After back-to-back wins over the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs in the last couple of the days, the Memphis Grizzlies currently lead the league in wins. And although Andrew Bogut, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard were absent, it cannot be argued how impressive Memphis looked in these two tests of strength. The Grizzlies are off to a 21-4 start because its offense has caught up to its defense, now ranking in the top 10 in both scoring and scoring allowed per possession, a strong indicator of legit title contention. This improvement on offense is not so much due to any significant offseason addition or change in style of play, but because starting center Marc Gasol is now getting enough touches to extract the most out of his unlimited scoring zone.
Throughout the Grit-and-Grind Era, Memphis has relied heavily in interior scoring, ranking in the top 10 in field goals within eight feet in three of the last four seasons. It has done so through elite offensive rebounding and post-up scoring, led by Zach Randolph as the go-to option with his back to the basket. However, Randolph was held to just 1.14 points per shot the last couple of seasons, after averaging 1.25 his first couple of years in Memphis, signaling the start of his athletic decline. The Grizzlies have countered by playing through Gasol more, a shift that started last season with him as a playmaker from the high post and has now been completed with him leading the team in usage.
There has been no significant development to Gasol’s game. The Grizzlies are simply using his versatility a little more.
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The one area where he seems improved is scoring out of the pick-and-roll, perhaps because he is simply at peak health. Gasol does not carry the gravitational pull of a Tyson Chandler, perhaps, but he looks like more a force than he did in the past, when he mostly rolled to establish post position rather than to attack the basket off the catch. The extra bit of hop in his step is what was missing, because pretty much everything else is there. Gasol is a very good screener who looks to draw contact and whose 265-pound frame is difficult for on-ball defenders to navigate around. He has soft hands to catch the ball on the move and touch to finish at rim level. According to basketball-reference.com, Gasol is taking 26% of his shots within three feet of the hoop and finishing them at 76% clip, which is particularly jaw-dropping because he does not play above the rim as a target for lobs. That extra quickness diving down the lane is also leading to 10 free throws per 100 possessions – a career high.
Gasol is complementing his prolific close range scoring with his consistent outside shooting. He is taking 25% of his shots from outside 16-feet, which is also a career high. His is a flat-footed, standstill outside shot without a high release point, but with decent speed on the trigger and the elbows flexing enough that it has gone in at a 44% clip this season and 42% throughout his career. Gasol mostly takes jump shots when he is open off the catch or when the opponent backs down a step to respect his passing, which was maximized last season when he ranked fourth in assist rate among centers. He is excellent in high-low action, entering the ball from the elbow to Randolph below the rim, and has great feel to hit cutters and spot-up shooters in stride. His 13% turnover-rate is extremely low in the context of his 25.6% usage rate and his 17.7% assist rate.
He also takes that high skill level to the low post, though without the same glaring results. Gasol uses his 265-pound frame to set decent position but rarely uses his strength advantage to back down his defenders. He is a very patient player going through his routine; using a couple of dribbles to feel his defender and setting up his running hook over the right shoulder. That is his preferred move, but Gasol has also proven capable when forced to take turnaround, fade-away jump-shots from the baseline. He has OK touch in these finishes, although he is not one of the better players in the league at it, despite of what most seem to think. According to nbasavant.com, Gasol hit 46.6% of his 150 hooks/fadeaway jump-shots last season – a decent mark considering the expected field goal percentage on shots out of straight post-ups, but one that ranked only 27th out of 31 players with at least 100 such shots. This season his efficiency is down a bit, as he has hit his 67 hooks/fadeaway jump-shots at a 41.7% clip prior to the game against the Spurs.
That is not to say, however, that Gasol is a mediocre post player. He is great waiting out double teams and igniting ball movement once he forces the defense out of position, hardly ever getting clumsy when the opponent tries to crowd him and showing great court vision on passes towards the weak-side. That is probably more valuable on a team-level than being able to score out of isolations on an average rate.
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The one area in his offensive game that is really subpar is offensive rebounding. Gasol has collected just 5% of Memphis’s misses when he has been on the floor these last couple of seasons, a very below average rate among position peers. Part of this can be explained by his role. He did a lot of passing away from the basket last season, while he has been on the ball a lot more in this one. It is hard to crash the glass when you are one taking the shots, especially with only a quarter of them being taken in the restricted area. Gasol is capable of generating second chances when he is below the rim due to his physical profile, but does not track the ball off the rim with a lot of energy.
On the other end, Gasol’s rebounding is average. His defensive rebounding rate is perhaps a bit underwhelming for a guy who stands at seven-foot-one but he is a mammoth giant who takes up a lot of space. The Grizzlies as a team protect their glass better when he is on the floor, per NBA.com/stats/, and it is important to mention that Gasol plays most of his minutes with Randolph, a menace who currently leads the league in rebounding chances, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology.
Named the defensive player in 2012-2013, Gasol has not been as dominant of a defensive force this season. He is still the master of clogging the lane for 2.9 seconds at a time and still has the foot speed to keep pace with smaller guards who attempt to run at him out of the pick-and-roll, but has been a step late rotating off the weak-side to protect the rim in help defense. Gasol can play above the basket as a volume shot blocker, but that has not translated into the elite interior defense we have grown accustomed from him, with opponents shooting 49% on approximately 218 shots at the rim with Gasol protecting it. Surprisingly, Memphis is allowing 4.5 points per 100 possessions fewer without him on the floor.
But considering how limited the Grizzlies were on offense in the past couple of seasons, Gasol’s difference making production on that end far outweighs his slight drop-off on defense. And so it makes sense that he is being mentioned in the MVP conversation in a season when LeBron James has been great but not dominant and Kevin Durant lost significant time due to injury. Gasol may not be as effective defensively as he has been in the past, but he is stepping up in the aspects of the game in which his team needed him the most. And the results speak for themselves.
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