Spurs on April 14.

Howard played brilliantly in that game, tallying 26 points and 17 boards, but Gasol shot just 3-of-17 and registered only two assists. That contest can't tell us very much.

But there have been signs over the past few weeks that have better indicated just what the pair have done to show D'Antoni their value as a duo.

Gasol has finally been put in a position to make decisions on offense, a decision which D'Antoni should have done a long time ago. He's a terrific passer, and previous experiments that had him functioning as a perimeter shooter or a second post-up option alongside Howard were abject failures.

Gasol can work on the block when Howard sits, but when the two play together, using the clever veteran as a facilitator is the best way to go. Watch as he finds Howard here:

There's something else that makes this play work, and it's as important to this discussion as anything: Howard is healthy enough to go up and get Gasol's lob.

Now, with both bigs in the best physical condition they've been in all season, L.A. has had the ability to incorporate more plays like this one. Plus, the Lakers have been involving Gasol in more pick-and-roll situations, which has allowed him to catch the ball at the elbow with the defense scrambling to decide between rushing him and sticking close to Howard for fear of a weak-side lob.

So, improved health has helped Gasol and Howard play well lately. Plus, the Lakers are otherwise out of options on offense, now that Bryant is down and Steve Nash has been hobbled for a couple of weeks. D'Antoni has really had no choice but to shift his team's focus onto his twin towers.

With one game remaining against the smaller, faster Houston Rockets, the effectiveness of L.A.'s bigs will be severely tested. Mismatches will abound, and the Lakers will rely on Gasol and Howard more heavily than ever to exploit their size advantages.

It's a good thing the pair have finally started to play well together, but there's also a chance that the Lakers' recent decision to go big will be too little, too late.