Can the Grizzlies trust Marc Gasol to return to elite form?

Less than a year removed from foot surgery, Marc Gasol isn’t becoming any younger. So, why is Gasol still set up in a position to succeed with the Grizzlies in 2016-2017?

On paper, the Memphis Grizzlies boast one of the more intimidating starting lineups in the Western Conference, but also have huge question marks on the bench. Due to that depth, or lack thereof, the projected starting lineup of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Chandler Parsons, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will need to excel as a unit if Memphis wants to enter the upper echelon amongst the Western Conference’s elite.

With Gasol turning 31 years old and coming off a 2015-2016 season that was ended due to season-ending surgery, what can fans expect out of the longtime center?

After an All-Star game appearance and going All-NBA First Team in 2014-2015, Gasol’s on-court performance dipped even before the injury last season.

His overall field goal percentage was down from .494 to .464, which was partially skewed by his .107 difference in shooting within five-feet of the basket (.651 to .544).

While the offensive efficiency is concerning, it’s likely that with the addition of Parsons, it may be to Gasol’s benefit. Parsons’ usage rate in Dallas last year was only 20.5 percent, but with Robert Pera & Co. doling out a max contract to the 27-year-old forward, it’s likely his offensive role will increase dramatically in Memphis. Of players to contribute more than 450 minutes for the Mavericks, Parsons led the team in true shooting percentage.

If Parsons, a Swiss Army Knife on the offensive end, uses a higher shot volume, it could allow Gasol to focus on his main strength: defense.

The good news? FiveThirtyEight’s NBA Projection System, CARMELO, doesn’t expect Gasol’s defensive plus-minus to take a hit in the foreseeable future. 

After posting a 1.7 defensive plus-minus last season, the model actually expects Gasol to bounce back in 2016-2017 with a 2.4. That number stays relatively steady until 2022, when it dips down to 2.0.

*Plus-minus is derived from Box Plus/Minus, a measure of the number of points per 100

possessions that a player contributed to his team, relative to an average NBA player.

For those unfamiliar with how CARMELO works, it uses a collection of analytics and information from similar players in the NBA’s history and then uses that data to project a players long-term value.  I highly suggest reading this quick description on FiveThirtyEight’s website.

Gasol was also a stud at closing out on shots last year, shooters within 10 feet of the basket shot 7.8 percent lower than the league average with him playing man-on defense.

Potential to improve on offense

This doesn’t mean that Gasol should be completely uninvolved on offense if the Grizzlies want to be successful. He does still have an uncanny passing ability for someone over 7 feet tall. With an assist percentage of roughly 19 percent over the past three years, that places him in approximately the 75th percentile for players on a similar physical scale as his own.

Gasol can also work on getting to the charity stripe more often for free points. He was down to 7.0 attempts per game in 2015-2016 and had a free throw rate of only .347, the second lowest of his career. A way to increase those attempts is to switch up the type of shots taken. Last year, hook shots overtook layups as the second most common shot in his arsenal despite the fact that more layup attempts inside can mean more trips to the line. Gasol shot at an identically efficient 54.5 percent clip each of the past two years on layups, compared to just 45.0 percent on hook shots, too.

It all comes down to…

His health. All the numbers in the world, promising or otherwise, mean nothing if Gasol can’t stay healthy this season. We’ve seen foot injuries severely inhibit the careers of fellow big men Yao Ming and Joel Embiid. Though, each player handles injuries and surgeries differently.

Worst case scenario: Gasol goes down and Brandan Wright, who played only 12 games last year, has to fill a role he isn’t prepared for as the Grizzlies sputter to another .500 year.

Best case scenario: a healthy Gasol anchoring the defense combined with upgrades on the offensive end could lift the Grizzlies out of mediocrity in the Southwest Division.

Gasol’s role is carved out on this roster, and it’s one the Grizzlies can’t go far without.