NBA

A new-look Marc Gasol is playing like an MVP candidate

When I think of Marc Gasol, I still picture the scene my mind from the summer of 2015, when Gasol invited Memphis executives to his home in Spain to work out what would become a five-year, $113 million deal. That scene: Robert Pera, tapas mid-chew, spewing food when he realized this was the only the first cap spike of what could be three consecutive; John Hollinger, pen in hand as ever, conscious as the rest of the group lost the battle to Lady Sangria, wondering into his calculator which way Gasol’s thirties would trend; Chris Wallace testing his Castillian with Gasol’s inner circle.

After last season, it honestly seemed that those only-imaginable summer dealings might be our last impression of him. In 2015-16, Gasol struggled through only 52 games after a February 20 surgery to repair a Type-II navicular fracture took the rest of his season.

Most of his per-minute numbers were in line with career norms, but it was the worst defensive season of his prime; a Defensive Box Plus-Minus almost two points lower than what he posted in 2014-15. He was contesting less shots at the rim and opponents were generally less afraid of him than they had been in recent years.

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Offensively, Gasol struggled to score around the rim, an obvious no-no for any big man. He shot only 46.4 percent overall, down four percent from his career average. Gasol’s value on offense is of course not just about putting the ball in the hoop himself, and his assist and passing numbers help make the case that he was just as aggressive in working the offense as he had been in years past. The less-talented group around him in a Grizzlies season overwrought with injury was simply not enough to shoulder as heavy a load with Zach Randolph finally taking a step back.

Though Randolph and Mike Conley can legitimately stake a claim to the “most important player” mantle in Memphis, and ignoring that fans actually call Tony Allen the “Grindfather”, Gasol has long been the Grizzlies most vital piece. His struggles and injury concerns last year were the spoiled whipped cream dollop atop a season that spelled danger for the Grit n’ Grind era.

But this year, holy cow; a scroll through NBA.com’s statistics pages is a monument to Gasol’s reinvention and reassumption of the league’s Big Man throne.

Gasol sits at seventh in catch-and-shoot field goal attempts per game, on par with big men whose shooting reputations are far greater: Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis. He’s been a step below those guys in terms of efficiency (39.5 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts), but it’s clearly not a bad first try at developing that part of his game. To put it in perspective, he’s shooting two more times per game off the catch than he did two seasons ago, and maintaining above-average efficiency in doing so.

However, his 3-point accuracy has been elite when shooting off the catch: Gasol is making 43.2 percent of almost four catch-and-shoot threes per game. Last year, Gasol attempted only three 3-pointers all year; he’s up to 87 already this season, almost all of them coming in those catch-and-shoot situations, the result of improved health and depth in the Grizzlies’ backcourt.

Gasol also leads the league in elbow touches per game, ahead of other offensive focal points (with less talent around them) like DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. His 45.5 percent shooting percentage out of those situations is behind only Davis, Dirk, and Carmelo Anthony out of the players shooting at least 1.8 times per game off of elbow touches; his 1.1 assists elbow assists sit alone at the top.

Last season, Gasol touched the ball slightly more at the elbow, performed slightly better as a playmaker there, but lacked the scoring efficiency that he’s shown thus far this year. We all know about the overhaul the Memphis front office made in changing the roster and coach over to a more modern style. That has meant more room for Gasol to work, but also an increased reliance on his play-making, especially minus Conley and Parsons for the moment:

It’s a thrill to watch this guy at full-strength, and you hate that it had to come at the expense of other players’ health, but Memphis is cobbling together wins like I do rent: After a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, the Grizzlies head into a home-and-home against the Cleveland Cavaliers as winners of 14 of their last 18 games. Gasol is playing like an MVP candidate, and the fifth-seeded Grizzlies no longer look like they’re playing around.

Thanks to a stylistic overhaul which looks genius in retrospect, Memphis’ decision-makers and coach David Fizdale have helped Gasol move into the second stage of his career. That Gasol has been able to overcome last year’s struggles while maintaining eliteness in his usual categories and adding a diversified, heavier scoring load is remarkable. It’s also the reason the Grizzlies are a team to fear when they get healthy.

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