Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Marc Gasol

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 11:05 AM

Everyone wants Marc Gasol to be more aggressive. We've got years of evidence that aggression isn't his natural state on a basketball court, and tantalizing glimpses of how dominant he can be when he decides to score. The Grizzlies' title hopes this year depend on his attacking the basket, but it's not clear that he can be That Marc Gasol. Which one is he? What are we right to expect, and what does it mean for this season?

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

We have this conversation every year. We have it every month or so within every year. We have it every few games within every month. We have it several times within every game. "Why won't Marc Gasol just shoot the ball?"

You'd think that by now we'd have stopped asking the question.

Since he arrived in Memphis as part of the trade that sent his older brother to the Lakers—an older brother about whom we had some of the same conversations—two things have been apparent about Marc Gasol: first, that he's one of the best big men in the game, especially in an all-around sense; second, that he could reach a completely different ceiling if he were more aggressive with his scoring.

So, the Grizzlies grabbed the 8 seed and went on a Cinderella rampage through the Spurs. Just think how good they'll be if Gasol learns to be more aggressive. They made a run to the Western Conference Finals even though they had hardly any outside shooting. Just think how good they'll be if Gasol is more aggressive. Gasol gets injured, they fight back to the 7 seed and take the Thunder to 7 games with 70% of Gasol. Just think how good they'll be if Gasol is more aggressive.

The most frustrating part is this season. Gasol came into the FIBA World Cup with a completely remade, trimmer body. Last year's injury and elimination clearly rankled him. It's a contract year, and he stands to make a lot of money from somebody (and most observers still think it'll be the Grizzlies).

And then the season started, and it was a revelation: at the (slight but noticeable) expense of the defense for which he's so well known, Gasol was scoring. Really scoring. Hitting running hooks, diving to the rim, posting up, nailing set shots from the elbows. He was scoring 20+ points on a regular basis, hitting 30 on occasion. His offense opened up every one else's—and bolstered by Courtney Lee's blazing hot start to the season from beyond the arc, the Grizzlies' offense was an unstoppable machine. They sliced through the NBA like, well, Marc Gasol through Kendrick Perkins.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

You know the rest, because Grizzlies pundits have been trying to figure it out for a couple weeks now. Since the All-Star break, this is not a .500 basketball team. Everything is grinding to a halt at once. The Jeff Green Experiment needs to be taken in a different direction, Conley can't get healthy, no one can shoot, and yet: it's the body language, the visible frustration, the detached flip of the ball towards the rim.

Marc Gasol is not playing the way he played to begin the season. Which, ultimately, makes sense because instead he's playing the way he's always played—-the way he's play for years. That's the thing with Gasol: even when he proves he can elevate to that transcendent level of play, 90% of the basketball he's played in a Grizzlies uniform, he's kinda looked like this.

It's just that now that we've seen him play the way we'd hoped and dreamed about for so long, it hurts to think about. Cognitive dissonance is real, and it tells us that surely this is a blip, a bump in the road. And maybe it is. But it's hard for me to see this as anything but "player reverts to playing the way he's played most of his career."

We can be honest here and admit that as amazing as Marc Gasol is to watch, that seed of frustration has always been there. We've always seen a ceiling for him that he just doesn't seem interested in reaching, or capable of reaching on a regular basis. That world domination thing just isn't there on a nightly basis, even though he's one of the most competitive guys around. When he plays the way he's most comfortable playing, he's not going to be a scorer. He just isn't.

Which puts this year's Grizzlies in a strange situation. To have a real shot at winning a championship—and let's not kid ourselves; it's a genuine shot this year—the Grizzlies need the Gasol who showed up in the first three months of the season. The guy who distracts so much attention from opposing defenses that he opens up the floor for everyone else, and still scores 25 points despite all that attention. They need a Gasol that has only ever really appeared for finite stretches of time to become the "normal" Gasol.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

I think that's why there's a little bit of panic setting in among the fanbase, and why there's a little frustration setting in with the team (and with Gasol, visibly). Gasol has to be aggressive—continuously aggressive, constantly looking to score so that he creates even better opportunities for his teammates than if he were just trying to hit them with "the right pass." He hasn't been, for whatever reason. And the reason has, at least in part, been in front of us for six seasons: it's not the way he's the most comfortable playing. It might not be who he is.

That doesn't mean he can't elevate himself to that level again in the playoffs. If anything, Gasol's fierce, relentless competitiveness makes it more likely that he will return to that form once the Grizzlies enter the postseason. But right now, in March, down the stretch of a grueling schedule, he might just be playing the way that comes the most naturally to him, no matter who is telling him to do something different.

That's what makes our appreciation the beautiful game of Marc Gasol so shot through with frustration and false hopes: the way he plays is perfect, and yet it always feels like it could be more, no matter how unreasonable of a belief that is.


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