I know what you’re thinking...
"Stay healthy." Duh. Easy, right?
Not really. For you see, Marc Gasol, the starting Center for the Memphis Grizzlies, the team’s first All-NBA first team member and All-Star starter, wasn’t quite himself last season even before his foot injury.
In almost every category, Gasol in 2015-2016 performed well below his numbers from his two All-Star seasons, and below his career averages. He struggled particularly at scoring the basketball in the paint and around the rim; compare his shot chart from 2014-2015, his best season to date, to this past year.
Where Gasol made his biggest impact in former Head Coach Dave Joerger’s offense, at the elbow and in the paint, is where he struggled most. He had an 8% drop-off in conversions at and around the rim. and a 7.9% drop at and around the free throw line area.
Now outside those spots, he actually shot better than he did the year before, especially from just beyond the right elbow. But from two spots where over half his shots came from in both seasons, he suffered a significant decrease in production.
He also was not the impactful defensive player he had been in previous seasons. While he posted the worst offensive rating of his career (a paltry 105), according to defensive rating he also had his worst defensive campaign since the 2010-2011 season at 106. That is far worse than one would expect from a former Defensive Player of the Year.
Marc is known for being a dominant rim protector, drastically impacting offenses' ability to score in the lane. But offenses shot better from 6 feet and in (-7% worse than their average in 2014-2015, only -3.1% worse in 2015-2016) against Marc last year. He simply did not rotate as cleanly, and was not as effective, in help defense and drive stops at the rim. That nearly 4% change can make a real difference in terms of opposing offensive efficiency and execution, and of course in winning and losing.
What was the cause of this decrease in all-around production? Gasol pointed to not playing international basketball before last season as a possibility, perhaps throwing off his preseason training routines and affecting his rhythm/timing. This is certainly a valid theory. Athletes are creatures of habit, and disruptions in schedule or preparations for a season can change things sometimes for the worse instead of for the intended better.
Other possibilities include teams evolving their game plans defensively to better defend what made Gasol so effective. Teams clearly were better prepared for Marc, placing greater emphasis on getting him outside the lane with floor spacing lineups and forcing him to pass out of the elbow before he was ready. Again, rhythm and timing being thrown off can lead to decreased effectiveness on both ends of the floor, and Marc didn't have the pieces around him to help him get out of this funk before his injury.
So what can be done to get Marc Gasol back to his previous greatness? It's important to point out that it may not be possible. The broken bone in his foot should heal as long as rehab goes smoothly (as all current information to this point indicates it has), but for a 7’1", 270 pound man, having a break in any part of the foot is cause for concern. He has started to shoot and do other exercises, as Instagram videos and other social media posts from him and the Memphis Grizzlies themselves have shown, but progress remains slow.
He was unable to make the final roster for Spain in the 2016 Summer Olympics (thankfully, sorry Spain) due to a lack of medical clearance, but because of the methodical and necessary process of healing, it would be optimistic, to say the least, to expect Marc to be full strength for Training Camp. This, on top of not playing basketball since February, again throws off training and preparation for the season. No matter the adjustment, it's possible that Marc Gasol is not just going to be a lesser player than he was this past season...he may never be the player he was in 2014-2015 season again.
Depressing, right? Now that that has been addressed, let’s be positive, shall we?
Let’s say his recovery goes well and he gets some light work in camp and in some later preseason games. Even if his minutes per game take a hit (as they probably should considering Memphis’ current front court depth and the addition of Chandler Parsons who can play stretch four), Marc should be playing around 30 minutes per game, or even less, not the roughly 34 minutes per game he has averaged in his career. He can still potentially be that great player we all saw two seasons ago. There are tweaks to be made, however, and thankfully for Marc those changes are coming and don’t necessarily force him to alter his game that drastically.
A Little Help from New Friends
The new Head Coach of the Memphis Grizzlies promises some offensive innovation this season and beyond, at least compared to years past. There will be attempts to push the pace, to run sets far sooner in the shot clock, and to get players in positions to attack early and often. These can all be positives for the returning Gasol as he gets back to game shape.
How? Marc can emphasize one of his greatest strengths - creating for others.
Marc has an offensive skill set so refined that what he may lack in explosiveness in his first step due to his recovery, he can make up for in passing and driving angles. Whether it be as an outlet passer off of a rebound, or as a point center from above the free throw line, Marc’s acumen for distributing the basketball can be utilized in a variety of ways in the new schemes from David Fizdale. Unleashing those skills and schemes will also take opponents time to get used to; with a first time head coach, the mystery that is the system that will be run offensively and defensively is quite the advantage, especially early in the season as Marc gets up to the speed of the game.
This is all well and good in theory, but is dependent on a couple things: first, the return of his ability to hit that elbow jumper consistently...and even beyond. The idea of Gasol shooting threes has been a dream of some for a while now, including Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and our own Matt Hrdlicka, among others.
If Marc can make even more space for himself through this progression in his game, it allows for more slashing and attacking the rim from the wings. Again, his progress is possible in a Fizdale offense, who was a member of a coaching staff in Miami that used Chris Bosh as a perimeter threat. Considering Marc shot so well beyond the elbow (in a small sample size) last season, this addition to his game is more of a possibility than ever before.
Also, the addition of Chandler Parsons (another "if healthy all-star") will be massive for Marc. Earlier this week I took a look at specific players who will benefit from Parsons in Memphis (check it out here) and Gasol was not mentioned. Of course he will be a beneficiary of Chandler’s Grizzlies arrival as well, and Parsons could make Marc’s life easier. Gasol working at and around the low post with Parsons on the wing will mean far less double teams on Marc at the rim from the perimeter, and a high post pick and roll/pop game between Parsons and Gasol could be deadly.
Defensively, a return to impact player status for Gasol is going to be dependent on Marc’s recovery and ability to cover ground of course. However, with the additions of players like Wade Baldwin IV and James Ennis, the length and athleticism on the wing should allow for more switching and aggression in terms of perimeter defense. This creates valuable time and opportunity for Gasol to take an angle for helping on dribble penetration. The longer these players can allow for Marc to get into position as a rim protector, the better off the progressing Gasol will be.
As the season approaches, there will surely be more dives into how Marc Gasol will play coming off of his foot surgery. There will be optimistic takes, and pessimistic prognostications. Of course, no one knows just how Gasol’s foot will take to increased workloads, or whether Marc can even be that great All-NBA center again. Time will tell on that front.
But one thing is clear: Gasol’s performance, both this season and beyond, is directly connected to Memphis at large. Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons are major pieces to this new Grizzlies core as well, of course, but Gasol was the first of the three to sign a max deal. How he responds to his rehab and how the new looks that Fizdale, Parsons, and other new Grizzlies bring to Memphis mesh with the returning Gasol will be the difference between a continuation of postseason appearances and potential success and the end of what has become a bit of a tradition in the 901 - playoff basketball in the spring.
All the more reason to be positive about Marc Gasol hopefully becoming great again.