The Lakers believe Pau Gasol will have a larger role in the revamped offense. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The basketball zipped across the court at blazing speed. Before anyone could fully process how to defend it, Pau Gasol demonstrated his versatility in a split second.
He caught Steve Nash's pass in traffic. Just as defenders swarmed to him outside the paint, Gasol flicked the ball with a quick touch. His sharp vision ensured Dwight Howard received an open look inside. After a pump fake, Howard then slammed a two-handed dunk.
Howard's finishing slam understandably drew attention. He was practicing Thursday in full-court, five-on-five-on-five drills with limited contact. Though there's no firm date for his return to full speed, his dunk provided visual clues to how well his rehab from back surgery is going.
Instead, the play left Lakers Coach Mike Brown more excited about how Gasol's passing, court vision and unselfishness could play a huge part in enhancing his revamped system that involves elements of the Princeton offense.
"That touch pass he made to Dwight, are you kidding me?" Brown said well after his three-hour practice ended. "Forget making the pass. A lot of people that saw him make that pass, I guarantee you that half of us, including myself, didn't even think that Dwight was there and open. But the pass gets there. That's Pau Gasol."
As Gasol, Brown and teammates provided their version of the play, the recollections provided snippets on how they view the Lakers' forward. Howard touted the play as a simple byproduct of a loaded offense. Brown raved that "Pau is Steve Nash in the paint" and likened his versatility to Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Kobe Bryant argued "part of our offense that is understated right now is Pau's ability to make plays." Gasol? He simply complimented Howard's explosiveness, post presence and big hands before revealing, "I love giving assists more so than scoring sometimes."
But as far as what Gasol's ultimate role will be for the Lakers in the 2012-13 season? Brown gushed about Gasol's pick-and-roll execution, jump shooting, rebounding, passing and ball handling, but wouldn't outline what Gasol's jack-of-all trades role would entail.
"He's too good for me to be specific with him," Brown said. "He just does so much that I don't want to put a ceiling on him."
Yet, that's exactly what Gasol admitted at times he felt like last season where he averaged a career-low 17.4 points per game game for the season and 12.4 points per contest in the playoffs. Gasol believed those numbers reflected his being stuck in the role of facilitator to accommodate Bryant's scoring and Andrew Bynum's emergence. Part of that arrangement was related to Lamar Odom's absence. But many, including Magic Johnson, pointed the finger at Brown for misusing Gasol.
Though he maintained he had "no complaints" about Gasol's performance last season, Brown suggested at various times that Gasol could improve his play simply by showing more aggression. Bryant mentioned the same thing frequently, and immediately pointed out Gasol's passing up a shot that resulted in a turnover in the last minute of the Lakers' Game 4 loss to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.
After Thursday's practice however, Bryant put sole blame on Brown's offense.
"It's a matter of the system versus having a traditional pro set," Bryant said. "Last year, we made calls. We had to make calls. We ran down. Run a play for me. Run a play for Andrew. Run a play for Pau. It was tough to try to find that balance. In this type of system, you have ball movement and defense. That determines where the ball is going. You try to get the easiest shot possible. It enables us to be decision makers and play to our strengths."
Even though Gasol conceded he's uncertain exactly how he'll fit in to the new offense, he didn't sound too concerned.
"It will be a matter of being aggressive," Gasol said. "The offense is about reads and movement. If you're aggressive and make yourself available, you're going to have options."
In other words, the new offense taps right into what makes Gasol so good.
He thrives on team play. Gasol often likes to react to how the defense plays him instead of overly forcing his will. His background in the triangle offense allows him to tap into the elements of the Princeton offense, including proper spacing, passing and cutting.
"It's going to be a lot of looks with the movement and the quality of the players that will be out there," Gasol said. "That attracts a lot of attention. We'll have opportunities regardless, no matter what .... No player is worried about that, even though we have players who have the ability to score easily."
Howard quickly discovered that on Wednesday with Gasol's smooth touch pass. With the ball in his hands before the defense could react, Howard had plenty of room to operate for the dunk. And he had a teammate eager on making the right basketball play.