The Los Angeles Lakers were dealt a tough blow to their title chances on Sunday. Not only did they lose game four of their first round series to the Phoenix Suns, giving them back homecourt advantage for the final three games of the series, but they also lost Anthony Davis to a strained groin injury. All signs point to Davis missing Tuesday’s game five and the speculation is that his only chance of returning in this series is if it goes to won-or-go-home game seven this Saturday.
In the meantime, they will have to overcome this challenge through the rest of their squad. The Lakers are about as well-equipped as one could ask to handle Davis’ absence because of LeBron James, but even LeBron will need some help to beat a great Suns team that seems to be getting healthier.
That help could come in the form of the big Spaniard. Marc Gasol, who did not see the floor in the game one loss in Phoenix, has been a difference-maker in the next three games and could be thrust into an even bigger role on Tuesday.
Gasol’s spacing has been a revelation for a Lakers’ team that is struggling immensely from behind the arc. It also gives a completely different look to their offense than any lineups featuring Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, and even Anthony Davis. Most importantly, the big man has combined well with James; with Davis out of the lineup, maximizing LeBron should be the priority.
In fact in the 16 minutes that Gasol has shared with James and none of the other three centers on the floor (11 of which came in game four), the Lakers have outscored the Suns by 30.7 points per 100 possessions over the course of the postseason. On the other hand, in 20 minutes that James has only had Drummond as a partner in the frontcourt, the Lakers have been outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions.
Now, we are talking about minuscule sample sizes here but that’s the available data that we have. And it seems to point to the conclusion that Gasol might make more sense as a starter over Drummond if Davis indeed can’t go. Beyond the numbers, the logic also makes sense: Gasol can pull Deandre Ayton away from the rim because of the threat of his shooting and give James the space to drive to the rim, something he has been hesitant to do at times this season. That can collapse the defense and give more room to Lakers shooters who probably need a big game to get a win.
There are risks to this decision but not any that should sway Vogel’s opinion. Yes, Gasol is not much of a threat to roll to the basket after setting screens and certainly isn’t one to catch lobs but Drummond is only marginally better, not to mention Gasol’s post ups can create shots if the offense breaks down. Similarly, Gasol has struggled against Chris Paul and Devin Booker pick and rolls at times but beyond Davis, none of the Lakers bigs will completely shut that down; Gasol’s impact defensively is probably still much higher than that of his fellow frontcourt members. Plus, the changed rotation could give Drummond an opportunity to feast on the glass against the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Torrey Craig to still give the Lakers that paint advantage that was crucial to the Lakers’ game two and three wins.
There is room for both Gasol and Drummond to contribute heavily while Davis sits out. Even Harrell, who arguably has the best offensive chemistry of the bunch with James, could play a part in certain moments. It’s up to Vogel and the coaching staff to determine what situations are optimal to get the most out of each one. Starting Gasol could be the first step of that process.