The Lakers' unexpected early-season downfall, including a 10-14 record and the firing of former Coach of the Year Mike Brown after only five games, has overshadowed everything else going on in the NBA, which is an especially powerful statement when you consider that basketball mecca New York City has two highly news-worthy happenings this season with the Knicks' rise to 17-5 and the historic appearance of a franchise in Brooklyn.
Everyone is looking for culprits, saying neither LA coach so far has utilized the team's talent correctly (Mike D'Antoni is also a former Coach of the Year winner), Dwight Howard's missed free throws are getting in the way, they lack a true PG while Steve Nash is sidelined (Chris Duhon: 44% from downtown, league-leading 3.9-to-0.9 assist-to-turnover rate), or their bench is awful. Something that also gets mentioned occasionally is that Pau Gasol is having a down year and the franchise should maybe think of trading him.
This last point about Gasol's ho-hum 12th season might be far more important than many fans realize. This is because the Lakers' success for six straight years has closely followed that of their multi-talented big man. Let's examine how LA has been following Gasol's lead all this time.
The Lakers were coming off three throw-away seasons, averaging 40-42 over that period and never finishing with more than 45 victories or a first-round exit from the playoffs. They already had Kobe Bryant in place, Phil Jackson in place, Lamar Odom in place, and teenager Andrew Bynum was just getting his toes wet in the league. It doesn't seem worth mentioning at first, but they also had Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmanovic, Ronny Turiaf, and Sasha Vujacic on the roster before 2007-08, which is significant because those five were all among the team's top-8 in minutes played in '07-08, plus Radmanovic started for the entire '08 playoffs and the other four constituted their only four reserves of note in that post-season run.
So with almost everything in place from an uneventful trio of years, what turned the Lakers into world-beaters in 2007-08? Kobe played and shot less in both the regular and post-season, so don't look to his MVP Award as the reason. There were only two significant changes. 1) Derek Fisher came back to town. 2) Andrew Bynum's career took off. With the big man averaging a double-double and 2.1 blocks per game, plus shooting 64%, LA was suddenly 25-11 by mid-January. Then he got hurt and the Lakers fell back to that .500 record they had been sporting the previous three years, going 5-5 over their next 10 contests.
At that point, with the Lakers relatively reeling without the presence of a dominant big man, LA was famously handed All-Star Pau Gasol on a silver platter, and they went 22-4 the rest of the way with him in the lineup (including a season-high 10-game winning streak), and a strikingly familiar 5-5 without him while he was injured in late-March. The Lakers entered the playoffs as the West's #1 seed, trampled over the West all the way to the Finals before succumbing to the Celtics whose non-elite players were panned even worse than the Lakers' before the season started. Throughout those playoffs, Gasol shot a team-best 53%, blocked a team-best 1.9 shots, grabbed a team-best 2.6 offensive rpg, had a team-second-best 9.3 total rpg (Odom, 10.0), and a team-second-best 4.0-to-2.1 ast-to-tov rate (Fisher, 2.5-to-1.0). Long story short: A consistently .500 team without Gasol won 85% of their contests and went all the way to the Finals with his awesomely multi-dimensional game.
The roster was very similar to the year before, except now Gasol suited up for the Lakers for the entire season and played the most minutes on the team. His 57% FG was easily a team-best, his 10 rpg were easily a team-best, and his passing remained absolutely elite for a big man. Bynum played half a season while averaging 14 ppg, 8 rpg, and 1.8 bpg, but having Gasol for an entire season is what propelled the team to 65-17. The Lakers quickly got to the Finals past an injury-plagued conference and league. Gasol earned many kudos in the Western Finals, single-handedly taming the Nuggets killer frontline of Nene, Chris Andersen, Carmelo Anthony, and Kenyon Martin that had just laid waste to Dallas and got labeled as “thugs” for how physically they controlled the paint.
In the Finals, LA faced the Magic who completely rode Dwight Howard through the playoffs while All-Star PG Jameer Nelson rested his torn right shoulder. Facing the unparalleled best big man in the game, Gasol wowed in the Finals, averaging 19 ppg on 12 shots/game (60% FG), 9.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg, and a team-high 2.2-to-1.0 assist-to-turnover rate. Over the entire playoffs, Gasol's contribution was immensely valuable, averaging 18 ppg on 58% shooting (team-best by a mile), 11 rpg (team-best by a mile), 2.0 bpg (team-best by a mile), and team-second-best 2.5 apg. The Lakers won the title, in very large part because of how well Gasol neutralized Howard (who was held to a very-low-for-him 49% shooting in the series). By the way, Gasol's only bad game in the Finals resulted in the Lakers' only loss. Long story short: With even more Gasol now than the year before, the Lakers' record and playoffs success improved, all while he drew the club's toughest assignment in each of the last two rounds of the playoffs.
