MINNEAPOLIS – Pau Gasol will return to the starting lineup when the Lakers visit the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight at Target Center, but the reasons have nothing to do Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni changing his role. It has everything to do with Dwight Howard sitting out because of a sore right shoulder.
“Big news,” Gasol said with an obvious hint of sarcasm. “Headlines. Exciting.”
That’s because Gasol has come off the bench in the past six games. D’Antoni even sat him for the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ win Tuesday over New Orleans because he wanted a smaller lineup. D’Antoni even joked he considered starting Robert Sacre, a second-round draft pick, over Gasol.
“I’m sure he wants to start and knows he wants to start,” D’Antoni said. “I just have to coach the team the way I think is better. It’s a not a personality conflict. It’s not a dance contest. I like him.”
Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, Gasol’s close friend who’s played with him on the national team, doesn’t seem so sure. He argued the way D’Antoni features Gasol in the offense suggests he doesn’t want him on the team. D’Antoni laughed off Rubio’s comment.
“When he gets a team he can coach,” D’Antoni said, “he can make that decision.”
The Lakers have indicated they don’t plan on trading Gasol before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
“We want him,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It’s just unfortunate that he’s always the subject of trade rumors and this that and the other. But we know what his value is.”
But after being linked to trade rumors for the past two seasons, Gasol knows the drill. He’d like assurances, but won’t ask the front office for anything. Gasol would like to stay with the Lakers, but he understands he can’t control that.
“If the right package comes along, it’s a business at the end of the day,” Gasol said. “You can’t really think about it too much or worry too much because it’s pointless from a player’s standpoint.”
Gasol also shot down any suggestions he’d try to get close friends such as Rubio (Minnesota) or his brother Marc (Memphis) to convince the respective front offices to trade for him. Vice versa.
“That’s wishful thinking, but that won’t come into reality anytime soon,” Gasol said. “I try to focus on my reality and team and make the best of it and have fun in the process.”
In the meantime, the Lakers are wondering how they can best maximize Gasol’s skillset.
He’s averaged a career-low 12.8 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 7.9 rebounds per game. Gasol has averaged 13.1 points on 53 percent shooting off the bench partly because he’s featured more inside at the center position.
“We haven’t used him to his full potential,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows that. That’s something we’re trying to figure out and something we’ll have to do much better job at if we want to reach our ultimate potential as a team, we have to use him more.”
Gasol’s starting gig tonight against Minnesota could make that a reality.
“Mike’s been trying to get his philosophy through to us. At the same time, our personnel is a little different than probably what would fit best for that kind of system,” Gasol said. “It’s a work in progress.”
But once Howard returns, how does D’Antoni convince Gasol to buy into his role?
Pay him $19 million. I think that should help,” D’Antoni said, smiling.
Gasol has two years left on his contract worth around $38 million. But he argued handling the demotion goes beyond dollars and cents.
“It’s been difficult. I’m still a valuable piece and still consider myself one of the best out there,” Gasol said. “But it’s a game you can’t be too self centered and selfish. You have to put team first and have to make it work somehow. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make it work. I’m trying not to be a negative influence at all.”
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