The Memphis Grizzlies' evolution in to Marc Gasol's team essentially became complete with the signing of his 5-year $113 million contract this past off-season. Of course the Grizzlies are still a sum of their collective parts and the roles of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, and especially Mike Conley are very defined in Memphis' success over the last five seasons. But there is a reason that Marc Gasol received the contract that he did, that he is the first Memphis Grizzly to ever be named an NBA All-Star Game starter or First Team All-NBA as the best Center in the entire Association.
He's that damn good.
As the Grizzlies continue to build the franchise around their cornerstone, an eye will assuredly be kept to keeping Gasol in the best position to be successful. A max contract is not a "make-up" deal; it is meant to be an investment in greatness to come. In order to keep the good Gasol times rolling as he heads in to his early thirties, those who surround him on the court must be in a position to supplement and support his style of play. Marc is a renaissance man, a jack of all trades who impacts the game on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Because of this, having players next to him, especially alongside him as bigs in and around the paint, who help with his imperfections or supplement his strengths must be made a priority.
He can't do it all himself, he needs some help. It will be on the front office to organize and offer up this assistance, and the current roster is an interesting assortment of athletes who Gasol will lean on in one way or another, depending on the role they are given by Head Coach Dave Joerger and his staff.
Old Faithful: The Bruiser on the Boards
Marc Gasol plays a physical brand of basketball. Offensively he takes on a ton of contact as he fights for his shots, especially his signature hook in the lane...
On defense, when scheme funnels driving guards and wings in to him, there is the rough equivalent of a linebacker attempting to tackle a running back or wide receiver in football. Basketball is a contact sport, and Gasol takes on his fair share.
Therefore, where the time comes for really nitty-gritty work on the boards, a player of Gasol's skill set is better served differing to his front court mate. He is aligned currently with one of the best rebounders in the business in Zach Randolph, so this makes Gasol's life that much easier. Marc is not counted on to battle for boards night in and night out. That is Randolph's job, and Z-Bo remains elite in this area even as his skills begin the deterioration that age and miles on the tires eventually brings to all athletes.
This is because, as has been written about on numerous occasions both on this site and elsewhere, Zach has an uncanny ability to position himself under the basket and time the bounce of the shot off the rim. His size and center of gravity will not fade as the next two years or so carry on; Randolph can consistently offer the Grizzlies, and Gasol in particular, the valuable asset of dominating the glass. This is especially true on the offensive end of the floor, where Marc is rarely in position to grab offensive rebounds due to his role as an elbow facilitator.
Athleticism is not necessary for those in this role. Will power, strength and understanding of the game is, and Randolph has those qualities in spades. Other Grizzlies, like Jarnell Stokes, could potentially fill this role as time goes on and Z-Bo rides in to the sunset of a stellar career. For now, that eventual trip in to Memphis folk lore will have to wait. As long as Zach is producing and being the proverbial Yin to Gasol's Yang, there is no need to break up one of the best duos in the entire NBA.
The Change-Up: Speed (and Length) Kills
Much like Randolph, Gasol himself will never be mistaken for a track star or athletic maven. He surely has athleticism, as all athletes do, but the term "Athlete" with regard to an "athlete" means exceptional God-given natural skill beyond the norm. Marc does not have a ton of this; his skill set is more of the trained basketball variety...
Not many NBA players can make those kinds of reads of defenses and passes, much less a seven footer. However, there are some things that other NBA players can do that Marc cannot. Gasol is not an "above the rim" player who can finish consistently at the bucket with high efficiency jams. While he fancies himself a Point Guard at times on the floor, he does not have the elite ability to drive and dish in transition to force defenses on their heels. Not a ton of Centers do (unless you count Anthony Davis as a Center) and the fact that Gasol tries and is even sometimes successful is relatively impressive.
He cannot get that done consistently and be what Memphis needs him to be as a facilitator of offense and anchor of defense.