Gasol had another monster season, averaging 18 ppg on 54% FG, 11.3 rpg (3.7 offensive), 1.7 bpg, and 3.4 apg. As we've just seen from his first few years in LA, this correlated rather well with the Lakers' 57-25 finish. Gasol missed 17 games as the only starter out of the lineup, and the club took a slight dip from winning 71% of their games with him (46-19) to 65% of their games without (11-6). It should be noted that when he returned to the Lakes on November 19, they went on their longest winning streak of the year, and he carried the team through their toughest 5-game stretch of the season in February (4 clubs who finished over .600) while Kobe was benched with an injury, earning an improbably 4 double-digit victories and a single-point loss to the thriving Celtics.
In the playoffs, Gasol again posted team-best numbers in many categories: FG% (54%), rpg (11), offensive rpg (4.0), bpg (2.1), and only Ron Artest topped his 3.5-to-1.9 assist-to-turnover rate (Artest: 2.1-to-1.1). In the Finals against the Celtics, whose defense was ridiculously strong, the Lakers shooting percentage dropped horribly to 41% for the series, in a large part because they held Kobe to 40%. Gasol was the Lakers' defensive anchor, rebounding anchor, best shooter, and best passer. After Boston's Kendrick Perkins was injured by Andrew Bynum in Game Six, Gasol dominated the paint for the final game-and-a-half, recorded a 19-18 in Game Seven, and the Lakers won the title. It wasn't just that the Lakers' title-run again mirrored Gasol's statistical success, but they actually peaked and plummeted as he did. His best games were almost always wins; his worst games were often losses. Long story short: Not only did another great season by Gasol match up perfectly with more Laker success, but the team dipped when he didn't play, and the result of each Finals game pretty much matched his level of play perfectly.
Gasol's play and stats were similar to the year before, but we realize now that he was starting to slip a bit (his numbers were down slightly, a trend that has continued since '10-11), but the generally healthy Lakers again finished the year at 57-25, and again Gasol was first or second on the team in nearly everything.
Where we really start to see how closely the Lakers piggyback on Gasol's success, however, is in the 2011 playoffs. The big man was suddenly shooting terribly (42% compared to 54% in '10), his scoring fell (19.6 to 13.1), his rebounding fell (7.8 compared to 11.1), and the blocks dropped (1.7 to 2.1). Gasol was noticeably more lethargic and less aggressive. Rumors swirled that Gasol and Bryant weren't talking because of some tiff between their significant others, and the Lakers ended up showing no fight in a second-round sweep at the hands of the Mavericks after needing 6 games just to get past the 46-36, David West-less Hornets. Of Gasol's 5 worst games in the playoffs, 4 resulted in losses. Long story short: Gasol had a good regular season – so did the Lakers. Gasol had a bad playoffs – so did the Lakers. When Gasol was particularly awful in playoff games – so were the Lakers. All perfectly in sync.
Gasol's shooting continued to fall (50%, still second-best on the team), as did his assertiveness in the paint (offensive rebounds and blocks both dropped). Fans didn't need to look at any stats to notice his impact was less than previous seasons, but the numbers do support his slow-down. One of his best stretches of the season, however, occurred in April when Kobe missed 7 games; Gasol suddenly came back to life and averaged 21 ppg, 10 rpg, 5 apg, and 1.4 blocks as the club went 5-2. But with a less inspired Gasol for most of the regular season, the Lakers' winning ways slowed down, coming out the victors in 62% of their games (41-25), after three years of 70% or better while Gasol was in top form.
They made it into the playoffs as the 3 seed, limped past a star-less Denver team in 7, and then got blown out by the Thunder in Round Two. Gasol was generally listless – not to the same degree as 2011, but still not nearly the same guy who played on the Lakers teams that went to the Finals and won titles. He played only 4 unquestionably good games in the 2012 playoffs, and the Lakers won 3 of them. Long story short: Gasol got noticeably worse at 31, and the Lakers also got noticeably worse. His uninspiring playoff performances also matched the Lakers' uninspiring playoffs, and his few good post-season games again were paired up with strong team outings.
Gasol has missed 7 games due to knee problems so far, and the Laker team that was 8-9 has since gone 2-5, mercifully pulling two out against the Wizards and Anthony Davis-less Hornets. Even with Kobe playing his most efficient ball ever, Gasol has been hard pressed to put together a solid all-around game. He's shooting a terrible 42%, and his points, rebounds, blocks, and assists are all down. Long story short: As Gasol becomes more inconsistent and does less things well, the Lakers also show less consistency and are more vulnerable to more types of teams.