Commentary

Pau Gasol's return leaves questions

Big man back from injury, but Lakers still far from figuring out best use for him

Updated: December 19, 2012, 3:51 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- So Pau Gasol came back Tuesday night.

And ... not much looked all that different for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sure, they won, beating the lowly Charlotte Bobcats 101-100. It was their third victory in a row, even. But if anyone thought the eight-game break Gasol took to rest his sore knees would give the Lakers and new coach Mike D'Antoni time to iron out and define Gasol's role in this uptempo offense, there wasn't much in the way of clarity coming out of Tuesday's game.

If anything, the way the Lakers used Gasol on this night raised more questions than existed before he took a break. Namely, can Gasol and Dwight Howard play together? Will they even be given a chance to?

I'm not talking about a trade, although that will loom as a possibility for as long as the Lakers continue to struggle. No, it's a whole lot more literal than that at this point because of the way D'Antoni staggered Gasol and Howard's minutes Tuesday.

If it seemed as if they weren't on the court much together, that wasn't a coincidence. It just might be how it's going to be for the Lakers going forward.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPau Gasol had 10 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in 29 minutes during his return from injury for the Lakers.

"They probably won't be," Kobe Bryant said bluntly when asked about the Lakers' two post players' lack of side-by-side playing time.

"We did the same thing a few years ago with Andrew [Bynum] and Pau. In the Triangle Pau was never comfortable playing the forward position. Andrew was a center so a lot of times we just split 'em. They both would start, then Andrew would come out and Pau would take center and we'd kind of rotate them out."

Bryant says he thinks this can be an advantage for the Lakers.

"Yeah, we can come out you in waves with two great post players," he said.

But Gasol didn't quite seem on board with the idea just yet.

"We'll see," said Gasol, who finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes but made just three of his 10 shots.

"I think it's good that we spend some time together on the court and also apart so I can play a little more center and closer to the basket. But we have to find a balance and the right rotations and timings out there where we can exploit our size when we're together and also give each other some rest.

"We're two talented players and we can overpower people. You're talking about two top big guys in the league, you should take advantage of it."

After the game, D'Antoni wasn't ready to say this is the new world order, either. But watching the way Gasol and Howard subbed in and out of the game for each other in the second half Tuesday, it sure looked as if this was one of the many experiments he was going to try.

"It's our job to figure out a way for them to play together because they're both really good," D'Antoni said. "We could have two 7-footers and have something that people don't have.

"We got to figure that out, and as Pau gets more comfortable and in shape, we will figure it out to a certain extent. I don't know how much. I think they can coexist."

Thinking and knowing Gasol and Howard can coexist in this system is still a huge question for the Lakers. And it's another one of the issues that's not really fair to judge until Steve Nash returns from injury, possibly as soon as this weekend. And even then, it's probably going to take a few games for Nash to make his mark.

So until then, the experiments will continue. Metta World Peace might start as a small forward one night or come off the bench as a power forward as he did Tuesday. Devin Ebanks might start the first half, come out after five minutes, then never get off the bench. Antawn Jamison might star one night, then take a DNP-CD as he did against the Bobcats. D'Antoni might play 10 guys or seven.

"We're all basketball players," Bryant said. "We moved Metta down to the 4, but he's a basketball player. He does everything anyway."

But can't experimenting become unsettling?

"Yeah, but the thing about Mike that's different from a lot of coaches is when you get your minutes, you have the green light to be aggressive," Bryant said. "It's not like you go in there for four or five minutes and you're reluctant to shoot to be aggressive. You have the green light. Antawn didn't play tonight but when he gets in there he'll have the green light to shoot and be aggressive, same thing with Devin. So it's not like we can't get in rhythm."

It's not as if they can't, but so far they haven't. Which, in and of itself, is unsettling this deep into a season that began with such promise and in the middle of a week that began on a high note.

Yes, the Lakers have won three in a row to improve to 12-14 on the season. Gasol is back and Nash is right behind him. Stability is coming. Success still might be. But where this is all heading, well, that's still out of focus.

"We do see some light at the end of the tunnel," D'Antoni said Tuesday morning. "Hopefully it's not a train coming at us. Hopefully it's some good stuff."

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