So often in sports, injuries can have more of an impact on a team's success than any other factor. The Memphis Grizzlies know this better than any one. Only Mike Miller has played in every Grizzlies game this season, which is a feat in and of itself. Key players such as Mike Conley, Quincy Pondexter and Tony Allen have missed extended periods of time with various ailments, and all of these injuries have negatively impacted the Bears of Beale Street in some way.
The injury that has had the biggest impact on the season is the knee of Marc Gasol. Even since his return from his sprained MCL, the effects of that terrible moment against the Spurs months ago can be seen. Marc labors at times up and down the court, still adjusting to his mobility issues and getting his conditioning back. His shot is not falling the way that Grizzlies fans, and likely Marc himself, are accustomed to. Here is his shot chart for the past 5 games in February, as compared to his season shot chart.
Gasol's shot is not falling from the elbow area nearly as often as it usually does at this time. Considering a major part of Gasol's game is facilitating the offense from the elbow, this is cause for concern. All is not lost, however. Gasol can adapt his offensive game to better mask his current limitations and Coach Joerger can use Marc in a variety of ways offensively to force defenses to honor Gasol's other skills even when Marc's shot isn't falling.
Get in the Paint and to the Line
Early in Marc's career, he went to the free throw line 751 times in 151 games. That is good for about 5 attempts per game. His attempt numbers since those first 2 seasons from the stripe have gone down, shooting on average about 67 less free throws per season. All in all it comes out to a little less than one attempt less per game over that span of time.
There are various reasons for this; for one, Zach Randolph's arrival in the 2009-2010 season took up more room in the paint, taking Marc further away from the rim and out to his roost on the elbow. Another reason is Marc's continued refinement of his game; as his range stretched out, he has been in less of a position to get fouled. Look at his shot chart from his first season in 2008-2009.
Compared to his numbers from last season, he shot 87 more shots in the paint in his first season in Memphis.
Getting Gasol in the paint more will allow for him to have more close range shots, which will get him more high efficiency opportunities and also will enable him to get to the free throw line more. The fact that Zach Randolph has been shooting 46% from outside the paint the past 5 games also allows for a little more of a role reversal, at least until Marc gets going. Zach runs the paint, as this piece last week suggested, but switching spots with Marc, even for just a few possessions a game, may help Marc get the feel for his shot and some confidence by getting in the paint and going to the line.
Limit the Fade-away Jumpers
Going along with attacking the paint more, Big Spain would benefit from going into the basket instead of falling away from it. Marc has quite the offensive toolbox at his disposal. The running hook, the elbow jumper, the versatility of his game when healthy is impressive to say the least. The most impressive part of his shot arsenal when it works for him is the fade-away jumper. The timing, the fluidity and the fact it is nearly indefensible makes it an elite addition to any player's game when it is going.
Gasol is not hitting these shots nearly enough to warrant continuing to launch them at this point. Check out this series of screen shots from the Hawks game this past Saturday night.
Marc gets the ball in the paint after bobbling the initial entry pass from Zach Randolph. A simple turnaround hook shot or a pump in to the basket would result in a possible foul or at least an efficient scoring attempt in the lane. Considering Marc is 7'1" is being defended by the 6'8" Paul Millsap, it should be a mismatch that Marc can take advantage of.
Instead, Gasol fades away. He is almost completely out of the paint, and Millsap does not even have to jump to defend the shot. When healthy, a typical "Wendigo" game can include one or two of these kinds of shots. In his current state, however, this shot is not the best use of Marc's gifts. As Gasol continues to adjust to his current limitations, he must depend more on his size and length and less on his refined skills in order to maximize his effectiveness.
Maximize the Minutes
Marc, while he has control over his shot selection and positioning on the court to an extent, has little control over the amount of time he spends on the court. Check out his minutes for the season, month by month. Keep in mind Marc was injured on November 22nd against the Spurs.
In 5 February games, he has averaged 37 minutes per game. That is more than he averaged when healthy in one game in October and 11 games in November, not counting that Spurs game. With Marc's increase in minutes, other players have played less. Here are the minutes by month of Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis and Jon Leuer.
Gasol's return of course would mean less minutes for the rest of the Grizzlies front court rotation. However, as Marc gets back in to the swing of things, and as it becomes apparent in a given game that Marc is struggling offensively, why not substitute for him depending on the match-up? Fighting through it makes sense to an extent, but when it becomes apparent his offensive game is affecting the team, there are a plethora of options at Coach Joerger's disposal.
Still need a long body to defend the rim? Koufos or Davis could help in that department. Looking for a spark of offense from mid-range and possibly beyond? Jon Leuer has shown he can be that player when necessary.
Depth does you no good if you do not utilize it. Marc Gasol is an elite big man when he is "on"; on nights where he doesn't have it, Coach Joerger needs to be more willing to go to the bench and take advantage of what is supposed to be one of the strengths of this Memphis roster, it's front court bench players.
Marc Gasol, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is a key to the continued success of the Memphis Grizzlies this season. Defensively, Wendigo has returned and had a definitive impact. Offensively, however, the lingering effects of his injury shine through.
In order for the Grizzlies to make a run as the roster gets healthy, Marc will have to adapt his offensive game and become more focused on getting in the paint, to the free throw line and use his size more than he usually would. Coach Joerger would also be wise to utilize his front court depth more than he has so far this month when Marc is struggling so that the team does not suffer for it.
Marc will get back to where he was eventually. In the event he doesn't do that this season, adjustments must be made. A long-term stay in "the mud" will not result in a playoff run for Memphis this season. Mike Conley's return will help with this issue, but Big Spain needs to be more effective in order for the Grizzlies to return to the postseason this April.
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