No one is going to feel sorry for the Memphis Grizzlies, or one of their leaders Marc Gasol.
Such is the nature of competition. Gasol gets that - he is a competitor, and clearly one of the most influential players in the NBA, at least when it comes to the direction of the franchise for which he plays. Having the ear and friendship of owner Robert Pera will do that - Gasol and Pera seem to understand one another, and that relationship empowers Marc. Coaching issues, playing time problems, game plan execution, roster moves...whenever a decision is made regarding which way the franchise will head, Gasol is part of the process either directly or indirectly.
It is why the Grizzlies are who they are, a team built around defense and methodical pace. Because that best fits their personnel...and Marc Gasol is a central pillar of that personnel. Mike Conley could run if necessary. Jaren Jackson Jr. as well. Kyle Anderson is about a fast as a sloth, but his versatile game would make him able to adjust to a faster style.
Memphis is who it is as a team in large part because of Marc Gasol.
Earlier this season? That was a good thing. They were 12-5, at the top of the Western Conference, flying high and having folks buy in to the idea that going against the grain was the smart way to play the modern NBA if you were Memphis. However, since that start the Grizzlies are 6-17 and look more like last season’s tank squad than a playoff contender. The defense that is built around Gasol has completely fallen apart, and the offense that was always going to be weaker than the defense is not able to compete in the NBA. With great influence comes great accountability - the hot start was thanks in large part to Marc Gasol.
Now their fall from grace is because of him as well.
The drop off is shocking.
Over the span of October and November, 21 total games, Marc Gasol averaged 48% shooting total from the floor, 41.6% conversions of his three point shot attempts, and 18 points a game. He did all of this while posting dominant defensive statistics, including an impressive 103 defensive rating over the month of November. He even averaged a double double over that 15 game stretch - 19.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and a +12 net rating (115 offensive rating, 103 defensive rating). He was dominant...a very outside shot MVP candidate.
Over the last 19 games of the season, also known as December and January, Marc has shot 37.7% from the floor, 27.5% from three, which has been good for 12.3 points per game. In fact, the only area where his numbers are really up are his assists (5.1 per game compared to 4 per game in October and November) and free throw percentage. While that improvement is relatively drastic - 72.8% October/November, 86.2% December/January - the drop off in attempts cancels that out as well. Gasol has taken only 2.68 free throws per game over the last 19 contests compared to 4.9 attempts over the previous 21. He simply isn’t as aggressive offensively.
Defensively he is a step slow and his impact on that end has gone from remarkably dominant to unbelievably bad. He looks like he can no longer move laterally - he is either unwilling or unable to step out on open shooters on switches and over screens, and when the defense collapses rotations are a step slow as well and far too many easy dunks are had at the rim for Grizzlies opponents. Opposing squads shot 45.6% from the field in six October games against the Grizzlies and a worse 44.7% in November. So far in January teams playing the Grizzlies are shooting 48.4%.
That is unacceptable.
There is a very likely culprit in all this. Gasol rolled his ankle against the Toronto Raptors on November 27th, and since then he has not been anywhere near the same player. Instead of sitting out and getting healthy, however, Marc has continued to play...and play a lot. As Chris Herrington pointed out recently on the Daily Memphian...
...Gasol is ninth in the NBA in minutes played this season. The only other seven-footer in the Top 20 is 23-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns. The only other player Gasol’s age (33) or older in the Top 20 is P.J. Tucker, a role player who is called on to do far less...
These numbers change and fluctuate daily with the turning of the NBA schedule, but the fact remains that at a time where Gasol probably should be resting and trying to get right physically, he has grinded along as the season schedule has led to far less attempts to rest. While Father Time is indeed undefeated, and will surely beat Marc in the long run, it is hard to ignore these numbers and the injury timeline’s connection to them. For the Grizzlies to compete, Memphis needs both Gasol and Mike Conley at their best.
Marc isn’t there, and because of it the entire team is faltering.
So why won’t he sit?
Perhaps it is that undeniably brilliant basketball mind of Gasol telling him this team needs him on the floor to be successful. In the past, that has been true - make no mistake, this is still a factual statement as well. But as Marc ages, his ability to compensate for injury dissipates, as it does for all of us. Gone is the Gasol who was able to return relatively early from injuries like a hernia and compete at a high level. In his place is a player whose basketball mortality is on display now more than ever before...and it is hurting the team he leads.
You can tell he is frustrated by the losing...and possibly this development-
At this stage of his career, though, Gasol should be willing to step back when necessary for the greater good of the franchise. Is that to say Memphis would be better off without Marc this season? Almost certainly not. The great beginning to this campaign is evidence of the impact a healthy Gasol still makes on this team.
In this moment though, a Grizzlies team with Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5, Kyle Anderson as a point forward 4, with Justin Holiday starting alongside Garrett Temple and Mike Conley, may very well give Memphis a better chance to win. The uniqueness of the lineup, and the reserve unit combinations that would follow, would throw off opposing teams that would not be able to adjust to the different look the Grizzlies use in a short amount of time. You do this for two or three games, and all of a sudden a week has passed. Roughly seven days for Marc to sit, to rehab and heal in more ways than just physically. The tension and frustration with the team’s performance, as well as his own, surely has bent Gasol’s self-confidence. The way to get it right is to step back.
That isn’t to say Grizzlies Coach J.B. Bickerstaff would even try this starting lineup in Gasol’s absence - JaMychal Green seems like the easiest substitution in terms of sticking with what J.B. currently wants to do. It also probably isn’t wise to assume that Bickerstaff or the front office is willing to fight the fight of trying to convince Marc to sit out. J.B. has seen what Gasol’s personality does when it clashes with the belief systems of a coach, and Bickerstaff has the job he has in large part because of Gasol’s high praise for him. Robert Pera and the front office surely had that weighing on their minds when the hire was made without much (or any) public coaching search.
Marc’s fingerprints are all over this organization, both on and off the floor. For better or worse.
The grind of an NBA season can take its toll on even the most mentally tough person, and the physical burden is a tremendous one to bear. That is especially true in Memphis, where Marc Gasol is vital to the success of the Grizzlies. Yet as his team fades out of the playoff picture, for the first time the best option may not be for Marc to play through the pain. The Grizzlies are closer than ever before to a time where Gasol realistically may not be in Memphis - whether through Marc opting out this summer, leaving in free agency in 2020, or (probably least likely) via trade, there are more avenues for a path beyond Big Spain than there have been in the past.
It is also equally possible Marc re-signs with Memphis in the next year or two, as he still holds more value to the Grizzlies than just about anywhere else. The relationship with Pera will loom large there as well. Still, this broken and bent version of Gasol both physically and mentally is wearing down this team. Until he finds a second wind, or willingly steps aside to find his footing both on the court and in his own head, the downward spiral will continue for both him and Memphis.
And no one will feel sorry for either of them.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com.