The Memphis Grizzlies are like the NBA version of a villain in a Hollywood horror movie. With an aging core, a collection of cast offs, unheralded draft picks and a high-risk free agent addition, this season was supposed to be a death knell for the Grit-n-Grind Grizz. Instead it seems like this Memphis group is rising from their grave and wreaking havoc in the Western Conference once again.
After their win against Oklahoma City on Thursday night, Memphis is somehow 21-14 -- just a game and a half back from hosting a first round playoff series in the vaunted West. It’s quite the impressive achievement when you consider the context. Starting point guard Mike Conley has missed 12 of the team’s 35 games. Chandler Parsons, a marquee free agent signing this summer, has been a shell of himself in just 184 total minutes. Zach Randolph (35) and Tony Allen (34), two players that were finally supposed to be phased out in lieu of younger options, are both averaging over 22 minutes a game (Randolph 22.5, Allen 27.9).
One player has almost been singlehandedly responsible from keeping Memphis from a trip to Lotteryland: Marc Gasol.
Scroll across basketball Twitter and the Gasol-love is effervescent. The Grizzlies' big man has moved on from the underappreciated, undervalued asset he was even in recent years to one of the league’s most impactful players this season -- all because of one more addition to his overflowing arsenal of positive attributes. But before we get to that, it’s important to take a second and see how Gasol’s passing wizardry has saved a team that has lacked functional point guard play for large portions of this season.
Even when Conley has been healthy, Memphis has an issue with their point guard spot in that they lack a quality understudy. Andrew Harrison has emerged as the best of a series of “meh” options and, in part due to Conley’s absence, has averaged 27.1 minutes across 34 games. While just 22-years-old and certainly capable of improving, Harrison hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire to this point with shooting percentages of 28.6 percent from the field and 23.2 percent from 3-point territory.
Even more damning is that despite being the nominal starter -- and basically their only point guard -- in Conley’s 12 game absence, Memphis is still better with Harrison off the court than with him on it, per NBA.com data. Yet thanks to Gasol, the Grizzlies have made it work.
In the NBA’s pick-and-roll heavy attacks, ballhandlers are required to operate like NFL quarterbacks, surveying defensive coverages and delivering the ball to the open man. Watch film of the game’s best pick-and-roll players and you’ll see them dissect defenses with almost surgical precision. Conley is certainly on a tier not far below elite pick-and-roll operators like Chris Paul, John Wall and James Harden. It’s not exactly a hot take to say other Memphis ballhandlers, like Harrison, are not on that level.
The presence of Gasol allows the Grizzlies to make up for this deficiency:
As Utah shrinks the floor against the side pick-and-roll between Gasol and Harrison, a passing lane emerges to the opposite corner. More advanced playmakers, especially those with Harrison’s size (like Harden), see the open corner player and laser a direct pass to them on their own. Harrison isn’t at a point yet in his career where he’s capable of consistently executing such a read. If an average big man is in pick-and-rolls with Harrison, those plays become either long 2-point jumpers on the throwback pass or just waste precious seconds on the shot clock.
Gasol essentially serves as something of a middle man between the ballhandler and an open Memphis player lurking on the other side of the court. Instead of overmatched Memphis guards being forced to make complicated reads, they simply toss the ball out to Gasol and let him quarterback the play. This approach has helped head coach David Fizdale hide some severe limitations with his rotation to this point.
On top of that, Gasol is up to his old tricks from the high post. During their heyday, Gasol and Randolph would team up through one of basketball’s oldest actions: the high-low. Though a younger partner, 26-year old JaMychal Green, has increasingly emerged on the receiving end of these plays, Gasol and Randolph still manage to combine for some slick connections that result in easy buckets for the Grizz.
This high-low play has been made even more dangerous by the latest evolution in Gasol’s game: a consistent 3-point shot. Never in his career has Gasol even attempted over a quarter of a 3-point attempt per game. This season under Fizdale, he’s launching 3.5 per contest and converting them at an incredible 41.9 percent clip. The trickle down effect of Gasol’s newfound perimeter proficiency might be the singular force keeping the Grizzlies away from being the league’s worst offense.
Aside from the obvious stuff, like 3-pointers being good shots to take and make, it’s allowed Fizdale to subsidize the shooting deficiencies on the rest of his roster. Right now, Memphis has only three other players, besides Gasol, converting 3-pointers at above a league average rate -- Conley, James Ennis and Troy Daniels. To make matters worse, not a single one of those three has played in over 24 of the Grizzlies’ 35 games.
Every other Memphis player is best served either hanging out inside the arc or slashing to the basket from the perimeter. Gasol’s newfound credibility behind the 3-point line has allowed Fizdale to invert his offense, stashing non-shooters like Allen in spots typically reserved for big men and injecting some sorely needed spacing into the Memphis offense. Fizdale has also done a good job of finding ways for Gasol flow into secondary actions when clever wrinkles -- like Tony Allen acting as a screener in pick-and-rolls -- don’t create a good shot initially.
It’s easy to be cynical of all this Gasol praise when you see that Memphis is still in the bottom five of offensive efficiency, per our RealGM rankings. But that misses the point. Look up and down this Memphis roster full of cast offs and declining vets and it’s not hard to imagine the incredible depths this team would sink to without their All-Star big man propping up the team’s offense in so many ways. Still, if concrete numbers are more your thing, the team’s offensive rating when Gasol plays is a much more respectable 104.0, per NBA.com data -- a number that would put them right in the league’s middle class.
The bottom line is Gasol has, once again, seemed to reveal himself as one of the league’s most underappreciated stars. And in the process has brought a Grizzlies team left for dead at the start of this season, back to life.