Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is wrestling with the idea of bringing Pau Gasol off the bench, and the four-time All-Star is not embracing the thought of a potential demotion.
Gasol was a substitute Thursday after missing five games with a concussion. Earl Clark started at power forward in Gasol’s place in the Lakers’ 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat.
D’Antoni initially framed the lineup shift as a decision based on Gasol’s conditioning and said on Thursday the Spaniard would “probably” return to the starting lineup Sunday when the Lakers begin a three-game road trip in Toronto.
The coach changed his tune a bit on Friday when discussing Gasol’s role.
“My job is to put the best team on the floor,” D’Antoni said after admitting that he had not yet decided if Gasol or Clark would start against the Raptors. “If I feel like (starting Gasol is) the best way to go, then we’ll go that way. If I don’t, it’s nothing personal. It’s just that I got to do what I think is right. I think every player has to accept what is right, whether they like it or not. So, that’s the bottom line.
“Now, does he deserve to start? Yeah, he does. He’s been here a long time and probably that will happen, but if it doesn’t, then you know what? You got to go on. You got to contribute. You got teammates to think about. You got the Lakers to think about. You got to do whatever is best for the Lakers. Whether we agree or not, then that’s something else, we can agree to disagree. My job is to try to get the best team on the floor all the time and make it work. That doesn’t mean I’m not including him. I just mean, that’s my job.”
Gasol, who helped the Lakers win back-to-back championships alongside Kobe Bryant, stated why he should continue to remain with the first unit.
“I’ve never come off the bench in my career,” Gasol said. “(Thursday) was my first game off the bench with the Lakers, maybe a couple other games due to injuries, but that’s it. I’ve been a starter my entire career. I’ve been a star starter my entire career, so I want to continue to be a star starter.”
Gasol was in the starting lineup for the first 345 games he played with the Lakers before coming off the bench against Miami. The 12-year veteran has started 815 of the 822 games he’s played in his career.
When Gasol started the first 25 games he played in this season, he was a far cry from the “star starter” he’s been in the past. Gasol is averaging career lows in points per game (12.2) and field goal percentage (42.0 percent) this season.
D’Antoni told reporters that who starts is inconsequential.
“Starting does not matter,” D’Antoni said. “Starting does not matter, so, that’s kind of a moot point. Now, the last 10 minutes of the game or eight minutes of a game, that matters.”
Gasol had 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting along with four rebounds and four assists against the Heat. He played just 25 minutes, but was on the court for all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter.
“I think the finishing is more important,” Gasol agreed. “I think the best players should finish off games. That’s just the way it’s got to be. When the game is on the line, you want to be on the floor. That’s more important.”
Still, Gasol did not sound comfortable relinquishing his starting spot.
“I guess,” Gasol said when asked if he would accept coming off the bench but still playing the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward. “There’s ways to work it out if it’s absolutely necessary or mandatory.”
One Lakers big man who is clearly entrenched in the starting lineup is Dwight Howard.
While Howard’s spot with the first five won’t change, former Laker Robert Horry would like the center’s demeanor to. Horry, now an analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, told ESPNLA 710 radio’s “Max & Marcellus Show” this week that Howard needs to be “more focused” and needs to drop his all-smiles act.
What does D’Antoni think of the criticism?
“One, I don’t think about it,” D’Antoni said. “Two, I don’t think it’s fair. Three, that’s cool, it makes nice talk and stuff but everybody is his own personality. If you want him to be something else, he’s not going to be that.
“So, he’s productive. He’s the three-time defensive player of the year. He’s been to the Finals. Can he make some more steps? Yeah. He can get better. He’s working hard every day. But, don’t beat up somebody because he’s a fun-loving kind of guy and then beat up on the guy that’s snarly and has a bad a scowl on his face. He is who he is. He’s a good person and that’s all you can go from. Somebody may like it, somebody may not, but that’s the way it is.”
Horry’s comments only provided more material for Howard to joke about. When Howard approached a pack of reporters on Friday he announced, “Nobody better smile, Robert Horry said not to,” before sitting down to answer questions.