The 6th man represented something substantially different in the 80s, the hay day of a single, game changing, X-factor off of the bench. Granted, the player still focused on providing a scoring punch for the 2nd unit, completely altering the current face of the game, or shifting the pace of the contest to their favor. Yet, there seemed to be something more magical about these supporting cast members then. It could be the haze from the analog TV broadcasts and the crackling of the announcers’ voices, but the names on the jerseys struck fear in both defenses and offensive players.
Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson and Adrian Dantley, both incredibly talented and capable starters, galvanized an insanely deep Pistons team to the tune of two titles. Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis, replaced by his own understudy, AC Green, brought defense and rebounding, as well as timely Coop-Da-Loops, to the Great Western Forum as the each collected a combined 9 O’Brien’s for the “Showtime” Lakers. Bill Walton, once one of the centerpiece a Trailblazer title and member of the Wooden UCLA dynasty, headlined a gritty, blue collar Celtics bench chock full of elbows and exuberance. Even Kevin McHale, who often draws the role of comparative talent, the measure of versatile big men, came off of the pine to start his career.
Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Eddie Johnson, Del Curry, Toni Kukoc, Manu Ginobili, and James Harden all sacrificed the allure of a pre-game introduction washed in light and pyrotechnics for the good of the team. Look at the Clippers bench. It’s a relative who’s who of NBA talent that could easily start on a playoff bound or lottery team. Some of them are formerly of the Lakers 2nd unit, which, as usual, could use some resuscitation.
Paging Dr. Gasol. Can you report to the emergency room, please? Dr. Gasol.
International and NBA mega-talent Pau Gasol could turn the Lakers lackluster bench from a meandering mess of jump shots into a nightmare for opponents by giving it a purpose. Every offense needs a target, a legitimate threat for the ball to find its way to. Dwight spreads the floor because, once he gets the ball, his talent forces a decision. It is either collapse, foul, or hold on because the defender is going for a ride. Although Pau should spend his starting time in the high post exclusively as players cut and slash to the basket, it puts Steve and Kobe out of their element. Steve works best with the ball. Kobe can iso like no other. Plus, a defender doesn’t have to go far to double Dwight, which also puts them in favorable rebounding position if Pau does let loose a FT line jumper. Pau, capable of shooting from distance, also needs the ball in the paint, and there just isn’t enough room in the starting 5.
It seems dumb, since you always want the best five on the court at the same time, but look at the product. Under the Pringles system, it’s not working.
However, the guys off of the bench can make those cuts, give up the rock without compromising their talent, and eat repeatedly off of the chest-high passes Pau can deliver. Pau in the high or low post against a 2nd unit is how Phil would limit Drew’s minutes and make sure Pau stayed offensively relevant in the game. If Pau got going early, he would leave in Drew with 2nd unit and let him get some looks. Let’s be honest, this is a coach who made Judson Donald Buechler and William Percey Wennington legit threats due to careful planning and an offense that fit their skill sets. D’Antoni has done it before with Leandro Barbosa, and he has eyes on Pau making it happen again. Suddenly, Jamison and Jodie Meeks are wide open without the pressure of putting up all of the bench numbers. Duhon and Morris don’t have to run the O. Now, they can contribute. They don’t have to create. They can simply react.
Gasol’s move to the bench, although controversial because of the two incredibly huge paydays remaining on his contract and the fact that he opposes the move, makes absolute sense. Pau is a giver, not a taker. He studied to be a doctor. He relishes finding a player for a spectacular finish almost more than making them himself. He should be openly encouraged that this is a promotion, not a demotion. Lamar didn’t really want to do it either, but it worked out well for him. Furthermore, Pau is playing on two, count ‘em, two dodgy knees and was concussed with a recent elbow to the dome. Pau could use some time off for great summer behavior, leading his national team to the gold medal game and expected silver against the US. It matches his selfless approach to the game perfectly.
Pau doesn’t care about stats or touches as much. Even when he is “complaining” to the media about his use in the Pringles system, Pau comes off more like a commentator or analyst stating the obvious regarding his 7-foot frame and small forward capabilities. Sharing time with Howard does shrink the lane and push him to the perimeter, where he has been admirably extending his shooting range and making the necessary sacrifice. What is the alternative, Howard shooting threes? Even though he made one earlier in the year, flashing his hotly debated smile, most fans would prefer he make some FTs first, especially considering his recent charity stripe performance against the Heat. Pau and Dwight can play together; they don’t necessarily have to start out that way, but can move towards it as the game progresses. To end the 1st half, both big men can slow the pace of the game and dominate the paint as a warm down for an aging team going into the locker room. They can simultaneously tally that elusive 3rd foul on a frontcourt opponent. Dwight can start the 4th racking up PFs, so when Pau enters and moves into the block, they can’t foul as readily.
Pau to the pine can and should happen. At a point early in the 3rd quarter, as the Lakers valiantly tried to re-establish Dwight into the O, the Heat collapsed and the lob passes that earlier landed in his hands in the paint, suddenly led him to the short corners along the baseline. Dwight looked gassed, a result of his continuing back surgery rehabilitation. He hasn’t played in a long time, and back injuries aren’t exactly the easiest to bounce back from. At this point, put Pau on the court and change the focus of the defense. Granted, they would attack him in the post the exact same way, but Pau doesn’t need to operate solely in the post. He is lights out from the short corner. He can run a passing game out of the high or pinch post. He can run the show, using his incredible passing skills, from the top of the key. The defense suffers a bit because Dwight protects the paint better than everybody in the league, save Serge Ibaka, but the Heat won the game because of TOs leading to dunk contest warm-ups, not half court offense. LBJ was the only player undeterred by the Lakers in his quest for layups and kick outs. The Lakers concern needed to be on keeping pace with scoring and efficiency. They whittled their 16 TO 1st half to 4 in the 2nd, but consistent execution is why Miami won.
Pau gives the 2nd unit a focus, somewhere to go. As much as Dwight and his version of the Twin Towers clogs up the lane, Pau offers the Lakers another center to bring in with shooters to spread the court. It also gives the team versatility when an opponent decides they have seen enough PnRs between Gatsby and Superman, and begin the inevitable double team at the point of attack. With Pau, the Lakers can create new match ups, far more difficult to defend. Instead of constantly deconstructing his disadvantage, how he doesn’t work with Dwight, or how he is this type of player, or lacks that type of energy, the Lakers should ask themselves the obvious question: how can we best use Pau’s advantage?
It’s simple, and he is the perfect player to accomplish the task. Pau isn’t really keen on the idea, but he can do so much for the Lakers with this incredible sacrifice. Plus, it eliminates the push to trade him, which might garner some more future talent, but would sacrifice a shot at #17.
The window is closing. The choice is to win now, or hope to win later.