A (Spanish) Model of Efficiency

Ten field goal attempts, ten makes.

Eight free throw attempts, eight makes.

Those 28 points without a miss would have worked just fine before Pau Gasol added nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks in 30 minutes of L.A.’s 117-89 win over Golden State.

Oddly enough, Gasol’s performance came a game after teammate Matt Barnes was 7-for-7 from the field and 5-of-5 from the line for 24 points with seven rebounds and six assists, literally counting for two of the three all-time games in NBA history featuring a minimum of 20 points, five boards and five assists while not missing a single shot. Charles Barkley did the deed first, way back in March of 1989.

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Alas, Gasol’s near perfect game -- he did commit one turnover -- produced a stat line that actually isn’t too far off his averages in the first 14 Lakers games of the 2010-11 season. The Spanish big man is posting nearly 23 points with 12 rebounds, four assists and 1.7 blocks with elite field goal and free throw percentages while helping L.A. open with a 12-2 record, eight of the 12 victories coming by 10 points or more.

“I was just converting the looks that I had (against the Warriors),” Gasol explained. “It was an all-around effective night … (but) I’m always trying to be efficient and effective at all times.”

“Efficient” and “effective” are certainly among the first adjectives one might associate with Gasol (“tall,” “super-skilled” and even “hairy” work too) since he came into the league in 2001. Just never more so than this season. The 7-footer gets mad at himself when he misses shots, hates turning the ball over and prides himself on producing something positive each time he touches the ball.

Gasol is, in fact, ranked No. 1 among all NBA players on both ESPN and Yahoo’s fantasy basketball ranking systems, which incorporate each viable statistical category. Here are the Catalan’s numbers in each of those measured elements, with league-wide rankings where applicable:

  • Points: 22.8 (13th in the NBA)
  • Rebounds: 12.1 (3rd)
  • Assists: 4.1 (39th overall, tops amongst big men)
  • Blocks: 1.7 (15th)
  • Steals: 0.6
  • 3-pointers made (N/A)
  • Free Throw %: 82.3
  • Field Goal %: 56.4 (9th)
  • Turnovers: 1.6 (career low)

Together, those numbers put Gasol ahead of fellow stat hounds Chris Paul (3rd), Josh Smith (4th) LeBron James (10th), Amare Stoudemire (16th), Kevin Durant (17th), and, yes, Kobe Bryant (15th). To point out the obvious, Gasol is among the league’s best in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and turnover rate, while doubling as the top assist man at his position, one who also happens to shoot free throws like a point guard.

To put the efficiency of Gasol’s game into some context, we contacted ESPN.com fantasy basketball expert John Cregan. He used colleague John Hollinger’s PER (player efficiency rankings) system, which incorporates certain advanced statistics like usage rate and true shooting percentage, to help make his case.

"Most categories in fantasy basketball have more to do with volume than efficiency; the exceptions being the percentage categories and turnovers. You can be a top fantasy player with a relatively low PER (examples would include Monta Ellis, Josh Smith and Rudy Gay). In fantasy, PER is very a useful statistic in determining how players getting non-starter minutes (less than 25 per game) might fare in an expanded role (Serge Ibaka, Amir Johnson).

"However, the ideal fantasy player is someone who combines a high PER with a high amount of minutes (35-plus minutes a game). You know that this is a player that's helping you across the board, in every category, without hurting you anywhere else. Gasol, along with Russell Westbrook, is one of the leading examples of this classification of player. What makes Gasol doubly valuable is his dual eligibility (PF/C)...especially with him qualifying at the traditionally thin position of center."

So, does Gasol know how good he is in fantasy basketball? Does he care? I asked him last week if he were aware. He said he wasn’t, but was pleased to hear that he ranked second in the league last week, with only former teammate Rudy Gay’s white-hot start keeping him off the top of the mountain. Then after Monday’s practice at the Lakers’ facility, Gasol asked me if he’d passed Gay yet, likely recognizing that his near-perfect Sunday game couldn’t have hurt his ranking. After I relayed that he was now No. 1, Gasol smiled, content that his goal to be an extremely efficient player showed through the numbers.

Gasol is the first to acknowledge that he may not be quite so efficient and effective were he on a different team. After all, with Kobe Bryant drawing constant attention, Lamar Odom playing at an extremely high level, Derek Fisher organizing everything, Ron Artest being more comfortable with the offense and a new bench crew playing terrific, the Lakers are averaging a league-best 112.5 points per game. Fisher explained why Gasol in particular has both contributed towards and benefitted from L.A.’s outstanding offensive start:

"I think it’s a by-product of his continued focus on playing at a high level individually, but also our efficiency as a team. We’re understanding how to play with each other a lot better so far this year, where as last year Ron was new, Lamar was coming off the bench and we were figuring out that dynamic. We haven’t had those things to deal with yet. We’ll have to deal with that when Andrew (Bynum) returns, but Pau’s been playing 38 minutes a game, and we’ve made it a continued effort to get him the basketball consistently. A player of his caliber that’s consistently touching the ball, there’s going to be a rhythm regardless of what the defense is doing.

"Our execution in some ways has been much more solid this season. We’re settling into how we like to play, we’re not playing too fast, we’re not trying to do too many things and if we do Phil (Jackson) calls a time out. I think all of those things are working in Pau’s favor, but that doesn’t take away from Pau’s greatness. He’s one of the greatest to play the game in the last few years. It’s just that our system requires a five-man-thinking-as-one type thing, and the better all five guys are thinking and playing, the easier it becomes for everybody to kind of play their game and be successful. That goes not just for Pau, but for Shannon Brown’s efficiency, Lamar’s efficiency, my efficiency and that of Matt Barnes. Everybody is playing at a really efficient level, and Pau benefits the most because we’re an inside-out team and our efficiency is much better as a team when we keep it that way."