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The Extra Pass: Pau Gasol returns just as Lakers need him

Mar 22, 2013, 1:42 PM EDT

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

In the fleeting moments this season when the Lakers have had their cover of the media guide starting five together — Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard — they have gone 0-5.

That lineup could take the floor again Friday night against the Wizards — both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will start for the Lakers Friday night against the Washington Wizards, coach Mike D’Antoni confirmed after shootaround.

Pau Gasol is back from his plantar fasciitis. Previously, coach Mike D’Antoni has said he wants to start and finish with the big Spaniard (although that may not happen Friday in his first game back). D’Antoni says with the playoffs coming he is going to lean more on Gasol

Is that the smart thing to do considering the Lakers are 7-3 with Earl Clark starting and Gasol not even playing in the last 10 games?

Yes. Yes it is.

First and foremost, talent wins in the NBA. And, with all due respect to Clark, Gasol is the more talented player. Much more. Gasol remains as fundamentally solid and as smooth a big man as there is in the game, and he can get your team efficient buckets in the post, at the elbow, face up or back to the basket. Basically he can score anywhere so long as you don’t ask him to be a stretch four and stand in the corner.

Remember that before Gasol went down he was playing well — he anchored the Lakers second unit plus was developing some chemistry passing to Dwight Howard when Howard moved off the ball (which he has done much better of late). Gasol can rebound, pass and is an underrated defender. Plus, this is a guy who has playoff experience — the Lakers have that 2009 ring because Gasol outplayed Howard (then with Orlando) in the finals.

But more than that, Earl Clark has regressed. The Lakers need to cut his minutes.

When D’Antoni first started using him the Lakers were still trying to shoehorn this roster into D’Antoni’s traditional system and Clark was the kind of athletic player the Lakers lacked. But as the Lakers have modified their offensive system — and as teams got the scouting reports back on Clark — his effectiveness has dropped off the table.

Our own Darius Soriano, writing at his blog ForumBlueandGold, broke down the numbers. And they are not pretty.

In his last 20 games Clark is only shooting 41.4% from the field, including 32.4% from 15-19 feet and 23.8% (10-42) from behind the arc. The increased rate of misses can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the fact is the numbers don’t lie.

But it’s not just a decline on offense that has plagued Clark. His defense has also taken a hit. Clark is getting lost off the ball more when guarding perimeter players, giving up open jump shots in the process…. What we’re seeing with our eyes also bears out in the Lakers defensive numbers with Clark on the floor. In the last 20 games the Lakers post a defensive efficiency of 110.6 when Clark is in the game. That mark is nearly 4 points per 100 possessions worse than Jamison’s number and 6 points per 100 possessions worse than Nash’s (the two players who are often cited as the team’s worst defenders and who hurt the team the most on that end of the floor).

Simply put, with Gasol in the lineup the Lakers will be better.

As Jerry West said, the Lakers have become he team everyone at the top of the West would like to avoid. San Antonio and Oklahoma City would still be heavy favorites, but they are going to have to work a lot harder and face a lot more challenges against Los Angeles than in a matchup with Houston or Golden State. The Lakers are a threat, they are figuring out how to win with this group and Gasol makes that lineup better.

Oh, they’ll still shop him around this summer and likely trade him. But that’s another post for another day.

Right now, the Lakers need Gasol back for a playoff run.

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