There has been heavy offseason speculation on how Fred Hoiberg plans to use Pau Gasol next year. Gasol was often featured in isolation post ups and pick and pops last year, but Hoiberg is a stronger proponent of a free-flowing, up-tempo offense. It's possible that Hoiberg might try to use Gasol as more of a stretch 5, and that might be a very good or bad idea depending on which spots Hoiberg has Gasol shoot from.
Whatever Hoiberg decides, Pau's role WILL change from last year. Hoiberg recently flew to Europe to meet personally with Gasol. Gasol told ESPN's Mark Woods about what the two discussed:
"[Hoiberg] wants us to play at a higher pace, with more flow, more freedom."
"Individually, we’ll see," Gasol said. "I don’t know exactly. I’m just going to try and bring what I usually bring and do my best to help our team have a better chance to fight for the championship."
Gasol's lukewarm reception to Hoiberg's philosophies is understandable. It has to be tough for Gasol to willingly accept a different role on next year's team given the individual success he had last year.
Gasol's Success Transitioning from the Lakers to the Bulls
A good reason not to change Gasol's role is that he was pretty damn good offensively last year. (Read Chris Terzic's summary for Blogabull on Gasol's year here)
It's hard to imagine now, but there were whispers around the league before last year's season started questioning how much Gasol had left in the tank - The Bulls managed to sign him for only $7.5M/yr after a 3 year stretch with the Lakers in which he averaged 24 missed games per season, his shooting and scoring numbers were all trending downward, and his defense was becoming a big problem.
Gasol responded to the doubters by turning in a true renaissance season as a featured option for Tom Thibodeau. At 34 years old, he played big minutes, stayed fairly healthy throughout the season, and put up gaudy (albeit possibly empty) offensive stats that matched his production during his younger prime.
He has maintained his productivity as the featured player for Spain in the Eurobasket competition this summer, where he has been the best offensive player in the tournament. He's in the top 5 in FG%, free throws, and total rebounds and is #1 in points and blocks. (Check out Ricky O'Donnell's great summary of what Gasol and Mirotic showed us at Eurobasket here)
Gasol is being asked to depart from what has worked so well for him last year and this summer. That is understandably tough, especially when one considers what happened to him in his last go-around with a new coach and a new high-paced system.
Gasol's Struggles to Fit into D'Antoni's Lakers
Pau Gasol's resurgence with the Bulls was a big surprise because of how bad he looked under Mike D'Antoni.
D'Antoni took over as the Lakers coach in 2012 with a plan to implement the same fast-paced systems he had used in Phoenix and New York. He saw potential in Gasol's 3 point shooting and tried to put him out on the perimeter as a stretch 5 rather than posting him up on the block. Not only were the Lakers terrible, but Gasol went through the worst stretch of his career.
Magic Johnson nicely summed up the general feeling around LA and made headlines by ripping D'Antoni for badly misusing Gasol. Magic told the LA Times:
"[Mike D'Antoni has Pau Gasol] at the free throw line waiting for the ball. That makes no sense. That’s not his game. His game is catch it on the low block, face his man, one dribble left or right, he’s in the cup, nice hook, nice move, because he’s got great moves…
..If you continue to have him at the three-point line, he’s not going to perform well because he hasn’t been out there, especially with Phil Jackson and the Lakers. When he was playing in Memphis, he was down low. I got to adjust my system a little bit if I’m the coach, that’s all."
Gasol was featured prominently in the post during Phil Jackson's run in LA, and D'Antoni took those post ups away from Gasol in favor of trying to play him out on the perimeter. He was such a poor fit out there that he eventually was coming off the bench behind Earl Clark.
The relationship between coach and player got toxic pretty quickly. By the end of D'Antoni's tenure, Gasol was openly complaining about D'Antoni's system through the media.
Pau believes he is a low post scorer, and that's where he should be used. Midway through that horrible Lakers season, Bill Oram of the Orange County Register wrote about Gasol's complaints with his role and D'Antoni's response:
Gasol lamented not receiving the ball deep in the post, which, he said, affects his "aggressiveness and overall intensity."
D’Antoni called criticizing an offensive system "a nice excuse not to play hard." "That’s a classic, ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,’" he said after Friday’s shootaround. "Well, you know, you don’t have trouble getting up to the pay stub line, they know what to do there to get the check, so obviously you know what to do."
...Gasol remained steadfast, taking responsibility but also poking at D’Antoni’s system.
