It’s no secret that this league is trending “small.” The emergence of the stretch-4 in the NBA has gone from a trend to a staple of many organizations over the past few seasons.
Coaches league-wide have seen the advantages of playing lineups that feature one “big,” a stretch-4, and three guards.The LeBron James-Dwyane Wade Miami Heat won the 2013 title starting this type of lineup. Oklahoma City is at its best playing Kevin Durant at the 4 with Serge Ibaka as the lone big. Team USA will inflict more pain than a compound fracture with the lineup of Derrick Rose-Stephen Curry-James Harden-Durant-Anthony Davis.
So why have the Memphis Grizzlies stayed true to the conventional power forward-center combination? The answer is simple, Marc Gasol. Here’s a look into why the traditional frontline works so well in the 901.
Gasol, a 7’1″, 265-pound bruiser, does all of the things you love to see in a traditional big man. He runs the floor well, protects the rim, sets impeccable screens, anchors the back line of a genius team defensive scheme and finishes around the basket.
We know Gasol isn’t the only one capable of these traits, but the value of Marc Gasol is his ability to facilitate offense from the elbow and keep the floor spread. He’s an excellent passer — always willing to pass up his own look for that of a teammate. Simply put, he almost always makes the right offensive decision.
Here’s an example of what makes Gasol so dangerous.
The play starts with Gasol flashing to the top of a 2-3 zone while Mike Conley explores Gasol’s screen. When Gasol sinks off and catches at the free-throw line he has the option to turn and attack his man off the dribble or he could take the shot from an area where his percentage was 48 percent last year; but if you watch closely Gasol has made up his mind before the ball gets to his hands.
As he’s catching the ball his eyes locate Zach Randolph on the baseline and without any wasted motion delivers the slick bounce pass through the last layer of defense for the bucket.
This play occurred in the 2013 playoffs and DeAndre Jordan still doesn’t know how it got past him.
Gasol trails the play and receives the ball 18 feet from the basket. Again, with no added motion throws an absolute dime to Randolph for the layup.
In both of these instances Gasol is initiating offense from 15-18 feet from the basket allowing Randolph to operate either from the baseline or the low block. With these two working in such harmony it accomplishes one of the main benefits of going small, floor spacing, without giving up a big body for rebounding and rim protection.
Then there’s the defensive side of the floor. Gasol was the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year and that level of play carried over into last year. Opponents shot right at 63 percent in the restricted area when Gasol sat last year, and just 57.7 percent when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com. The first number ranked as the second worst defensive mark in the league, while the second number ranked in the top 10.
Gasol’s number one strength as a defender is his ability to read and diagnose the play far before it fully develops. With this extra time he optimizes his positioning on both his man and in help defense.
Here the Spurs get in to their set with a 1-5 Pick-and-Roll bringing Gasol out to the top. Keyon Dooling gets screened and Gasol switches onto Tony Parker. Parker then attacks away from the screener in hopes that Gasol retreats back to his man and instead finds him waiting on the other side of Dooling. It’s not only great awareness of what Parker likes to do in that situation, but also some fantastic footwork to rejoin the action after getting beat off the initial drive.
Gasol’s opponent field goal percentage at the rim (Opp FGP at Rim) was 50.8 percent which ranked top 10 among qualifying centers.
In this action Harrison Barnes will set up to go one-on-one against Mike Miller. Look how Gasol is marking his man, Andrew Bogut, and baiting Barnes to drive. As soon as Barnes takes a single step past Miller, Gasol gets to the other side of the lane for the block.
This is the kind of rim protection that championship contenders seldom lack. Not only someone that can run and jump at their man, but a highly intelligent player that sniffs out sets in their earliest stages and can put himself in position to change or block shots from all over the floor. Every championship contender has a defensive anchor, and in Memphis it’s Marc Gasol.
A knee sprain sidelined Gasol for 23 games last year and during that stretch the Grizzlies went 10-13. With Gasol in the lineup the Grizzlies were 40-19 and took Oklahoma City, a top three team in the league, to seven games. His impact on both ends of the floor is the key to the Grizzlies success both now, and moving forward. There is no doubt that if Gasol is healthy this team can make a serious playoff run in 2015.