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Gasol & Conley: A Grizzlies Conversation

Andrew Ford and Matt Hrdlicka exchange emails about what the future holds for Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. In Part 1, we tackle Marc Gasol.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

MATT: I've been looking at this offseason as a turning point for the franchise for about 18 months now, but I always viewed that turning point with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley as the fulcrum. Before we get to Conley, let's talk about the guy we actually know will be around the next four years. You know, the one that just had his foot put back together.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about Gasol's injury, so I don't want to get into the nuts and bolts of that. Instead, I want to talk about the future. It's fair to say that post-injury Gasol will probably be different than pre-injury Gasol. How do you think Gasol's game must, or should, change once he returns to the court? Is there anything specific that a foot injury might change about Gasol specifically. I have thoughts, but am interested to hear yours first.

ANDREW: The first thing I would do is slash Gasol's minutes load. Even if Gasol pulls off a relatively full recovery, I can't envision a good reason to regularly play a center who will be thirty-two years old at the start of next season 34 minutes a game. In my head, I'm already thinking of ways to allow Gasol to still serve as the pivot point in the offense without moving as much as he has up to this point.

MATT: You took the words right out of my mouth. He won't physically be able to handle the same minutes load, so the minutes tapering that probably should have started to happen last year, will definitely be in order next.

ANDREW: Gasol will probably still be one of the league leaders in elbow touches, and he will still direct traffic from his perch with grace. But he might not lead the league in post-ups next season like he did this season pre-injury. So much of his post game is contingent upon solid footwork, and this injury could easily make it more difficult to maneuver and plant his foot to drive through moves like he needs to. For example, think about his baseline turnaround jumper from the left block. The first foot he has to plant in the ground is his right one. He might not be completely comfortable putting so much stress on his foot when he comes back, which could mean even more sweeping hook shots in the middle of the lane where less planting of feet is required.

MATT: 100% agree. Gasol's low post game will be the first thing sacrificed. It's the most taxing way for him to score: he has to fight for position, spin this way or that, and then finish over his defender.

ANDREW: It would be in the Grizzlies and Gasol's best interest to find ways to create more standstill shots for him. Perhaps rather than Gasol rolling so much to the rim, we see an even heavier reliance on the pick-and-pop, where Gasol would have to shift less weight and move less throughout the course of an offensive possession. What I would really like to see — and really now is the perfect time — is for Gasol to start bombing threes. His mechanics on his jumper are good enough to extend out to the three-point line. It might take some repetition for him to feel comfortable shooting regularly from beyond the arc, but that's something that should be explored.

MATT: I think the 3 pt shot happens now out of necessity. Gasol doesn't have to be a dead-eye shooter, but even hitting just +34% as a center creates issues for a defense that would really help open up other things for the Grizzlies. More room for Conley. More room for ZBo. Gasol already punts the offensive glass to get back on defense, and hanging around the 3 pt line affords him a head start.

ANDREW: We haven't even touched on how his role might change defensively. What do you envision the Grizzlies getting from Gasol upon his return, and how do you think he should be managed?

MATT: As far as offense is concerned, I'm hopeful Gasol's injury's silver lining is that it accelerates changes that should have happened anyway. Gasol should be playing less. He has skills to fall back on, and potentially add, that would make him more efficient.

ANDREW: I would rather the change of Gasol's offensive role to be necessitated purely by age rather than age and injury, but you make a good point about his role finally shifting in a more progressive direction in terms of managing minutes, playing more outside, etc.

MATT: I'm just searching for silver linings Andrew! Our franchise cornerstone has the same foot injury as Yao Ming and Joel Embiid. Let me have this!

But back to Gasol's defense. Gasol doesn't jump that much, and he's economical in his lateral movements when cutting down angles. But I wonder if his defense can suffer another physical limitation. What will being a quarter step slower mean when Russell Westbrook is charging down the lane? Will he be able to "anchor" a defense anymore? I don't know if I'd count on it.

ANDREW: I wouldn't necessarily count on Gasol to be able to anchor the defense to the extent that he is in the past, but I also don't think he will be as affected on that end of the floor as he will on the offensive end. On offense, the Grizzlies have the ability to significantly alter Gasol's role and move him all around the court to do so. Defensively, Gasol's size and position basically dictate the role he will play within the defense. Now, he might not be good at that role, but I don't think his defensive role is going to drastically change.

It's easy to envision Gasol struggling some to shift as quickly side-to-side in pick-and-rolls, but the good news is that Gasol typically defends pick-and-rolls in the drop position rather than hedging high, blitzing, or executing other tactics that require more movement. His injury could alter the team's ability to call an audible on pick-and-roll coverage when necessary. For example, having Gasol drop back to guard the pick-and-roll works just fine when a point guard like Elfrid Payton is the ball-handler. But that all changes when you're going against a guy like Damian Lillard who will just rise and shoot a high-percentage jumper when Gasol sags back toward the paint.

Dave Joerger assuming he is the coach next season, which I don't think is a certainty at this point — has much to think about this offseason in terms of restructuring the load of his two workhorses in Gasol and Conley to make their roles more economical in the hope of increasing longevity.

MATT: I think Gasol is a smart, but stubborn guy, and will only change his game if forced. This injury could be that decision point for him. I think we are both hopeful, or at least can see paths on both sides of the ball, where Gasol can mitigate the problems this foot injury causes. If he were a player whose game revolved around athleticism - Deandre Jordan for instance - I'd think about this injury much differently.

Like you said, I think Gasol can play the same "drop back/cut off passing angles" role he plays now. I think the league is still about 2-3 years away from where outside shooting is prevalent from the center position. That gives Gasol a window where he doesn't have to change his role much on defense, and can move his offensive game to the three point line ahead of the curve of the rest of the league so that other teams will still struggle to find a defensive counter for him.

One thing you're hinting at that we'll put in our back pocket: for so long, Gasol and Conley have plugged the gaps of the rest of the roster. I think we are nearing the tipping point where the rest of the roster has to start plugging gaps for Gasol and Conley. We'll hit that later.

Give me a quick answer on this one, because I want to move on to Conley: 1). Do you think Gasol will make these offensive changes? 2). Do you think he is an above average starter if he doesn't? 3). Depending on yes or no, how long does he continue to be an above average starter?

ANDREW: Like you said, I think Gasol will resist making changes for as long as possible. I see him shooting threes before he gives up his post game though. He'll be waaaay to prideful to stop banging down low so much.

Whether or not Gasol is an above average starter if he doesn't make any changes depends so much on how well his foot heals. Even if he returns to be about 70% of the player he was, I think he can be average to slightly above-average. Now that's obviously not what the Grizzlies signed him to be long-term, but getting too much out of him after this foot injury could prove to be a challenge, especially at his age.

If Gasol doesn't adapt his game to take unnecessary pressure off of himself, I think he can still be an above average starter for two more seasons, but I don't know that he's going to be as far above the average player as we hope.

MATT: Despite what I said, I agree with you, I think Gasol will try to play the same way he did pre-injury. I don't think that is wise, nor do I think it's particularly likely he returns to that level of production.

The good news is that the rising salary cap gives Memphis a break. In two years, Gasol's '17-'18 salary will be the equivalent of $14mm today.  Frankly, that is about what above average starters make right now, and that's all Gasol needs to be to justify his contract. Just be a net positive most nights. If he can be that, Memphis will be in very good shape.

That ends Part 1. Tune in for Part 2 tomorrow!