Player Previews: Marc Gasol

May 15, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) warms up before game five of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of superlatives were tossed around Marc Gasol last year. Most Well-Rounded Big Man. Most Overlooked Star. Best True Center in the League. Best Gasol in the League. Sportswriters huddled nerdily around Marc’s ascendant excellence, trying to quantify his greatness and his (then) under-appreciation.

In Memphis, we were just happy to have him, a workhorse and budding star who wasn’t born here but certainly grew up here. Some are still apologetic for their initial reaction to his trade in 2008, now that it’s evident that Marc is by far the harder-nosed, more aggressive Gasol.

For me, one of the lasting images of last year’s playoffs is Gasol’s frustrated foot stomp as the clock wound down to end the Conference Finals, and his focused indifference to the fans as they cheered anyway. Sure it was just a natural reaction to defeat, but it also signaled loud and clear that Gasol wants more, and knows he can get it.

 

Game Manager

Sometimes I think Gasol would make a great quarterback (if he were built for it). His specialty, as Grandland’s Jordan Conn points out, is his ability to position himself in the flow of the game. This means both with the ball – exploiting a mismatch on offense, quickly reading a double-team and making a post pass – and without it – finding open space at the elbow, rolling out of picks while watching for cutters on the baseline. On defense, it means clogging the lane, breaking up passes, protecting the rim, and offering weak side help, all while staying aware of his teammates movements so he can lead one of them with a 90-foot pass going the other way… even off a rebound. This requires (1) hyper awareness, (2) basketball smarts, and (3) fast adaptability, a combination belonging only to a few players in the entire league.

If you watched more than a dozen Grizz games last year, you probably saw one of Gasol’s “groove” games. Hollins often talked about how hard it was to get Gasol to think offensively, but I don’t think the problem was confidence. Marc prefers to feel the game out and tailor his play accordingly. If the defense isn’t pressuring him in midrange, he’ll put up shots. If they are, he’ll pass it back out. If they’re ignoring Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless on the wing, he’ll lead them to the hole with a pass. If the rest of the offense is running smoothly, he’ll distribute on one end and lock down on D at the other.

A byproduct of this “do-it-all” mentality is his ability to deliver what’s needed (often just a single basket rather than a game’s-worth of scoring) at any given time. Consider this 3-pointer against Philly with 5 seconds on the shot clock, or this half-second buzzer beater against the Clippers (I still wonder if that was by design). And don’t think he’s not clutch: I know you remember his backbreaker against OKC in Game 5 to help clinch the series. It happens on defense, too: Gasol saved that very same Philly game by sliding over to cleanly block Nick Young’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer, compensating for a blown assignment by Rudy Gay. Plus – how many 7-footers do you know that willingly dive to the floor after a loose ball?

In the ’12-’13 regular season, Gasol led both teams in scoring nine times, in rebounding nine times, and in assists four times. Only two times all year did he lead the game in more than one of those categories. On nights when Gasol carries the team, he doesn’t drag them along behind his own gaudy stats – he lifts them up from inside like a pillar. This makes him one of the league’s most valuable regular season tools, and will help prop the Grizzlies up as they adjust to their new coach early in the year. But how does it work in the playoffs?

 

Ceiling

There are two ceilings we have to keep in mind: Gasol’s ceiling as a player, and the ceiling of the team with Gasol in his current position. Let’s start with the former.

First, let’s see the difference in Gasol’s per game stats before and after the Rudy Gay Trade:

before

after

(all charts courtesy of basketball-reference.com)

Things you’ll notice –

  • His attempts increased: He took more shots per game and even (technically) more free throws per game.
  • His percentage increased: from 48.8% to an even 50%. This is a slight change, but it’s important; in the post-Gay offense, Gasol had one fewer “better options” on the floor, meaning his own contested shot was valued higher than Prince’s.
  • His assists increased: Remember all those midrange J’s Rudy was prone to miss (apparently because he needed EYE SURGERY)? Gasol assisted on more than a few. With Rudy’s departure, the outside shooting fell more on the shoulders of Pondexter, Bayless, and Conley, all of whom are more efficient shooters than Gay. This is where “addition by subtraction” truly reveals itself — we don’t know Gasol’s “assist attempts” statistic, we only know that the number of baskets scored off his assists went up.
  • His minutes and points increased: 1 extra minute, 1 extra point. It seems small, but it’s the difference in his career average (13.3 ppg) and his career best (14.6 ppg).

Of course, this is a small sample size to use to try to predict Gasol’s play in 2013-14, but his career stats from ’08 to ’13 don’t offer much help. In two of those seasons he played only 65+ games, and those two seasons gave marked his highest in points per game. One of those seasons was his highest FG%, and one was his lowest. Go figure. So I think it’s more useful to examine his recent production in a shifting offense, especially considering that Joerger promises the offense will change even more next season with increased tempo, (hopefully) better back-ups for Conley and Marc, and a new high powered 3-point weapon on the bench. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Gasol will improve again next year, possibly reaching 15 points per game and a +50% field goal percentage. If his monster performance in EuroBasket is any indication, Gasol has been using his offseason wisely.

