The 2013-14 NBA season is shaping up to be the most important of the last decade for Pau Gasol, if not the most important of his entire career. Gasol's first foray into free agency, on the cusp of his 34th birthday, awaits him next July.
Indeed, Gasol, in his 12 years as a pro in North America, has never been truly free to dictate his own terms. In October of 2004, Pau put pen to paper on a six-year extension with the Memphis Grizzlies. He was traded to the Lakers three-and-a-half years later and inked a three-year extension with the club in December of 2009, months before he was due to hit the market.
Not surprisingly, the whip-smart Spaniard seems fully aware of what's at stake for him, personally, during the Los Angeles Lakers' upcoming campaign, as told to the Associated Press (h/t Sports Illustrated):
I have a great motivation. It's the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.
This all wouldn't be quite so big a deal if Gasol wasn't fresh off a three-year stretch in which his productivity and effectiveness declined considerably. He suffered a particularly precipitous drop last season, when he missed a career-worst 33 games due to knee and foot injuries and averaged personal lows in points (13.7), field-goal attempts (11.8), and field-goal percentage (.466) in those he played.
Part of the drop-off might justifiably be attributed to Gasol's advancing age. He's on the wrong side of 30 (and then some) and has racked up nearly 35,000 minutes of on-court time between the regular season and the playoffs to this point, in addition to the many summers he's sacrificed in service of the Spanish national team.
Still, even Father Time can't completely explain the slip in Gasol's scoring and rebounding numbers. He may not jump as high or run as fast as he used to (as if he ever did either all that well), but Gasol's still seven feet tall, with a superb skill set built on nifty passing and a feathery touch in the post which should know no temporal decay.
A closer look at Gasol's shooting charts over the years reveals a different culprit for the decline. Here's a look at a map of Pau's shot distribution from the 2009-10 season, which culminated with his Lakers beating out the Boston Celtics for the title:
Notice how more than two-thirds (67.1 percent) of his attempts came within close range of the basket. About a fifth of his shots (18.9 percent) came from either the left or the right block—nothing out of the ordinary for a big man who's as deft a low-post presence as Gasol.
Now, check out what happens to his shot distribution in 2010-11:
Gasol took more shots close to the basket in 2010-11 (661) than he did in 2009-10 (566), but they constituted a smaller portion of the overall pie. Andrew Bynum missed 28 games with assorted knee problems that season, thereby necessitating that Gasol shoot more. What's curious, though, is the extent to which Gasol's shot chart started drifting toward the perimeter, slowly but surely.
This wasn't by accident. That year, the Lakers began a concerted effort to feature Bynum in the offense more often.
Gasol was usually the one asked to sacrifice the most for Bynum's sake. After all, they essentially played the same position (center) and, in turn, occupied many of the same spaces on the floor. Pau—the good-natured, team-first guy that he is—obliged whenever 'Drew was healthy enough to play.
Hence, the unsightly coupling of a rise in Gasol's long-two attempts and decline in his short-range shots when sharing the floor with Bynum.
This trend continued en force the following season, when Mike Brown took a post-lockout crack at filling the Zen Master's shoes:
In doing so, Brown delivered a crushing blow to Gasol's credibility and confidence. Bynum officially took over as Option 1 in the low-post in 2011-12. He topped Gasol in points (18.7 to 17.4) and rebounds (11.8 to 10.4) while taking nearly as many shots (13.3 to 14.1).
More importantly, Bynum attempted just over 50 percent more shots from close range (668) than did Gasol (445).
Meanwhile, Gasol racked up more attempts away from the rim than he did close to it for the first time in his career. Jump shots became the order of the day for Pau, with Bynum's well-being in mind.
The result? Bynum was voted into the 2012 All-Star Game as the starting center for the Western Conference. Gasol, on the other hand, saw his scoring and shooting numbers decline and his three-year streak of All-Star appearances snap.
But the worst was yet to come. A summer spent carrying Spain to the gold-medal game at the 2012 London Olympics exacted a heavy toll on Gasol's knees. He showed up to camp in poor shape and, to make matters more difficult, was forced to free up even more space in the middle for an unfamiliar face, thanks to the Lakers' August acquisition of one Dwight Howard.
