On Saturday night, Marc Gasol made an entertaining debut for the Toronto Raptors in an otherwise forgettable game. The Spaniard offered fans a glimpse into how he can fit into the current system and the new wrinkles that his unique style of play provides.
As someone who has followed Gasol for the better part of ten years, his cerebral approach to the game is what has driven his status as one of the premier centers in the league. Dazzling passes aside, it is the unheralded plays on both sides of the ball courtesy of Gasol’s anticipatory instincts that has anchored Memphis’ success for a decade. Just look at his first sequence as a Toronto Raptor.
The tail-off in Gasol’s performance can be slightly attributed to age, but of greater influence was the conveyor belt of mediocre role players he was forced to play beside. When Big Spain has a fire lit underneath him, watch out. The impending Eastern Conference playoff battle royale will provide sufficient fuel.
So how will Gasol fit in with Toronto?
A snug fit within current sets
Nick Nurse has doubled down on the Raptors turn towards greater ball movement – aside from the force fed Kawhi isos – and court spacing. When observing some of the sets Toronto likes to run, it is not hard to envision Gasol’s ability to work within the system.
In both clips, Serge Ibaka and then Pascal Siakam function as the screener off of the DHO, rolling towards the hoop from the left side of the court. Ibaka has been prolific nestling into the mid-range jumper while Siakam prefers to slither into the paint. Now, imagine that same set ran with a center that is equally as threatening off of the pick… but from 24 feet back.
Gasol also thrives on the left side of the court. A quick glance at his shot chart from deep this season highlights just how much more comfortable he is on this flank.
The center’s ability to space the floor is crucial. William Lou explained how this added dimension can attack potential playoff opponents. However, it is his comfort as a playmaker far from the basket which adds another wrinkle that Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas simply cannot replicate. In the clip below, Raptors Playbook walks through the ‘Horns Flex’ set that Toronto turns to – it is a passage that provides the center with passing options to a backdoor cutter or the guard slipping out of the screen.
Valanciunas makes a good read, yet the proceeding clip shows the ease and speed with which Gasol can find cutters from a distance, especially in unscripted scenarios. The veteran can dissect a scrambling defense. In April, passing windows will become smaller and greater precision will be required.
Playing to his strengths
The Raptors should not rely on Gasol’s career 34 per cent average from deep. Although he has strengthened his abilities from the outside, Gasol is much more than a modernized floor spacing center. The veteran’s ability to play smoothly out of the elbow and the low post is a settling force that facilitates easy looks for others. He’s also no stranger to getting buckets himself in the trenches. This is where he thrives. Nurse now has Gasol post-ups to turn to in frenetic playoff environments when easy looks become scarce.
Get used to this.
Nurse ingratiating Gasol as the focal point of the bench unit against the Knicks was a perfect ploy. The big man can operate as the fulcrum at the elbow in his sleep. The looks he immediately provided Fred Van Vleet and Norman Powell reinjected some juice into a bench unit that has been inconsistent all season (yes, injuries have been an unsettling force, but this can’t entirely let them off the hook).
Gasol cannot carry a heavy scoring burden for a team anymore. In fact, he only led the Grizzlies in points per game twice during his eleven seasons. Instead, Gasol can lessen the playmaking load for others. The Raptors will need Kyle Lowry to shoot from the outside aggressively in the playoffs and Gasol can accommodate him as a passer. Lowry loves to whirl around off-ball screens and dribble hand-offs. Gasol will have no problem finding Lowry and also possesses the special ability to find the cutting screener in those situations (I’m looking at you Siakam!).
Kawhi Leonard is a basketball machine that is incredible in all facets, but the one upgrade he could use is in the playmaking department. Again, Gasol can compensate for that. It will also be nice to see if the former Western Conference foes can develop some chemistry. Kawhi is automatic from mid-range and Gasol loves to dish from the elbow. I can envision plenty of swift hand offs for an easy score.
The starting center?
“Will Gasol or Ibaka start?”
This has been the most asked question since the trade. The question feels a little reductive, especially considering Nurse’s proclivity to shift starting lineups depending on matchup. There are plenty of minutes to be spread between the two big men – maybe even a handful with them sharing the floor – so the bigger question will be what lineups do they gel best with? Ibaka has had a resurgent season (excuse the pun) playing alongside the starters and Gasol was immediately the orchestrator with the bench unit.
Gasol has already meshed well this season with Jaren Jackson Jr., the hyper-athletic frontcourt rookie who bolts in transition. A similar partnership with Siakam could be deadly – Gasol trailing from three point range behind the opportunistic Cameroonian is a tantalizing proposition. Aforementioned, Gasol should certainly play spells alongside Lowry to free up the point guard’s shot. The former Defensive Player of the Year is a malleable teammate that will mesh well with nearly all of Toronto’s current rotation.
The greater concern is with Ibaka. Nurse cannot afford to lose the rejuvenated big man in the back stretch of this year. Ibaka’s production heavily relies upon Lowry in pick and pop situations – he is shooting a career high 59.1 per cent from two point range this season. They’ve developed a chemistry in which Lowry spoon feeds Ibaka into his sweet spot (not too dissimilar from the ageless Mike Conley/Gasol dance) and slashing their minutes together could really hinder the center’s production.
Neither Ibaka nor Gasol will be rendered unplayable in the playoffs due to defensive deficiencies (apologies to Valanciunas, who did get a lot better!). They are both plus defenders with differing skill sets. While the younger Ibaka remains a better rim deterrent, Gasol’s sheer size will give him a better shot at defending behemoths like Joel Embiid in the post. His positional defending and verticality against the offensive maestro DeAndre Jordan showed us this. Still, Gasol has never been the fleetest of foot and in recent years has struggled against stretch fives.
Granted, in the clip above, Kyrie Irving is beating his defender on both occasions which requires Gasol’s help, but the Spaniard doesn’t have the ability to close out quickly enough after the pass. Al Horford is also a notable Grizzly killer, akin to Jimmy Butler with the Raptors. Against Boston and Milwaukee, Ibaka’s athleticism on the defensive end may result in heavier minutes.
Gasol is objectively a better player than Ibaka. However, the Raptors must have an in-form Ibaka during the playoffs if they hope to book their first NBA Finals appearance. Gasol should also be playing less minutes as a 34 year-old veteran with heavy ‘Grit n’ Grind’ mileage – in the last two full seasons, Gasol’s three point percentage has skyrocketed when only playing between 20-29 minutes. There is a proven formula throughout that season that indicates how to get the best out of Ibaka. In contrast, Gasol’s traits enhances those around him which makes his position in lineups far more fluid.
Deciphering lineups between four or five high-end players are great questions for Nick Nurse to be having. Now he has 24 games to figure out the best way to maximize the most talented group in Toronto Raptors history.