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2019-20 Player Review: Marc Gasol

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All roads eventually lead home.

For Grizzled Spanish center Marc Gasol, that means that his road — in all likelihood — is now winding away from Toronto. In the early weeks after the Toronto Raptors lost in the playoffs, reports proliferated that Gasol was bound for Europe to play in Barcelona, the club with which he began his professional career, playing there from 2003-2006. Though he’s yet to sign a contract with Barcelona, there was enough noise early on to believe at least that he’s strongly considering a return to Spain. There are a number of reasons why.

Of course, Spain is home for Gasol. He was born and raised in Barcelona, and he lived there until he moved to Memphis when his brother Pau signed with the Memphis Grizzlies. Speaking of Pau, he was on Barcelona’s roster last year, and though he didn’t play due to injury, a return to Barcelona would reunite the brothers in the same city for the first time since Marc entered the NBA and was promptly traded to Memphis in exchange for Pau. Home, though, isn’t the only reason Gasol’s road points away from Toronto.

It can’t be discounted how Gasol’s own season ended in Orlando. If Gasol’s playoff run in 2020 constitutes his final games in the NBA, it will have been an ignominious end to a glorious career.

Gasol was not good in the playoffs. He spent all season delivering underwhelming raw numbers, while still driving Toronto’s success to a large degree. He averaged only 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game, but he was a defensive star, and his accuracy from long range — 38.5 percent on 3.4 attempts per game — allowed Pascal Siakam room to grow into a fulcrum. Among rotation players, he boasted the team’s best on-off defensive rating and second best on-off net rating behind only Siakam. No matter where you look, the numbers tell the same tale: minimal surface-level impact with immense depth of impact. Take Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus, where Gasol’s defensive PIPM was by far the best on the team, nearly equal to the combined impact of the second-(OG Anunoby) and third (Siakam) best contributors.

Then Gasol’s consistent contributions collapsed in the playoffs. And this time, you could even tell his limitations from his raw numbers. Gasol’s average output in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks dropped. He turned down open shots, and when he did fire, he bricked his way to 5-of-27 from deep over the entire playoffs, or 18.5 percent. Correspondingly, his on-off net rating dropped to -10.5, second-worst among rotation Raptors. It was rough.

It was an undeserved end for Gasol. He played a great season and a half in Toronto and was a huge contributor to the franchise’s championship. No amount of cratering in the playoffs can take that away. Neither, though, do his championship contributions whitewash his playoff performance this year.

All told, it’s probably time for Gasol to gracefully exit the NBA. That’s not to say he couldn’t still contribute. He absolutely still could. He may no longer be capable of dominating for 30 or more minutes a night, but any contender would be lucky to have him on the roster. No, it’s time he leave the league because Gasol doesn’t have the genetics made to fade gracefully into the background. He is an apex predator, made to feast on his opponents’ hearts. Gasol wants to bash and bang for a full game, barricade the rim, blot his opponents’ chances with one swipe of his meaty bear hands. The worst part of Gasol’s performance in the playoffs was not his misses, but instead his immense frustration. He expects the world from himself. And with every miss, every failure to back down a small in the post, it was evident that Gasol felt fury, contempt, for his aging body. He is not built to go gentle into that good night. He is built to rage against the dying of the light, and if he’s not able to do that, then perhaps it’s time to hang up the gloves.

For a player mocked for his body type early in his career, known only for the success of his brother, Marc Gasol put together a hell of a career. Given his international accomplishments with Team Spain, His Defensive Player of the Year award, and his championship with the Raptors, it’s likely a Hall of Fame career. His bubble playoff performance was just a footnote, a grammar error at the end of a long, beautiful sentence.

If Gasol doesn’t come back to the NBA, that makes this last year the eulogy of his NBA career. It was fitting, if understated, for much of the year. There were some highlights, such as his holding Joel Embiid to 15 total points across three regular season games, or multiple nine-assist games. Remember when he scored 17 points and didn’t miss a shot in a January laugher over the Philadelphia 76ers? That seems like a long time ago, now.

It’s always possible Gasol does return to the NBA. Any team would be lucky to have him, especially the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Clippers. Heck, he could even return to the Raptors on a monster one-year deal that preserves space for Toronto’s next offseason. The Raptors would of course benefit from his presence, on and off the court. His bubble performance doesn’t change that fact. But it does likely point Gasol’s path away from Toronto. All roads lead home. And for Gasol, it seems time now for him to take the road most traveled.

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