Marc Gasol’s passing vision, willingness to facilitate and quick decision-making have given the Toronto Raptors new dimensions on offense and defense, writes Mark Deeks.
Live NBA: San Antonio @ Toronto
Saturday 23rd February 12:00am
At the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers made the first big move of the Eastern Conference. Needing multi-positional shooting, scoring from the forward positions and an insurance policy should Jimmy Butler decide to leave, they traded a pile of parts to the Los Angeles Clippers for near-All-Star talent Tobias Harris.
Quickly following suit, the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks made a significant move of their own, trading spare parts in the forms of Thon Maker, Jason Smith and four second-round picks for the noteworthy presence of Nikola Mirotic. They, too, needed some front-court shooting and scoring, someone who could also adequately defend their position, and provide enough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to rest down the stretch of the regular season.
The onus thus fell onto the Toronto Raptors to strike their own blow to keep up. And they did just that when they traded a series of spare parts of their own to the Memphis Grizzlies for former Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol.
Gasol pictured during introductions prior to a Raptors game
Gasol’s DPOY award came at a time (2012/13) when the league was less switch-heavy and perimeter-big focused than it is now. This in turn catered to Gasol’s defensive strengths, which come inside the arc and the paint. He is not one to step up and execute hard hedges on pick-and-rolls; he was not fleet of foot back then, and now in his mid-30s, he really isn’t now. He instead thrived with guile, reads, good hands and the ability to read the court, seeing the rotations of both the player and the ball on it.
NBA stretch run: Bold predictions
Will the Lakers make the playoffs? Will Paul George win MVP? Read predictions and have your say.
This sense of nuance is similarly apparent, and currently being best realised, on the offensive end. Already armed with Serge Ibaka and the amazingly useful utility player that is Pascal Siakam, the Raptors did not need the stretch-forward help that their rivals did. Instead, they needed a diversified playbook, and someone to anchor it.
Until they traded for Kawhi Leonard this past offseason, the post-Vince Carter era of the Toronto Raptors was identified by the play of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and, to a lesser extent, Jonas Valanciunas. And although all three are good players, two of whom are multi-time All-Stars, none is noted for their frequency of ball movement.
Blazers @ 76ers free on Sky Sports
Watch Portland Trail Blazers take on Philadelphia 76ers via a free live stream on Saturday at 6pm
DeRozan is an isolation-heavy player, Valanciunas required post touches that needed telegraphing, and, as complete of a player as he is, Lowry does what he does with the ball in his hands.
In last year’s revised offensive system – for which then-assistant, now head coach Nick Nurse received a lot of the credit – the Raptors switched this up slightly. Returning mostly the same personnel as before, the Raptors introduced a more pass-heavy style, focused on moving the ball around the perimeter more, in turn creating looks for Valanciunas inside and DeRozan from the mid-range more within the flow of a wider scheme than through diagrammed plays.
Follow Sky Sports NBA on Twitter
See the NBA's best plays and stay up to date with the latest news
As a result, the team’s assist percentage went from 30th and last in the league in 2016/17, all the way up 11th; their total passes per game similarly increased from fourth last (273.4) to 16th (300.0). In turn, the team’s offensive rating went up from sixth to second.
Gasol finishes in the lane against the New York Knicks
The last vestiges of this holdover philosophy were apparent this season, however. DeRozan’s departure meant a loss of much of the long-standing offensive chemistry he and Lowry had, and a reset to the system generally.
Kawhi, as good as he is, is frequently found in isolation possessions of his own; Lowry, as well as he has reinvented himself as a floor general in the final third of his career from the freight train he was at its outset, still works better with the ball in his hands and lingers somewhat statically without it.
Kawhi Leonard salutes the crowd in Toronto
The offense needed someone else to get it into the flowing, efficient, cut-and-movement-heavy style that defines offensive efficiency. As finishers rather than creators, neither Valanciunas nor Ibaka at center were it.
Into this breach, then, has stepped Gasol.
