Few NBA players own a piece of real estate on the court quite like Marc Gasol owns the elbows. Gasol has long been one of the league’s smoothest operators from that natural pivot point, but since the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay in late January, Gasol has taken his game to a new level (15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.2 blocks per game) as the Memphis offense has surged; and it starts with the giant fuzzy-bearded flag planted at the elbow.
His location near the top of the offense allows Gasol the freedom to use his wide array of talents. On any given play, he’ll inhabit the role of screener, cutter, passer or shooter, or any combination of the four. Memphis often starts possessions by entering the ball to Gasol in the high post, then sending a cutter backdoor from the wing. If he’s open, Gasol makes the pass. If the cutter is covered, Gasol re-starts the offense by handing off to Mike Conley or Tayshaun Prince for a side pick-and-roll, or otherwise takes a shot, drives, waits out another cutter or runs a high-low game with Zach Randolph. With Gasol, there are always options.
Other times the Grizz will kick things off with a high screen, and Gasol will half-roll to the nail, where he can make any number of choices. Take a jumper. Slide the ball through the lane to the opposite big man. Find a shooter spotting up for a kickout. Put the ball on the floor and take it to the rim.
His screening ability opens up driving lanes not previously there. And the respect defenses have to pay him as a shooter (104-210 this season from the area around the elbows) either draws stay-attached coverage, or else forces them to pay when they double or trap the ball-handler.
Or maybe he’ll act as the outlet man when Randolph or Ed Davis sets the high screen, and he can use the space provided by the rotating defense to take a jumper, make one of any number of passes to cutters, shooters or poster-uppers, put the ball on the deck or restart the offense with a pick-and-roll of his own.
There’s also the option to just post his man up at or below the elbow. Facing up or back to the basket, Gasol can make it work. Hooks, push shots, jumpers, drop steps, dribble-drives, catch-and-shoots, dives to the rim for dunks, kick-outs, drop-offs. You name it.
At 7’1″, Gasol’s height allows him to see some passes the diminutive Conley or his backup Tony Wroten just can’t make. Sometimes his creativity takes over and he finds angles other players wouldn’t necessarily think about. But a lot of the time, it’s just about making the right pass at the right moment.
No matter how he’s used, the multitude options are the same, and are all available because of both his varied skill set and his location on the court. Placing him near the top of the key allows Gasol to see the entire defense; how they move, shift and react when he pump-fakes or looks to pass in a certain direction, whether they’re overplaying cutters, staying home on shooters or trying to deny a hand-off that will get Conley into the middle of the lane.
Gasol can sit back and patiently wait for the defense to make a mistake, or he can attack and force them into one himself. None of this is especially new; Gasol’s been doing it all year, and in fact for the last few. But with Gay gone and Conley now the only real off-the-bounce creator left in Memphis, so much more responsibility for the movement, spacing and flow of the Grizzlies offense has been thrust onto Gasol’s broad shoulders. He’s been up to the challenge so far, and Memphis has a 15-4 record since the trade.
Time will tell if the improvement in the Memphis offense is here to stay or just a function of the relatively weak schedule they’ve faced since January 31. Memphis has faced a top-10 defense only five times in those 19 games, and those defenses are ranked sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th. Only three of the 15 wins have come against above .500 teams. Still, they’ve only lost once since February 6, and that was to the absurdly scorching Miami Heat, on the road, in a game where the Heat needed LeBron to go nova in the fourth quarter (14 points, four rebounds, four assists in the fourth alone) just to hang on.
People were counting Memphis out as a contender when they stumbled through December and January, but it’s possible they’ve re-emerged over the last two months. Perhaps more than anyone else, they’ve got Gasol to thank for that.