"You have to put yourself in positions and have a better understanding of how to get to the spots you can really produce," he said. "Whichever that is, you have to make it happen for yourself. If the plays don’t help you get there, you have to do it yourself. That’s the struggle."
"I want to find myself closer to the basket more often instead of always starting 20 to 30 feet away from it," Gasol said."
Gasol clearly was not happy with how D'Antoni used him and may be reticent to return to a role where he is asked to move further away from the basket again.
Gasol's Potential Return to the Perimeter Under Hoiberg
Maybe it can work this time around though. After all, Pau Gasol is a terrific long range shooter. He was one of the best players in the league at long 2's last year, shooting 48% on those shots. He was similarly great at corner 3's, nailing 11/24 (46%) of those shots. He has also been destroying teams with his 3 point shooting in Eurobasket, hitting an absurd 9/11 (82%) of his 3 point attempts in the tournament.
Hoiberg gave us some clues on how he planned to stretch out Gasol while coaching this year's Summer League team. Hoiberg put Cameron Bairstow in a role that Pau might play, spotting up a lot in the corners to draw his defender away from the basket. If Bairstow's man helped on dribble penetration, Bairstow was in the corner ready to nail an open 3:
Pau has shown that he can consistently hit that corner shot. This is a great, simple way that Hoiberg will likely use Gasol to stretch the floor.
Hoiberg also has detailed how he wants to use his bigs to run a lot of drag screens. Spain has used Gasol in this exact type of play in the Eurobasket tournament. Against Poland, Pau got an easy pick and pop 3 at the top of the arc by setting a drag screen for his point guard and then popping out for an open 3:
Gasol should have plenty of opportunities to get this shot next season. It's just a matter of if he can hit it.
Limitations to Gasol's Shooting - Above the Break vs. Below the Break
While the above examples might seem to suggest that Pau can thrive out by the 3 point line, a fatal flaw exists in his shooting. Pau is a shooting god from within 22 feet. Once you move him out a little bit farther though, his percentages drop precipitously.
A little background is needed first - A corner 3 in the NBA is 22 feet away from the basket. The FIBA line is at a very simliar 22 feet, 1.75 inches. Pau has excelled at both of those shots, but above the break 3 pointers are almost 2 feet further back, at 23 feet, 9 inches. When Pau has been moved back to that distance, he's struggled a lot.
In the two years where D'Antoni tried to stretch him out, Pau took a majority of his 3's from above the break and was very poor, shooting only 9/33 (27%). Those numbers match with his career - he is only 23/104 (22%) on above the break 3's over his 14 seasons. D'Antoni didn't understand that Pau couldn't hit above the break 3's, and that's a big part of why Pau failed as a 3 point shooter in that system.
How to Use Pau Effectively
If Hoiberg tries to stretch Pau out anywhere over 22 feet, I'd be very worried. It's unrealistic to expect Pau to suddenly expand his range going into his 15th season and his previous history shows us that he can't reliably hit anything above the break.
Hoiberg also needs to find a way to sell Pau on the idea that he and the team will be better by changing his role. Pau is saying all of the right things now and seems open to the possibility of trying whatever Hoiberg wants to do. He told ESPN's Jon Greenberg:
"It’s not that I see myself starting, I have to work and earn that," he said. "I don’t take anything for granted because of the way I played last year, or how I think I played in the past."
Pau's feeling that he was being badly misused in LA ended up causing a huge rift between himself and Mike D'Antoni. Pau likes playing on the block and believes that he can be an All-NBA player and help the team the most if he's used in that role. Hoiberg and Gasol need to continue to be on the same page if they're going to get the most out of each other.
All of these concerns may be premature too. It's still not exactly clear what Hoiberg plans on doing with Pau. Hoiberg has a ton of options - he could start Gasol and have him run in secondary transition, he could put Gasol in second units and let him feast on post ups against weaker players, or he could have Gasol sitting on the perimeter to clear up the lane. All of those are pretty good options and Hoiberg's "problem" with how to fit Pau in a talented and versatile frontcourt rotation is an issue that many teams would love to have.
If Hoiberg does try to experiment with Pau as a sort of stretch 5 though, he should learn from D'Antoni's failures. Hoiberg has to be very careful to use Pau below the break where he can succeed. Pau is great at corner 3's and long 2's so Hoiberg should keep him in those spots. If Hoiberg can keep Pau happy too and prevent a D'Antoni-like rift from occurring, Pau should have another productive year for the team.