Posted January 21, 2013

Lakers’ Pau Gasol benched for Earl Clark by coach Mike D’Antoni

Ben Golliver, Earl Clark, Los Angeles Lakers, Mike D'Antoni, Pau Gasol
The Lakers look stagnant defensively, and Pau Gasol seems merely a shadow of his former self, especially on defense. (Andrew D. Bernstein NBAE/Getty Images)

Lakers big man Pau Gasol has lost his starting spot. (Andrew D. Bernstein NBAE/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has decided to replace Pau Gasol with Earl Clark in his starting lineup for the foreseeable future, according to the Orange County Register.

D’Antoni wants to play his way: small. “We’re better when we’re small.”

“That’s life. He understands.” D’Antoni also said: “It also puts Pau in his natural position. He’s one of the best centers in the league.” Gasol will get some post touches off the bench, and the Lakers hope Clark changes them with athleticism. D’Antoni said it gives them “a little more bounce to our step.”

The change was implemented for Monday night’s game against the Bulls, after Clark notched 14 points and 14 rebounds in a Sunday loss to the Raptors. Otherwise, Gasol had started 26 of the Lakers’ 27 games this season, the only exception being a Jan. 17 loss to the Heat, his first game back after missing more than a week with a concussion. For his career, Gasol had started 816 of 823 regular season games he had appeared in before Monday night.

Gasol, 32, is in the midst of his worst season in recent memory. He’s averaging 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 33.9 minutes per game. Those numbers mark a career-low in points, the fewest rebounds he’s averaged since 2007-08 and the fewest minutes he’s played since 2004-05. He’s also shooting a career-low 43.2 percent from the field.

In addition to the concussion, Gasol has battled knee tendinitis this season. A bigger issue is his fit alongside center Dwight Howard and within D’Antoni’s desired high-paced system. It became apparent earlier this season that he could be headed for a reduced role given his struggles.

Gasol has been mentioned in trade rumors throughout this season, but his $19 million salary and deteriorating play make it difficult to move him.

D’Antoni likely has a few  goals in mind with this lineup switch. First, it provides an established scoring punch to a weak bench unit, as the Lakers currently rank No. 26 in bench scoring this season. Rather than being the fourth option in the starting unit, Gasol could become the first or second option during most of his time on the court. Second, the move separates Howard and Gasol, creating more opportunities for the Spaniard to return to the low post, where he is most effective. A major driver of his offensive struggles this season has been a meaningful drop in his high-efficiency shots within 10 feet of the hoop. Finally, removing the lumbering Gasol from the Lakers’ starting unit makes for easier match-ups against smaller line-ups and theoretically allows Steve Nash the ability to push the tempo even more, although the Lakers already rank No. 2 in pace.

Clark, 25, was a first-round pick in 2009. He was tossed in to the four-team blockbuster trade that brought Howard to Los Angeles this summer and offers decent athleticism and energy. He’s played the most minutes of his young career this season, averaging 5.0 points and 4.6 rebounds, both career-bests. Make no mistake, he’s no panacea.

The Lakers entered Monday night with a 17-23 record, sitting 3.5 games out of the No. 8 spot.

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