Pau Gasol’s Struggles Can Be Found Outside The Painted Area
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, Pau Gasol had decent enough numbers as he recorded 19 points on six-for-11 shooting with five rebounds and three assists. Considering the way things have gone for Gasol this year, this was ostensibly a fantastic game for the big man — only if you’re taking the box score into consideration. Tuesday night was a game that Gasol should have dominated with the only rim protector in the Suns’ starting lineup being Miles Plumlee (who, all things considered, is actually having a fantastic sophomore season). Instead, it was another frustrating night watching as he struggled in situations he tried to create offense for himself.

Gasol started off the game missing a jump hook from seven feet out on the Lakers first possession of the game followed by a missed diving layup as the lane was cleared by Steve Blake driving to the basket following a P&R set with Kobe. The jump hook was missed because Gasol allowed Plumlee to push him off his spot (a good five feet up the line away from the block) and the layup was missed because — well, it was just missed. Gasol finally got on the board with a wide open dunk in transition as no one on the Suns accounted for him on the break, leaving him wide open running down the middle of the floor. Gasol scored his next basket when Plumlee let a rebound slip out of his hands and into the hands of Gasol right next to the rim, another gift. Here are Gasol’s final seven shot attempts:

  1. A made 17-foot jumper from straight away after a pick-and-pop set with Steve Blake
  2. A made 17-foot jumper from straight away with time expiring at the end of the second quarter
  3. A missed 10-footer from the right baseline after a Kobe Bryant pass from the top of the key
  4. A missed turn around fadeaway from near the left elbow in isolation
  5. A blocked jump hook on the left block by Markieff Morris
  6. A made jump hook from five feet after a Steve Blake entry pass
  7. A made dunk with 22 seconds after the game had essentially been decided

Gasol also scored seven of his 19 points from the free throw line. The over-arching theme for Gasol’s struggles on the offensive end have been the collective location of his shot selection. More than any other time in his tenure as a Laker, Gasol is taking shots away from the rim and outside of the paint. Gasol was tasked with becoming a shooter last season when Mike D’Antoni was first brought on, but has not been regulated as a stretch four by any means this year. During a practice last week, after being asked about Gasol’s struggles with his jump shot, D’Antoni quipped, “[Pau] can always move closer to the basket, that’s on him.”

Last season, Gasol’s struggles were directly related to coaching. This year, Gasol’s struggles are directly related to where he’s taking the bulk of his shots. Gasol is only taking 48.9 percent of his shots in the 0 to 9-foot range this season, which is 7.6 percent fewer shots near the rim than a season in which his coach actively encouraged him to shoot mid range jump shots, and because of this, Gasol has been the least efficient of his career shooting the ball with an eFG% of 42.2.

The graph below tracks the percentage of shots taken in the paint and the eFG% of every power forward and center who is playing at least 15 minutes per game in the NBA this season. The yellow marks are each of the seven seasons Gasol has played for the Lakers and the red marks are guys who were all stars in the 2012-13 season. Hover over each mark on the graph for player names, their eFG% and the respective percentage of total shots that player has taken from 0 to 9 feet this season.

(The league average for eFG% among bigs 50.82 and the league average for percentage of shots taken inside the paint is 62.23.)

What you can immediately gather from these numbers is that Gasol’s four most efficient seasons as a Laker, he shot anywhere between 66 and 77 percent of his shots around the basket. In his past three seasons, Gasol has seen that number drop to 56.7 to 56.5 and now 48.9 percent this season. What these three seasons have in common are the absence of Phil Jackson. And while the triangle offense is a huge reason for some of Gasol’s past successes, a decline was imminent as Gasol turned 30 in his last really good season, and has seen a steady decline in years 31 through 33. What hasn’t changed, however, is the direct correlation between the number of shots Gasol takes near the rim and his subsequent success — or lack thereof.

This, however, isn’t true for all of the bigs in the league despite how much sense it makes. There are several players whose eFG% is well under the league average for bigs while the percentage of shots taken at the rim are well over the league average (read: Ian Mahinmi and Zaza Pachulia). On the flip side, there are bigs who have been considerably efficient shooting the ball despite taking a small percentage of their shots around the rim (Ryan Anderson, Dirk Nowitzki and Channing Frye all fit this mold).

For Gasol to turn things around, the onus is essentially on himself. Gasol has been put in the same P&R situations as Jordan Hill who is shooting 83.8 percent of his shots near the rim (albeit a lot of his shot attempts come off of offensive rebounds), but Gasol doesn’t dive nearly as often as Hill in either high or side P&R sets. The pick-and-pop has become a staple in Gasol’s diet of shot attempts instead of eating near the basket — where he was essentially asking for more touches last season. The complete fix for Gasol’s struggles this season aren’t as easy as just taking more shots in the paint as he’s been dealing with injuries and inconsistent point guard play, but if he’s going to start anywhere, it has to be near the basket.

(Corey Hansford helped with the data collection for this post. Statistical support for this post was provided by NBA.com, basketball-reference.com, and NBAwowy.com.)
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