With the news that Marc Gasol has suffered a sprained MCL in Friday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Grizzlies fans are looking at another season with a key player missing extended time. Typical recovery time for an MCL sprain is somewhere between 4-6 weeks, meaning Gasol will miss between 12 and 18 games, or 15 - 22% of the season. Let's dig into what this means.
1). Gasol Meant a Ton Last Year. This Year Has Been a Different Story -
Last year, Gasol being on the court meant the following (all stats per nbawowy.com):
The Grizzlies scored 3 points more (106.2 points per 100 possessions vs 103.6).
Grizzlies opponents scored almost 10 points fewer (98.4 points per 100 possessions vs 107.8).
Grizzlies opponents attempted 3% fewer shots at the rim (29.3% of opponent shots at rim vs 32.6%).
So far this year Gasol's impact has not been nearly as significant.
The Grizzlies still score 3 points more with Gasol on the court (104.4 Points per 100 possessions vs 101.1).
But Grizzlies opponents score nearly the same amount of points (105.9 points per 100 possession vs 106.0).
And Grizzlies opponents attempt 3% more (rather than fewer) shots at the rim (30.1% vs 26.9%).
We've watched the games. We've seen Gasol's disengaged (or whatever you'd like to call it) play so far this year. Though he'd suddenly come back to life in the last three or so games, in terms of replacing raw production, the Grizzlies aren't replacing last year's Marc Gasol. They've been playing without that player for most of the season already.
That isn't a slight to Gasol. Players go through slumps (or whatever was bothering Marc). And if my summer had included playing for my country, and getting married, I'd be a little worn out too. Either way, the Grizzlies aren't replacing the production of a top ten player in the league. And the trade for Kosta Koufos - always a win - has never looked so good.
Koufos is a legitimate starting center, a player whose production far exceeds his reputation. Especially on defense, Koufos guards space well, rebounds, and is enough of a rim protector for the Grizzlies to do what they need to do on defense. On offense, Koufos excels as a finisher in the paint, but he doesn't quite replace the role Gasol played, and really, nobody could.
2). Location. Location. Location - The primary area the Grizzlies will miss Gasol is spacing the floor on offense. It sounds strange to characterize a team's center as a floor spacer, but Gasol was just that for the Grizzlies. Gasol leads the league in touches from the high post area. Everyone knows about the Grizzlies high-low, Gasol-to-Randolph connection, but Gasol did pretty much everything from the high post. He was a threat to shoot. With the defense in front of him, he could facilitate passes to either wing if an overload came. And my personal favorite, Grizzlies guards could zip around a craftily-timed Gasol pivot, delivering what is effectively an illegal moving screen while Gasol has the ball.
All of this is gone now.
Smart defensive teams can send three guys at Zach Randolph instead of two (or four, if they're playing the Spurs). But not every team is the Spurs. With only one or two days between games, coaches can't gear their teams to destroy any given opponent's offense. And the Grizzlies will still boast a post mismatch nearly every night, an adjustment that should still ask enough different questions of the opposing defense to keep the Grizzlies muddling through on offense. Can the Grizzlies incorporate enough movement to keep opponents on their toes? We'll see.
3). Gasol's Injury Won't Kill the Grizzlies... But the Next One Might -
My gut tells me that Coach Joerger may respond to these problems by playing Mike Miller more. Miller seems to have been a security blanket of sorts, providing spacing and a bit of trusted veteran savvy for a second unit (and sometimes the first) that needs stability. Miller can't play more. Well, he can, but he might end up like the man that chose the Cup of the Carpenter poorly.
As weird as this may sound, a Miller injury might be the final straw. The Grizzlies cannot afford to lose both Miller and Gasol for extended periods this season, and Coach Joerger needs to treat Miller like what he is: a vital role player that needs to be conserved for the long run.
I'd suggest a different response to the Gasol injury, and give Tayshaun Prince some touches in the high post area. Tayshaun standing open on the right wing does nobody any good, and frankly, ain't nobody got time for that right now. But Tayshaun is a gifted ballhandler and, more importantly, passer. You could see the Grizzlies implementing a bit of this in the first quarter of the Spurs game, getting the ball to Tayshaun (sometimes off those Gasol high handoffs we talked about earlier) on the move heading to the paint. Tayshaun showed glimpses of being decisive heading to the rim, but still too often settled for a jumper. Tayshaun's decision tree should look like this:
1). Get to rim
2). Pass to teammate near rim
3). Kickout to teammate for jumper
4). Reset offense
467). Sit down on court and clutch ball like candy
468). Take mid-range jumpshot
That's a rough approximation, but you get the point.
4). You can kiss last season's win total goodbye. - Given the slow start, 56-57 wins seemed like more of a longshot every day. Now with the the Gasol injury, even the most optimistic Grizzlies fans probably will concede that last year's franchise record win total is out of reach. And condolences are probably in order for hosting a playoff series.
But this team can still very much make the playoffs. Today, they sit tied for 8th, clinging to the final playoff spot among a horde of other teams with playoff aspirations, and also the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, much of the Grizzlies season will be dictated by what happens with these other teams. The Pelicans, Nuggets and Timberwolves all want to make the playoffs and, while all are dealing with some issues, they nonetheless look to be strong challengers for that final playoff spot. Portland should fall off of their fast start, but they've given themselves a nice cushion and look to be a good bet to make the playoffs.
Where does that leave Memphis? Playing .500 ball until New Year's won't be good enough to still be the 8th seed. Faced with so many challengers, it is likely someone puts together a run and rises above Memphis. Maybe the return of Ryan Anderson gives New Orleans the space it desperately needs on offense. Perhaps Kobe's return revitalizes the Lakers. Perhaps the Nuggets cobble together a league average defense to pair with their top ten offense. The Grizzlies will likely lose ground. How much ground will they need to recover? Maybe something like 3 games?
That's a deficit this Grizzlies team can overcome. Half the season will remain, and the Grizzlies could still sneak their way towards the top half of the playoffs. So if anyone is banging the "Trade ZBo" gong, it's far too early for that. This team's goals should still firmly be making the playoffs, and potentially doing more.
Yet, the season could go the other way. Conley could find the offensive burden too much to bear. Koufos, despite his excellent skills, could fail to deliver what Gasol did. And the team still has a rookie head coach at the helm. Any honest fan has to accept that this season could go south. But take solace in the fact that, if it does, this is the best year to have a one year drought in the last decade. The draft is loaded, and even a team picking in the late lottery could find a really productive player.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's let this season breathe. Oh, and get better, Marc. Fast.