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Gasol and Valanciunas Are Dead

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On Grizzlies fans, their existential crisis, and the absurdist idea that there must be losers in all trades.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

So wrote the playwright Tom Stoppard in his existential masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Who knew Stoppard must have been a Memphis Grizzlies fan before they even existed?

It has been almost five weeks since the Grizzlies traded away one of the greatest players in their history, Marc Gasol. In those five weeks, those that have replaced Marc- C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, and most specifically Jonas Valanciunas - have performed admirably, considering the circumstances. The Grizzlies, behind the efforts of the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Mike Conley, have won three games in a row and appear to be enjoying the game of basketball far more than they were before Gasol’s departure.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The energy, the enthusiasm, the enjoyment that this random group of NBA players is getting from being on the court together is wonderful to see both in its organic nature and its absurd authenticity. In an extremely short amount of time together, in the vacuum left behind post-Gasol, an absence of expectation from a demanding, declining leader, a convoluted collection of some of the league’s most notable castoffs and “other guys” is making basketball fun again in Memphis.

Beyond being fun, or perhaps connected to that very real emotion, is the fact that they’re performing at a higher level.

Conley’s three-game stretch has been astounding. 31.3 points on 57.4% shooting, a remarkable 55.4% from beyond the arc, 7.7 assists, 15.3 fourth quarter points, and a career night dropping 40 points on Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers add up to what must be the most meaningful stretch of basketball for Mike since he went toe to toe with Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 NBA Playoffs. In terms of overall display of scoring ability, this is probably the best Conley has played...maybe ever. All of this is happening without the player so many of us connect to him, the guy he played with for over a decade, the big brother figure for almost all of his NBA career.

Strange. What makes it even more peculiar, however, is you can argue Conley’s increased production is connected to Marc being gone, and Jonas Valanciunas being in Memphis in his place.

Jonas Valanciunas has benefited in his own right with the change of scenery. In 10 games with Memphis, Valanciunas has posted a +11 net rating and a .190 win share per 48 minutes number, as well as a staggering 26.1 PER, which would be a career high if maintained for a longer period of time. That PER number, if kept throughout the course of a whole season, would put Valanciunas in the realm of Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, and Joel Embiid.

You know, the best big men in the NBA.

Valanciunas has been impressive his entire career when it comes to advanced statistics. His net rating of +14 (offensive rating of 118, defensive rating of 104) is better than his Memphis numbers, and are better than those of Marc Gasol over the span of their entire careers. When comparing Valanciunas’ best season combining durability (played over 75 games) with production (win shares per 48 minutes) - last season, 2017-2018 - he fairs well alongside Marc’s best similar season using the same criteria, Marc’s 2012-2013 season.

Gasol vs. Valanciunas

Games Played Minutes Played Win Shares Per 48 Minutes Net Rating Offensive Rating Defensive Rating PER
Games Played Minutes Played Win Shares Per 48 Minutes Net Rating Offensive Rating Defensive Rating PER
80 2,796 0.197 17 115 98 19.5
77 1,727 0.21 17 120 103 22.5

Context is needed, of course. Gasol had a much larger role as one of the team’s best players, while Valanciunas played second and even third fiddle to the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Marc played over 1,000 more minutes than Jonas while playing in only three more games. Per-36 minute numbers drive home the point that as a scorer and rebounder, Valanciunas was far superior to Gasol over the course of their best sustained campaigns. The idea that Jonas Valanciunas has been unleashed in Memphis, as described by our own Justin Lewis, is fair not just in terms of role but in terms of time on the court. With the Grizzlies Valanciunas has played 25.6 minutes per game as he has worked his way back from injury and improved his conditioning. He has not logged more than that over an entire season since the 2016-2017 season.

Also, Marc was 28 years old during that peak statistical/durability season. Jonas was 25.

Valanciunas turns 27 on May 6th. We may not have yet seen Jonas’ best season.

So when Valanciunas dominates on the block, or gobbles up rebounds, or blocks shooters at the rim, and it leads to wins, naturally visions of Gasol’s struggles and moody behavior creep up as negatives compared to Jonas’ positives. When we watch Valanciunas interviews and hear him genuinely excited to be playing alongside Conley and Joakim Noah and others, and not be commenting on coaching, or playing the “winning way”, it is understandable to not long for the coded frustration of Big Spain.

It is OK to argue that the Grizzlies, as they are now, are better off without Marc Gasol.

Where debate comes off the rails is when you take the most recent form of Gasol - the player past his prime, the attitude that was always there to an extent but had become worse in recent years in ways - and allow for that to distract from just how good peak Marc was.

Here are some more statistical comparisons from the best of Marc, compared to the best of Valanciunas.

Marc vs. Jonas

Assist Percentage Total Rebound Percentage Block Percentage Defensive Box +/- Usage Wins Over Replacement
Assist Percentage Total Rebound Percentage Block Percentage Defensive Box +/- Usage Wins Over Replacement
19.10% 13.10% 4.10% 4.4 19.20% 15.39
7.50% 21.40% 3.20% 0.8 22.70% 4.05

The key to analyzing data is to take it and match it with what your eyes tell you. The images on the screen can lie just as the numbers in a calculator or algorithm can. Combining the two gives you the best chance to come to a logical conclusion. In the case of these two bigs, it does just that.

It tells us that Jonas Valanciunas and Marc Gasol are very different players...and given how the Gasol era ended poorly, the fact that Jonas is so different is making him seem better, and Marc worse, than they truly were.

Valanciunas is a bruiser, a physical specimen who sets screens that would make Ben Wallace proud and can body even the strongest NBA big on the block. He is a beast on the boards, and can take over stretches of games.

He is not the passer, defender, or overall impact player when it comes to winning basketball games that Marc Gasol was. At least not yet. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been a piece of a trade for Marc Gasol.

Gasol, meanwhile, is a guard in the body of a big. He is a facilitator of offense who at his peak was arguably the most dominant force on the NBA’s scariest defensive unit. Tony Allen was the perimeter boogeyman, but without Gasol on the back line making others right when they made mistakes Memphis is not the defensive juggernaut that it was during the peak of Grit and Grind.

He is not the rebounder, or low post player, than Jonas Valanciunas is at this stage of his career...and you can easily argue he never was.

And none of this is an indictment on how either of them play alongside Mike Conley. Gasol was a better creator than screener, and vice versa for Valanciunas. Both help Conley tremendously, just in different ways.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The existential crisis going on in the minds of Grizzlies fans is one connected to the human experience. The debates about Gasol vs. Valanciunas, and Marc’s place among the elite in Grizzlies history, are very much like the random conversations that occur throughout Stoppard’s classic play. We can talk circles around each other all day - Zach Randolph’s impact, Tony Allen’s culture-defining moment, Mike Conley’s combination of all that made the Core Four Era great. How Marc Gasol’s time in Memphis ended clouds judgment as to where he stands in the halls of Grizzlies history.

Just because Valanciunas is different does not make him better than Gasol.

Just because Jonas is a better fit now doesn’t make Marc’s Grizzlies career any less meaningful.

And just because Mike Conley is thriving doesn’t mean Marc Gasol had to leave for it to happen.

Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that “Uncertainty is the normal state”. That’s especially true in Memphis right now, and because of the instability that surrounds the franchise the Grizzlies are experiencing a range of emotions and unexpected outcomes. They are paying dividends where struggle was expected. The new-look team is thriving in ways the old one was dying.

But burning the bridge and forgetting the place you were before you crossed only leads to smoky memories and watery eyes.

And neither Gasol’s past nor Valanciunas’ future are better for it.

Stats provided by basketball-reference.com

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