Hold on, Father Time – Marc Gasol has other plans

Image Credit: Brandon Dill/AP

On the surface, to some at least, Marc Gasol may be just another NBA player. A career stat line of 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists for a center doesn’t scream elite. It doesn’t really scream very good, either. Nothing about the Memphis Grizzlies draws too much attention. They’re just a solid basketball team. The same can be said about Gasol but, with some context, you’ll find he’s a bit more. 

Spending his entire career with Memphis as a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, Gasol is the younger brother of San Antonio Spurs big Pau Gasol. With the elder Gasol brother carving out a long, productive, illustrious career in the NBA, the younger one hasn’t quite lived in his brother’s shadow but has certainly been overlooked at times. 

Winning the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award following a 2012 season that saw him average *just* 1.7 blocks per game, it became apparent that Marc’s impact couldn’t be measured looking at a box score. A couple of All-Star selections later and following a breakthrough 2016-17 campaign in which he averaged nearly 20 points per contest and increased his three-point attempts from 0.1 per game to over three, the hype surrounding the Spanish center became legitimate.

Last season, Gasol’s age-33 year (turned 33 in January), his numbers across the board dropped. Aside from his ability to haul in boards, he didn’t seem to be the same player. Despite playing in just one fewer game and seeing only one fewer minute of action per contest, it appeared Gasol’s glory days were coming to an abrupt end:

Marc Gasol* PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% DEF RTG
2016-17 19.5 (1) 6.3 (11) 4.6 (1) 0.459 (9) 0.388 (3) 105.9 (8)
2017-18 17.2 (3) 8.1 (4) 4.2 (2) 0.42 (11) 0.341 (5) 108.9 (11)

*parenthesis indicate rank among career seasons

Let’s not spend too much time focusing on points, rebounds or assists. Although a two-PPG drop off is somewhat significant, the more concerning regression falls under FG%, 3P%, and defensive rating. Not only did Gasol connect on 34% of his attempts from deep compared to 38% the year before, but he posted the single-worst defensive season of his career. For a player who was once not only a DPOY candidate but a winner, this was a sad thing to watch unfold. After an offseason and a bit more aging, it was expected Gasol would regress more in 2018-19. Let’s post the same chart below, except this time we’ll compare last season to this one:

Marc Gasol PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% DEF RTG
2017-18 17.2 (3) 8.1 (4) 4.2 (2) 0.42 (11) 0.341 (5) 108.9 (11)
2018-19 16.3 (5) 8.6 (3) 4.1 (3) 0.45 (10) 0.386 (4) 102.4 (4)

As with the last comparison, put points, rebounds, and assists on the back burner. Increasing his FG% and 3P% by a combined 7.5%, Gasol is a much more efficient player than he was a year ago while attempting 1.3 fewer field goals per game. The most shocking and perhaps most important finding in the chart above is Gasol’s found a way to significantly improve on the defensive end. A 33-(soon to be 34)-year-old posting the fourth-best defensive rating of his career after having his worst season on that end is simply unheard of. Yet here the 11-year veteran is, 11th among all players with at least 30 minutes played per contest in defensive rating and tied for 9th in defensive win shares. 

Since starting the season 12-5, the Memphis Grizzlies are 4-9. Currently ranking in the top 10 in the league on the defensive end but 26th in offense, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The Grizzlies have never resembled an offensive juggernaut, whether it was Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, David Fizdale or J.B. Bickerstaff at head coach. A team that won nearly 60% of its games from 2010-2017 (333-225), Memphis has never been regarded as a top dog in the Western Conference. Hovering above .500 right now is certainly a significant upgrade over a 22-60 2017 season that was decimated by injuries, though.

Whether or not Memphis can keep up this start remains to be seen. Perhaps it peaked just 17 games into the year. On the other hand, maybe things will work themselves out on offense while maintaining on defense. Alongside Mike Conley, one thing that will determine how far this team goes in 2018-19 is the resurgence of Marc Gasol. With a more offensively efficient and way better defensive version of 2017 Gasol, expect the “Grit and Grind” moniker to stay true throughout the 2018-19 season, for better or worse. 

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