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From Lithuania and Spain with love for Memphis

18 months later, the Marc Gasol-Jonas Valanciunas trade has become more beneficial than anyone expected.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Toronto Raptors Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Just over 18 months ago, the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors agreed to a trade that they hoped would significantly enhance the different but ideal directions both franchises were heading toward. For Toronto, it was a focus on the present in pursuit of an NBA title. For Memphis, it was a focus on the future to rebuild one of the NBA’s least talented rosters into a sustainable winner.

In the trade, the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol, one of the greatest and most beloved players in Grizzlies history. The hope was that Gasol would become a defensive anchor and good supporting piece on offense. Gasol was viewed as a needed addition to allow the Raptors to truly become a threat in a crowded group atop the Eastern Conference standings.

In return, Memphis received Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, and a 2024 second rounder. At the time, the initial reactions to the Grizzlies’ return for Gasol were mixed. Many, including myself, were hoping for a return package with more valuable future assets. However, the hope was that one of the new Grizzlies would emerge as a key asset in the team’s rebuilding efforts.

For both Gasol and Valanciunas, a change of scenery was logical. They both were now in places where they knew they were valued in the present and future, and in ideal roles in which they could thrive. Both big men also knew they had a very good chance of taking their careers to higher levels than ever before.

Gasol still held plenty of value in Memphis at the time of the trade. However, most of the value Gasol could provide would be in the present, and the Grizzlies had a bigger need to start building for the future. Gasol had reached a point in his career where he was better suited to fill a secondary role than a featured one. Due to a big difference in their competitive timelines, the Raptors were in much better position to create that opportunity for Gasol than the Grizzlies.

For Valanciunas, though not as obvious of a trade candidate as Gasol was at the time, his future in Toronto had become more uncertain as the 2018-2019 season progressed. New schemes and preferences from the hiring of coach Nick Nurse, along with injury struggles for the second straight year, seemed to make Valanciunas less of a preference for the Raptors. As Toronto experienced success due to the development of other young players, the Raptors thought Valanciunas was most valuable as a trade piece to bring in a better fit for their roster and their title hopes.

While both teams and big men hoped the trade would add positive value to their pursuits and careers, the present and future benefits that followed likely exceeded the initial expectations of everyone involved.

2019 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In Toronto, Gasol experienced a significant decline in his offensive production. However, it seems less usage certainly made Gasol more valuable, as his defense allowed him to play a significant role for the Raptors in the NBA Playoffs. Gasol’s defensive efforts were highly effective against All-Star talents Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Raptors emerged from Eastern Conference to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Toronto defeated the Warriors in six games, and though it did not come in Memphis, one of the beloved Core Four members had finally earned a long awaited and highly deserved distinction in his career: NBA champion.

In Memphis, Valanciunas did not experience a fairy tale ending in terms of his team’s success. However, he did get an immediate and needed boost to his career as he became a featured part of the Grizzlies offense. Along with Mike Conley, Valanciunas played a major role in the Grizzlies experiencing a highly productive stretch of offensive play they had not seen in years. Though Valanciunas’s season ended early, he had clearly displayed the value he could provide for a team that desperately needed a reliable source of offensive output.

Both the Raptors and Grizzlies correctly capitalized on the present value that Gasol offered at the time of the trade. Toronto gained its final piece to a puzzle that resulted in an NBA Title. Memphis acquired a paint presence that added a reliable source of low-post scoring and rebounding to a struggling offense and rebuilding roster. The Grizzlies also made a significant and successful first step in the beginning of its journey toward winning.

Initially after the trade, though Valanciunas made a more immediate impact, many considered Wright a more likely source of future value for the Grizzlies of the pieces that came over from Toronto. Theoretically, Wright provided exactly that; however, it was provided when he was traded to Dallas. In a sign and trade deal last summer, Memphis sent Wright to the Mavericks for two second round picks. An even bigger development was the money that was thought to be earmarked for Wright was used to sign Tyus Jones.

Memphis also extended Valanciunas for three years to remain with the Grizzlies. The end result of trading Gasol ultimately was Valanciunas, Jones, and three second round picks. Though the trade certainly had mixed reviews at the time it was completed, the past year has made it turn into a big success. Memphis not only deepened its stash of future draft and trade assets, it also gained two essential pieces in Valanciunas and Jones that are now part of one of the NBA’s best young rosters for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the benefits Gasol, Valanciunas, and the trade have provided to their new franchises, the more notable development for Memphis is the clear love both big men have for the Grind City. After becoming an NBA champion, Gasol made sure to honor his Memphis roots. He discussed how he felt his title victory was not only for him but every member of the Core Four. He also honored their legacy of that era by including “Grit N Grind” as an inscription on his championship ring.

Furthermore, as seen from the correspondence with Ja Morant above and his comments before the Raptors and Grizzlies game yesterday, Gasol’s connection with Memphis is stronger than ever. Not only does he keep up with the Grizzlies, he will certainly show his support for the franchise and its players any chance he gets.

Last summer, the Grizzlies young core made it clear they wanted Valanciunas as a part of their future. He made it clear he wanted the same. Though his skill set and style of play may seem to be an unusual fit at times for how Memphis plays as a whole, the team and Valanciunas have made it work. The end result for Valanciunas has been arguably the most productive season of his career individually, and playing a key role on a Grizzlies team that has significantly exceeded everyone’s expectations this season.

Another key characteristic that Gasol and Valanciunas share is how well they both compliment the Greatest Grizzly of them All, Zach Randolph. Though Gasol and Valanciunas have clearly contrasting playing styles, Gasol was a perfect compliment to Randolph’s post production during the Grit and Grind era. Valanciunas, as the numbers above show, is nearly a mirror image of Randolph when he is on the court.

Yet, it is not imitating Randolph through his play that best shows the love Valanicunas has for his teammates and Memphis. It is how he display’s the mantra that Randolph made famous.

It is hard to know if bullies get bullied in Lithuania; however, Valanciunas has made it clear that mindset is alive and well for the Grizzlies in Memphis. Not only does Valanciunas give the Grizzlies’ roster a needed edge, he will immediately back up his teammates in a heartbeat.

Without a doubt, Marc Gasol can speak to the benefits of having a big brother. In his case, it is in the reality of being the younger brother to NBA and Grizzlies legend, Pau Gasol. For the Grizzlies, through trading Gasol, they acquired a player in Valanciunas who plays a highly effective big brother role for the young Grizzlies core. The initial results have been quite promising. The lasting impact of doing right by Gasol and sending him to Toronto to win a title shines through Valanciunas every time he steps on the court and anchors the Grizzlies present and future lineups.

Though Gasol is from Spain and Valanciunas is from Lithuania, they will now and forever be connected to a trade that has benefited everyone involved beyond expectations. More importantly, they will always share an unwavering love for the Grizzlies and Memphis.

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