Thankfully, outside of the times he wishes to try to be that guy himself, he does not need to worry about creating those athletic plays. There are men on his team who are more than capable of filling that role. Men like Brandan Wright, whose athletic prowess has been witnessed by Grizzlies fans time and again as Wright played for rivals like the Dallas Mavericks. He adds a pick-and-roll element to Memphis that hasn't been around since Ed Davis bossed his way around the FedExForum, and even then the "potential" finishing prowess that Davis possesses was nowhere near as consistent as what Wright brings to the table.
Marc can do a lot of things. He cannot do those things, not consistently. And he doesn't have to; Gasol's traditional elbow placement will only create more space on the opposite end of the court for Wright and other ball handlers to work in the pick-and-roll. This makes Wright more of a fit for the Grizzlies' offense theorhetically than the recently departed Kosta Koufos. While Wright is not the defensive stopper that Koufos was for the Grizzlies he has the length and athletic ability to negate some of his shortcomings and still make an impact. Getting in the lane and shooting the basketball over both Gasol and Wright will be a tall task for driving guards and wings across the NBA this coming season.
Not all athletes are the same, however. Wright is impactful in some ways, but there are other athletes on the roster who can play that 4 position and play well off of Marc in others. As the NBA shifts its definition of "big" to something more...broad, players who traditionally would not be considered "bigs" are being asked to redefine the position. Because of this, a guy like Jeff Green, the enigmatic polarizer of Grizzlies fans everywhere, is (in theory) a great small-ball 4 to compliment Gasol on the offensive end of the floor. Wright cannot get out in transition and take advantage of Gasol outlet passes like this one...
Jeff Green can. He is decent-to-good handling the basketball in these spots and has shown time and again in Memphis and elsewhere that one of his most valuable offensive skill is the ability to create for himself in transition.
Whether he is finishing at the rim or getting to the free-throw line (as he did in Memphis' first preseason game against the Houston Rockets) this is Green at his best. He has shown the capacity as well to hit the corner-three at a decent clip.
Jeff, when utilized properly and executing according to his skill set, has the "potential" to be an offensive force alongside Gasol. He also could "potentially" defend small-ball 4's, all the rage in the NBA, and allow for Randolph (in shorts spurts hopefully) and Wright to spell Marc when able and necessary on the defensive end. Green's talent is not in question; how it is executed and operated within scheme is the question that continues to be debated among Grizzlies fans. He does not need to be "the man" in this role, he just needs to do the things that "the man" Gasol cannot and amplify Marc's strengths.
JaMychal Green has shown flashes of being able to do a mix of all of these skills, and his athleticism and length as more of traditional "big" has actually been undervalued by many heading in to this season. However, considering what he has shown in limited minutes and from reports from training camp the "other J. Green" may get a chance to show his worth and fit alongside Gasol sooner rather than later. Matt Barnes is another player who could possibly see time at the 4. His athleticism may be lesser than that of the Greens but he has played the position in the past with his last team the LA Clippers, is a tenacious defender on the perimeter and in close space, and is also capable of shooting the three and opening up room for Gasol and penetrators both on and off the ball.
Marc Gasol is the man. Make no mistake, he is who the Memphis Grizzlies hope to build around moving forward (alongside hopefully Mike Conley.) In the future, continuing to put pieces around Gasol all over the court who get the most out of his unique skill set must be a priority of Grizzlies' brass. In the short term? They have done an exemplary job out of finding pieces to the puzzle in the front court who are what Gasol is not and enable Marc to play to his wide array of strengths. He can be physical without being a bruiser, a skilled athlete without elite athleticism.
He has help. Flawed help in individual pieces, but as a whole a unit of potential front court players who can help Memphis keep their cornerstone solid throughout the year and create opportunities for him to continue to shine. Zach Randolph is the main piece still, but there are others who will support and supplement as the season grinds along.
The collective is stronger than any one sole part. Just the way Marc Gasol and his Memphis Grizzlies like it.