Pau Gasol is on his way to a permanent reserve role as the Lakers seek a more energetic starting five (Image | Getty)

Pau Gasol is on his way to a permanent reserve role as the Lakers seek a more energetic starting five (Image | Getty)

Pau Gasol is finally back to productivity following his struggles with injuries over the past couple weeks. So the obvious response from Laker coach Mike D’Antoni? Bench him.

The All-Star forward is being shuffled out to make room for Earl Clark, averaging five points a game, in a somewhat baffling attempt to provide more energy in the starting five. On first impressions last night, it looked like the wrong call altogether.

Clark, probably the only guy apart from D’Antoni and his staff who thinks this roster shuffle is a good idea, earned the move with a 14-point, 14-rebound performance in the loss to Toronto Sunday, and answered again with 12 and 8 last night in 35 minutes. Thing is, Gasol, who only logged 25 minutes, had 15 points and a team-high 12 rebounds. The Spaniard played mostly as a back-up to Dwight Howard with Antawn Jamison spelling Clark at power forward.

Los Angeles lost by 12, and led the game only once, for 20 seconds at the end of the third quarter.

Rotations and line-ups have dogged D’Antoni ever since he replaced Mike Brown just a few games into the 2012-13 season. He’s had to deal with prolonged absences for Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and now key reserve Jordan Hill. He hasn’t had consistent production from his bench, particularly Jamison and Jodie Meeks, the two most offensive-minded reserves.

Metta World Peace has been tried as a reserve, Jamison went from sixth man to observer to rotation player, and Meeks’ brief moment in the spotlight – seven of eight games in double figures, December 7th-22nd – is a forgotten memory.

Lost amid the endless shuffling is Darius Morris, who has gone from starter at point in Nash’s absence to afterthought behind veteran Chris Duhon, and whose minutes have yo-yoed dramatically all season.

None of the changes are solving D’Antoni’s most significant problem though. This Lakers squad is not built for his offense – it’s built to support Kobe Bryant and let his scoring lead the time. Through 41 games, Bryant has taken 907 shots, literally twice as many as any other Laker, even if you adjust for time spent on the sidelines.

The sole point of continuity in the Lakers' lineup, Kobe Bryant has also been one of its biggest problems in 2012-13 (Image | LA Times)

The sole point of continuity in the Lakers’ lineup, Kobe Bryant has also been one of its biggest problems in 2012-13 (Image | LA Times)

That’s all well and good in Los Angeles because Bryant is one of the greatest players ever and perfectly capable (not to mention willing) of doing that on any given night – but he’s having to do it every night just for his team to be competitive. This is a 34-year-old in his 17th year in the NBA. He needs more help than he’s getting.

D’Antoni’s system is designed around a heap of points coming off pick-and-rolls and in Nash and Howard, he should have the modern-day equivalent of Stockton and Malone to work with. But LA can’t settle into playing that style because it doesn’t result in enough touches for Bryant. So the ball goes to him early and he looks to drive or work off the low block, Howard moves too far out to be effective, and Nash stands aside, waiting patiently to see if he’ll get the ball back before the other team does.

Behind Bryant, the other four superstars in the Laker lineup (Howard, World Peace, Gasol and Nash) all average double figures in points. That isn’t the problem – after them, Meeks’ and Jamison’s averages, both around 7.5, are bloated by a small number of excellent performances compared to their usual production, and Hill, also around 7.5, is gone for the season. Clark’s 5.4 is next.

If the move D’Antoni made yesterday brings more long-term success for the Lakers than last night suggested, in providing more energy for the starters and a go-to scorer for the reserves, it may still come out looking like a smart move. If it doesn’t work, Los Angeles’ already-slim chances of recovering to make the Playoffs may be dead by All-Star Weekend.

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