On the one hand, the share of Gasol's close-range shots crept back over 50 percent. On the other hand, nearly 20 percent of his shots came from the top of the key, another 12.3 percent were launched from the elbows, and three-pointers started to become actual shots for Pau to try.
The picture only grew uglier for Pau when isolating his shot distribution with Dwight on the court:
It's no wonder, then, that Gasol's efficiency plummeted. He spent so much time next to Howard, whose mere presence dictated that Pau would have to launch a ton of inefficient 18-to-20-footers to ease the Lakers' spacing issues.
Gasol's knee, foot and Dwight problems didn't make it any easier for him to convert his most frequent attempts into points, either, as his shot performance chart from 2012-13 suggests:
And thus, with the torrential confluence of circumstance—including Mike Brown's abrupt firing and Mike D'Antoni's surprising hire—and poor health, a forgettable (and, in some ways, regrettable) season was born for Gasol.
But things are looking up for Pau nowadays. He'll have not only the middle of the floor to himself again (more or less), but also the lion's share of the responsibility for his team's performance for the first time since he last suited up for the Grizzlies. The 2013-14 season, then, should be the perfect opportunity for Pau to prove that he's still an All-Star-caliber center, that his recent "decline" was more the product of poor conditions than it was of irreversible aging.
And just in time to earn himself a new contract, too. The magnitude of the opportunity hasn't been lost on Gasol:
I think I have the most uncertain period behind me. The team has suffered a lot of changes, but as far as me, I am back in the position of a lot of responsibility, which I like, and I'm just going to focus on getting healthy.
As well he should. Gasol underwent a combination of surgery and stem-cell treatment on both of his knees earlier in the offseason to alleviate the pain thereabouts. He's just now ratcheting up the intensity of his rehab and workouts, but should be ready to go by the open of training camp:
These next two months are the key months to find out how they really are.
A healthy Pau should also be a happy one, too. In theory, he won't have to settle so frequently for mid-range jumpers without the impetus to appease a Bynum or a Howard next to him. At long last, Gasol can get back to being the super-skilled, championship-caliber center that he was not so long ago:
Now with Dwight gone I am the reference inside and I am more like I was a couple of years back when we made the finals three straight times and won two straight championships.
Even more so with Kobe out and Nash's 40th birthday approaching, as the latter is still on the mend from an injury suffered last Halloween. Surely, a roster that'll lean so heavily on the likes of Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks could use Gasol's expertise as a hub through which to run the Lakers' offense.
What with winning still being on the agenda and all.
Of course, this is all assuming that Mike D'Antoni will (know how to) let Pau do his thing. D'Antoni has long been an outspoken critic of the post-up (h/t Lakers.com), claiming that the pick-and-roll is the better way to go.
In today's game, this is largely true, unless you have a back-to-the-basket savant like Gasol at your disposal. In that case, it would behoove the Lakers to allow their most important piece—at the moment—to play to his considerable strengths.
Not that they didn't at all last year. The Lakers, with their two All-Star pivots, were among the most efficient low-post teams, as was Gasol among the most efficient low-post players:
So, when D'Antoni tells Mark Willard and Mychal Thompson on ESPN Radio 710 in LA that he's expecting big things from his big man, it seems reasonable to suspect that he won't be asking Pau to jack up 20-footers to the extent that he did last season (h/t Serena Winters of Lakers Nation):
No more trying to turn Gasol into a "stretch-4." No more bringing him off the bench.
Gasol, to his credit, seems to understand why D'Antoni did what he did last season, even if he didn't always agree with his coach's tactics:
"D'Antoni "had a tough position, I had a tough position,'' Gasol said. "I had a job to do, he had a job to do, so there really is no mystery. I know he had challenges. It was a very challenging season. Next season is a different one and a new chapter. So we'll start out fresh and do our best.''
It'll be a fresh start for Gasol in nearly every way—from his relationship with his coach to his role on the team to the condition of his body. The prospect of a healthy and happy Gasol, who'll be motivated as much by the uncertainty of his future as by a desire to prove he's still a star, should lift the spirits of forlorn Lakers fans and strike some semblance of fear into the hearts of LA's opponents.
And, if all goes according to plan, it will render Pau's first try at free agency a highly rewarding experience.