Wednesday night’s 101-99 loss to the Rockets exposed a larger problem than three straight home losses: Pau Gasol hasn't fit in with the Spurs yet. While many predicted the mismatch given his defensive limitations, age, and redundancy to LaMarcus Aldridge on offense, the pain from Duncan’s retirement forced people to embrace hiS potential.
Gasol still has something left in the tank. But what he can provide is a version of what Aldridge already brings. Gasol has a dependable midrange jumper, crafty post moves, and is a good high-low passer. But with Aldridge out there, those needs are saturated and what’s left is a questionable defender without a role on offense.
Wednesday night, in a close game with the Rockets, Popovich used Pau for all of 12 minutes.
In contrast, the second unit has two bigs that complement each other very well. Dewayne Dedmon brings offensive rebounding, athleticism, and the rim protection David Lee lacks, and Lee creates on offense. Dedmon is comfortable exclusively screening and rolling on offense, whereas Lee can handle the ball, drive, and play the pick and pop game. Playing two bigs can still be effective, but it has to be the right combination.
Gasol has been most effective when Aldridge steps out to the perimeter, creating, a) space for Gasol to operate and, b) room for off-ball cutters. Watch below as Gasol gets an isolation opportunity, and Aldridge is used as a screener:
The play starts with Kawhi feeding Pau and then moving away from the wing towards the top of key. Fundamental to an effective post game is having the passer move after the entry. Whether it be cutting to the basket, screening away, or simply shifting to another spot on the perimeter as Leonard does here, moving after the entry pass makes it much harder to double team the post. This is because Kawhi’s defender, James Harden, not only would be leaving Leonard open in order to double, but he also doesn’t know where Kawhi is cutting to so he is forced to shadow him. If a post-passer stands still, a defender can double team and know exactly where he needs to closeout to.
As this happens, Danny Green fakes a pin screen, where you screen a defender who is in help position. Notice Patty Mills is in the corner, and Trevor Ariza is on the block in help. Danny Green shielding Ariza on the block leaves Patty Mills open for a skip pass and three. In Read and React basketball, this is called a Pin and Skip.
Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer decide to switch as Green fades to the corner and Patty Mills moves towards the wing. Pause the video at the four second mark and you can see Brewer in the headband position himself at high post where he can account for Mills and still be in position to help on Gasol if he spins into the middle.
As Aldridge cuts down to set a pin-down screen for Danny Green, Patty Mills rides the wave of Aldridge’s movement and cuts backdoor. Brewer should be lower at the level of the ball, but he’s positioned himself to prevent a Mills three and help on Gasol. Mills takes advantage of this.
Watch again and notice Mills plants his right foot towards to the perimeter at the four second mark, which forces Brewer to slide up and be completely out of position as Mills cuts to the basket.
This off-ball motion is effective, but part of the equation is Aldridge being on the perimeter as a screener. Notice the black painted area is open the entire play. When Gasol and Aldridge are both in that space it limits what can be done, which is why we’ve seen so much Horns to pull the big men up towards the perimeter and unclog the lane.
It’s too early to draw conclusions about Pau Gasol and the Spurs. But Gasol has hurt teams defensively for multiple seasons now, and he still needs to show he can play within the flow of the Spurs’ offense. He’s still a threat on the block to score and pass, as this play demonstrates, but LaMarcus Aldridge is first in line to get those opportunities.