Tonight's Grizzlies game against the Houston Rockets is going to be interesting, and not for the reasons anyone was expecting when looking at the schedule prior to Friday night's home loss to the Spurs. With Marc Gasol, this game is an early-season chance to see how this year's Grizzlies match up with the newly-Dwighted Rockets at the Grindhouse—a chance to measure the team against one of the other good teams in the Southwest division.
Without Gasol—who is out "indefinitely" with an MCL sprain suffered in that Friday night game—tonight's game is an opportunity to test out new lineups and rotations that are going to have to be deployed for the next few weeks in Gasol's absence. It's a chance to see who's going to start at center: coach Dave Joerger told the media he's not sure whether it'll be Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos. My money is on Koufos—after all, he started 81 games for the Nuggets last year—but we won't know until Joerger makes that decision. At any rate, Gasol's injury means that Koufos, Davis, and Jon Leuer are all going to have to step up and contribute, or else the Grizzlies' much-feared frontcourt is going to take a serious hit.
This is a team that historically rallies when an important player goes down. In 2011, without Rudy Gay, they went on a tear through the Spurs and to 7 games against the Thunder in the second round. (Whether or not the success was because Gay was absent is a different discussion.) In 2012, Zach Randolph went down with an MCL sprain, and the Grizzlies—with Marreese Speights starting at power forward—managed to get home court advantage for the first time in franchise history. (We will not speak of what happened after that.)
The easy counterargument is that neither of those injuries were to Marc Gasol. Marc Gasol is the essential cog that makes the Grizzlies machine turn, on offense and on defense. He's a distributor and a scorer, and on defense, he not only secures the paint, but also tells everybody else what's happening, where they need to be, who's about to do what. One of my favorite basketball things to watch is Marc Gasol recognizing exactly what play the other team is trying to run, and telling the rest of the Grizzlies on the floor exactly who is going to do what. I can't find the footage to back this up, but I swear he's flat-out shoved Ed Davis into position at least once. In short, he's not just a scorer or a defender: he's the guts of what makes the Grizzlies such a staunch opponent. His absence will be felt. It's more a matter of whether the Grizzlies can hang on until he gets back in a Western Conference that's more loaded than ever. (If the Grizzlies were in the East, Gasol could probably sit until the playoffs and they'd still get home court. But c'est la vie.)
So tonight is going to be the first step in an arduous journey for the Grizzlies: trying to figure out how they're going to manage without Marc Gasol until he gets back.
I tweeted about this a little over the weekend, but: how much better is the Grizzlies' situation with Gasol out now that Kosta Koufos is on the roster in place of Darrell Arthur? Can you imagine how much worse we'd all be feeling about the Grizzlies' prospects for success in Gasol's absence if he were still around? And, as a corollary, can you believe that the Nuggets gave this guy up for Darrell Arthur, who has been so depleted by injury that he doesn't even look like the same player as the guy who jumped all over the Spurs in 2011?
To me, Gasol's injury highlights how good of a move that was for the Grizzlies front office. They may not have been right about everything so far, but that trade on draft night is pretty close to daylight robbery of another franchise.
Whether he gets the start or Davis does, the fact that the Grizzlies were able to add Koufos to the roster this summer means they're in much better shape than they would be otherwise. Obviously his skills as a high-post playmaker and passer are nowhere near what Gasol's are—and neither are anybody else's—but having a legitimate NBA starting center makes me feel much less panicky than I would otherwise right now.
I'm sure when the Grizzlies traded for Koufos, they didn't anticipate having to deploy him as much as they're probably going to have to now, but no matter who gets the start at center, the Grizzlies have some learning to do starting tonight: who are they going to be until Gasol gets back? Will they continue to fight like they did Friday night after Gasol went down? Are they going to still have the pieces they need to hang with the best of the Western Conference until Gasol returns? All questions without answers yet. Tonight, we'll see.