Now, let’s also examine Marc’s production when it mattered: in the postseason.

Against LAC:lac

 

Against OKC:okc

 

…I’m going to pause here, because these stats are awesome and I want to savor them before we move on to San Antonio.

Things you’ll notice –

  • Crazy increase points per game: let’s be real, though. Neither the Clippers nor the Thunder have a Center that can stop Marc Gasol. DeAndre Jordan? Kendrick Perkins? Ronny Turiaf? Gasol ate these guys for lunch. They may be physically dominant, but Gasol is — and I love this about him — a finesse Center. Watch him make Blake Griffin look silly using only his hips. And don’t forget his delicate (“delicate”) slap-away of the ball to thwart Kendrick Perkins and start a fast break that led to Tayshaun Prince’s time travel dunk.
  • You’ll note his slight uptick in field goal makes doesn’t account for his monster point totals: the difference is in the free throw attempts against sloppy defending (especially vs LAC). Free throws in the playoffs are killers.
  • It’s obvious that OKC wasn’t itself in the semis without Westbrook to turbocharge the offense, but that doesn’t mean their low-post and mid-range defending should have been as bad as it was. Gasol doesn’t ask questions, though. He loves shooting from the top of the key in OKC.

I guess there’s no delaying the inevitable…

Against SAS:

  • This was Gasol’s weakest series in terms of shooting percentage, but he still scored his season average in points. The simple reason is that he could not distribute the ball to Zach Randolph, and so had to take over his offensive responsibilities. It wasn’t enough, though.
  • You can see the effect of San Antonio’s efficient defense in the lack of free throw attempts by Gasol. Fewer silly fouls = less groove for Marc. Even when Gasol tried to draw fouls on his through-the-lane hook shot, the Spurs didn’t bite.
  • I don’t want to talk about this series any more, so let me summarize.

On the one hand, you can read this as Marc’s personal ceiling. Playing a stout, efficient, well-established team in the Conference Finals, he was unable to impose his will on the game. His percentage tanked and his effectiveness at the free throw line was held in check. On the other hand, as you know, the Spurs took Memphis completely out of its rhythm on offense, exploiting our perimeter weaknesses. In football, it’s the same as loading up the box and forcing the Browns a team to pass.

This is where we get into the team’s ceiling. If the Grizzlies can rearrange their talent to open up the game on offense, Marc’s game will effective against teams like SAS. It’s hard to envision this team in the Finals, though, as long as Joerger insists Prince will stay in the starting line-up. Maybe Mike Miller will get a significant increase in floor time against teams like San Antonio (a team he slaughtered from three in the Finals), but Marc will still be playing half of his minutes with a backcourt that can’t stretch the floor and a power forward wearing two Spurs like a backpack.

 

Efficiency and 2013-2014

How will Dave Joerger’s promised increase in offensive speed effect Gasol’s game? I suspect the high pick-and-roll and other two-man games between Mike and Marc will be a staple in the new offense, and that can be a very good thing. When Mike gives the ball to Marc at the top of the key, he becomes the hub of the offense. He can shoot the ball against loose defense, he can hit cutters with pinpoint passes, he can wait two seconds for Zach to get under the basket then deliver the ball down low, or he can wait for Conley to shed his defender around two picks and hit the open three. None of those things takes longer than 5-7 seconds. If nothing is open, he tends to hand the ball back to Mike and set a pick. If Gasol can slip his man, it leads to an easy shot. If he can’t, without OJ Mayo or Rudy Gay, none of our starters are really capable of creating their own shot (just to be clear — I don’t miss either Mayo or Gay. Those “own shots” were never ideal). I’ll be curious to see what Joerger’s coaching staff develops for a plan B in those situations. Can they get Marc to shoot a contested shot for the sake of tempo? The problem is, if Marc starts shooting over his man without exploring other options first, defenses will wise up and crowd him, making it harder for him to get into a “groove” game.

That Jordan Conn article I quoted earlier cites some interesting stats about Gasol’s game in his favorite offensive position: a face-up on the elbow. One quarter of Gasol’s touches come at the elbow, and his scoring efficiency from this spot is better than every other high-use post player in the league (except for LaMarcus Aldridge). Smart defenses should double Marc by default in this position, cutting off his running hook and drive to the basket but opening up perimeter shooters like Q-Pon, Miller, and Conley. Expect to see Gasol continue to exploit this scenario in ’13-’14.

Conn also refers to Marc’s efficiency on pick-and-pops; at 1.09 points per possession, he’s fourth in the league.

These kind of scenarios are what Joeger & Co. are likely already scheming around. If they are successful, next year’s offense will be quicker, more robust, and less inefficient. It’s the kind of offense that Gasol can not only excel within, but lead. It will be a landmark year for Big Spain.

 

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