Get NBA news on your phone
Want the latest NBA news, features and highlights on your phone? Find out more
Gasol’s ability to see the floor is just as potent on the offensive end as it is defensively; indeed, as he has aged and slowed, it has become the defining tenet of his game. A screening game featuring him immediately adds dimensions to the playbook by virtue of his ability and desire to constantly hit cutters with passes. Best of all, slow as his feet may be, he does it all very quickly, rarely if ever found holding the ball.
The Orlando Magic take on the Toronto Raptors on NBA Primetime – watch live on Sky Sports Arena on Sunday at 8:15pm
Because of his speed, Gasol is not a cutter himself. He screens, he pops out for jumpers, and he facilitates. But because of his passing vision and touch, Gasol at the free-throw line, extended elbow or top of the key becomes a hub around which guards can curl, and forwards can cut, particularly so when also paired with shooting at all four positions as Toronto now offer.
Ibaka can shoot like Gasol, and spends just as little time dribbling, but his only real option is to shoot. Gasol uses the shooting threat to open up the passing threat, and vice versa.
Friday night's games
- San Antonio Spurs @ Toronto Raptors, 12am, live on Sky Sports Arena
- Chicago Bulls @ Orlando Magic, 12am
- New Orleans Pelicans @ Indiana Pacers, 12am
- Washington Wizards @ Charlotte Hornets, 12am
- Minnesota Timberwolves @ New York Knicks, 12:30am
- Detroit Pistons @ Atlanta Hawks, 12:30am
- Los Angeles Clippers @ Memphis Grizzlies, 1am
- Denver Nuggets @ Dallas Mavericks, 1:30am
- Utah Jazz @ Oklahoma City Thunder, 2:30am
If his career-long post-up skill is still going to be utilised, then this adds yet another wrinkle to the offense, the explicit purpose of him being there. Gasol stretches opposing centers who do not like to step up to the perimeter (Brook Lopez, Jusuf Nurkic, etc), and can punish the smaller match-ups in the post. Get yourself someone who can be both.
It feels counterintuitive to add one of the slowest players in the NBA yet realise an increase in team pace. Yet that is exactly what adding Gasol has done to the Raptors thus far. On the season as a whole, they rank 15th in pace, as average as can be. But since Gasol’s arrival, they are first.
Highlights from the NBA as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Washington Wizards 129-120
It is for others to do the running, the jumping, the cutting and the curling. It is Gasol’s job to hit them. And so now that he can do so, the Raptors have distinctly above-average playmaking options at each of the point guard, small forward and center spots.
To an Xs and Os fanatic such as Nurse, this is a tantalising prospect. Give and gos, backdoor cuts, corner threes…they all just became more likely with this adding passing hub.
Defensively, Gasol’s slight decline and the NBA’s evolution away from the orthodoxy of his heyday should not be confused for being minimal or non-existent defensive impact.
Pascal Siakam dunks against the Atlanta Hawks
The knowledge of angles is still there, the plays on the ball are no less effective, and, for a slower player, he still defends in space pretty well. Indeed, a ball of energy like Siakam could prove to be the perfect complement to late-career Gasol, with his ability to cover space and attack the hoop. Jonas Valanciunas is a good player and always has been, but in Gasol, the Raptors so far have a significant upgrade, and should continue to do so.
All of the above, of course, is based on Gasol’s mere two games thus far with the team. It is a tiny sample size, to be sure. Yet his entire body of NBA work to date should give the Raptors great confidence that it will continue. While practice time in the NBA is hard to come by during the season, thus limiting the opportunities to develop new schemes mid-season, a player with the passing vision, willingness, decision-making and decisiveness of Gasol becomes infectious to those around him.
With a man like him who can find any open player, more quickly than the defense can react to it, every Raptors player should be on the move when Gasol is in the game. There should be offensive stagnancy no more.
Gasol works against Washington's Bobby Portis in the post
As good as the Raptors had been – and, with a 43-16 record, they have been very good – they have been prone to overdribbling at times.
As deep and talented as the roster is, it needed some consolidation at a key position on both ends of the floor.
The Raptors did not have many flaws, but those that they did have, Gasol was designed to fix.
Want to watch the NBA but don’t have Sky Sports? Get the Sky Sports Action and Arena pack, click here.