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Marc Gasol’s invaluable intelligence

Marc Gasol’s unconventional style of play has been very polarizing over the years. It is also the reason he remains more effective than ever.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Gasol has always been a perfect fit for the Memphis Grizzlies because he embodies so much of the team’s identity himself. Both Gasol and the franchise have experienced sustained success through unconventional methods.

For Gasol, it is his style of play. For someone with his size and skill, most feel a back to the basket, physical skill set is the best way to produce. However, much like the Grizzlies, Gasol has never been one to abide by stereotypical expectations.

With his size, Gasol certainly can bang down low if needed. However, Marc’s game has always been defined by intelligence and finesse. It is less about dominating possessions with individual strength or athleticism, and more focused on a cerebral approach within a team scheme. This could be based on his European roots. Whatever the source of his approach is, it is a big reason Gasol has maintained his effectiveness into his mid 30’s.

One example of this is the evolution of Gasol’s offensive game. Gasol has always been one of the better passing big men in the league. This skill, along with his mid range shooting ability, has made Gasol unique yet effective throughout his career.

When he was younger, Gasol would combine his passing and shooting ability with a dribble drive arsenal for shots in the paint. However, as he got into his 30’s, Marc naturally became less athletic. To combat that, Marc transformed from a paint producer into a realiable catch and shoot three point option.

The result has been 243 threes for Marc since 2016-2017. That is the second most of any center over that time frame.

The key point in the evolution of Gasol’s offensive game is simple. While Marc’s physical ability has become more limited with age, his mental approach is sharp as ever. Gasol’s ability to be a focal point of offensive sets away from the baskets is rare for a big. His decision making on when to shoot versus pass is one of the best in the league.

This puts extra pressure on the defense to commit to one option, while Marc makes them pay by executing the other.

Similar to his offense, Gasol’s defensive ability is not anchored in physicality. He is not one of the league’s best blockers or rebounders. He is not an athletic phenom that can cover a large space quickly. Gasol makes up for the physical limitations with his intelligence. He is one of the best in the league at disrupting his opponent’s movement without the ball, and the opposing offense’s ball movement in general.

For younger, more physically gifted centers, their defense is most effective once the player they are guarding has the ball. They use their body to make it tough to score. They also typically are defending their opponent on the low block. Thus, using their body makes a bigger impact in smaller spaces close to the basket.

The thing that sets Gasol’s approach apart is that his impact is made before his opponent receives the ball. Gasol knows he is at a disadvantage against younger players on the block. As a result, he disrupts his opponents ability to get there.

One way he achieves this is by making his opponent receive passes further from the basket. This requires more ball handling from his opponent, which is usually a weakness of most post players. Plus, while some younger bigs can take Marc of the dribble, the rest of the Grizzlies have more room and time to help.

If the opponent does receive the ball in the low post, Marc is very effective with his hands to disrupt shots and deflect passes. His experience results in accurate anticipation of what his opponent will do with the ball. Thus, he can quickly react to post moves. That same anticipation also allows Marc to sometimes deny his man from being involved in possessions altogether. This makes it harder for the opposition to find an offensive groove, and requires lesser talented players to produce more.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This year, Gasol has already faced Willie Cauley-Stein, Deandre Ayton, and Rudy Gobert multiple times. He also has matched up against Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony Towns. Those are arguably 6 of the NBA’s top 15 centers. In terms of box score stats, a few of these players have had good games against Marc. However, its the effectiveness off their involvement where Marc made the difference.

Overall, these six players have averaged a usage percentage of 23.5% and a turnover percentage of 13.9% per game for the season. When facing Marc, these players have produced a usage percentage of 17.37% and a turnover percentage of 24.72%. Basically, this means that when these players faced Gasol, they touched the ball nearly 30% less than normal and turned the ball over nearly 2 times as much.

The decline in those two numbers identifies the clear advantage Gasol gives the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies opponents have a more difficult time getting the ball to one of their better players. If the opponent does get the ball to the player Gasol is defending, there is a significant chance it will lead to a turnover. This is evidenced by the fact Gasol leads all centers will 26 steals on the season.

Marc has performed his best against the best of this group. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have offensive ratings of 122 and 115, the highest of their careers. Against Marc, they had offensive ratings of 66 and 72, respectively. Jokic only attempted one shot, while Embiid was 4-15 from the field. Their ineffectiveness in those two games played critical roles in Memphis earning two upset wins.

Gasol again is proving to be effective through unconventional methods. While most centers dominate through blocks and rebounds, Marc distracts and annoys through steals, deflections, and hand movement. His individual numbers do not reflect his dominance. However, the Grizzlies’s team defense and his opponent’s ineffectiveness identify his impact. This is the probably the biggest reason why Marc currently leads the NBA in the Real Plus-Minus Measure for the season.

Gasol’s style of play is less about box score production and more about enhancing the Girzzlies’ overall defensive ability. Like his teammates, his length and intelligence disrupts the flow of the opposing offense. This team chemistry on defense allows the Grizzlies to consistently have a chance against more talented teams. Overall, Marc Gasol’s physical ability may be starting to show hints of decline. However, his intelligence is allowing his play to be more effective than ever.