Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Waiting for Gasol

Posted By on Tue, Dec 19, 2017 at 9:11 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

It was a weird circumstance, not something that's ever happened to me in the time I've spent covering this basketball team: a summons from Marc Gasol to FedExForum. He wanted to talk to a group of us. It's no secret that he's been in a harsh spotlight since former Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale was sent packing the afternoon after benching Gasol during the fourth quarter of a Sunday evening loss to Brooklyn. But Gasol is not a guy known for manipulating the media, and usually (even while he holds court with reporters after games to break down what the Grizzlies could've done better) he doesn't draw this kind of attention to himself.

So why now? What's different? What did he say, and why were we all there? And, at the end of the day, what could Marc Gasol have said that would make everything better? What do we want from this guy?

Fizdale

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

First things first: the first part of the conversation was spent re-litigating the removal of David Fizdale as the head coach of the Grizzlies. I'm not really one of them, but several of my Memphis media colleagues view the Fizdale sitatuation as something for which Gasol needed to explain himself.

You can tell that the "coach killer" label bothers the guy, even when he says it doesn't. The first week after David Fizdale's firing was dominated by a conversation about the instability of the Grizzlies as an organization and by the fact that Marc Gasol didn't get along with his former coach. The fact that Fizdale had benched Gasol for a fourth quarter seemed, for all intents and purposes, to have been the thing that triggered his removal. While there's no question that the Brooklyn incident was what set that chain of events in motion, what most of the national conversation missed (though the local conversation was pretty consistent) was that Fizdale and Gasol hadn't been getting along for months, and that the lack of communication to Gasol while he was asking to be put back in that Brooklyn game was the real indicator of how far that relationship had deteriorated, not necessarily the benching itself.

Yesterday Gasol laid out where things went wrong for the first time between them: a loss to the Utah Jazz almost exactly a year ago, after which he says Fizdale blamed the loss on Gasol and on Mike Conley (the two of whom combined to shoot 7 for 38 from the field in that game, though Tony Allen was the only Grizzly to top .500 FG% in that game), the middle of a three-game losing streak. He didn't think that was the right thing to do, or the right way to handle that situation. From there, Gasol said, everything went downhill. The two of them grew farther and farther apart.

"I don't have to like everybody I work with," Gasol said, explaining that eventually the two of them agreed that they needed to be professional and try to work together despite their differences, but Gasol still never went into why that didn't happen. It's clear that he doesn't want to discuss the specifics of his issues with Fizdale, but he also (apparently) felt pinned down enough that he needed to make it clear that he did have issues and that they weren't necessarily basketball-related.

The Core Four

Another thing about which Gasol was pretty candid was the Grizzlies' decision not to bring back Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. It was hard, he said, harder than those of us gathered around the table could realize, without those two guys around. He didn't pretend that they were perfect players, and he certainly didn't claim that he wasn't frustrated by them at times, but you could tell that—in hindsight—Z-Bo and TA brought something to the table that Marc now misses. Gasol was candid about how much he and Tony argued about blown coverages (which was the main source of friction between the two of them last year, as Allen gambled more and stayed home on his man even less than before), but...

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

He said something that was interesting about the roster changes: he doesn't regret signing his max deal with the Grizzlies without even taking a meeting with any other team. That squares with something he told me back when I profiled him in 2015: he was going to decide whether to stay with the Grizzlies, and only consider other options if that one didn't work out. But to what was he making a commitment? Yesterday, he said it was to the city, sure, but also to the team. To the guys he'd been playing with. To what the Grizzlies—the guys in uniform—had built together. Two years later and he doesn't even have Mike Conley to play with. He's all alone with a bunch of young guys who don't really fit with any of the things he likes to do on the court, and he's having to teach them instead of just playing with them. It doesn't sound like what he signed up for, at all, and he said as much. "But my commitment hasn't changed," he said. But would it?

Trade Demands

The fact is that Marc Gasol doesn't have time to waste. He's about to turn 33, he's had a major foot injury that has ended the careers of other players his size, and he knows that the day when he has to quit playing basketball will come eventually. He's watching his older brother play out some of the last years of his own career right now. That sense of basketball mortality clearly weighed on Gasol as he talked yesterday.

So what's he going to do about being on a Grizzlies team that is struggling to keep its head above water? It sounds like, from the discussion yesterday, Gasol is still on board as long as the goal is to be good. He didn't say it, but he didn't not say it: he doesn't want to stick around on a bad team. The Grizzlies, by all accounts, are a bad team right now, but that potential—that Conley could come back and they'd be right back in the hunt for a playoff spot—seems to be the thing that's most prominently on his mind. If the playoffs were out of reach, and the Grizzlies decided to sit him so they could lose games and develop young guys, that would be burning time Gasol doesn't have. He's honest about that, and he's also not wrong.

So right now he's not going anywhere. But he was remarkably willing to be seen refusing to answer whether he'd ask for a trade if the situation changed. This is a guy who wants to play basketball. He's obsessed with "doing his job" night in and night out, being a (major) cog in a basketball machine. He's so Spursian that he even used the phrase "pounding the rock" yesterday. The thought of not playing when he has the chance to drives him crazy, which is why he's played through abdominal tears, returned from an MCL sprain too soon, tried to rush back from a broken foot to play in the Olympics, and whatever else: this is a guy who cannot handle being left out of a basketball game. It's why he was so deeply wounded by the Fizdale situation; that wasn't fake bewilderment in the locker room that night. He couldn't process why he hadn't been allowed to do his job.

So what? Mike Conley's injury status remains a mystery. The Grizzlies announced yesterday that there'd be another update in two weeks. (In late November they said they expected him back in two to three weeks, which is now off the table.) Brandan Wright and Wayne Selden are expected back soon. But is this team really going to be any good? Can they actually make the playoffs? In the only year where they might be able to score a lottery pick, should they make the playoffs?

These are all questions yet to be answered. But they're weighing on Marc Gasol just as much as they're weighing on the Grizzlies' fans.

What Do We Want From Marc Gasol?

Marc Gasol has never been so controversial a figure. He pointed out yesterday that before he was a Grizzlies player, he was a Grizzlies fan. He talked about how hard it was for the team to fill the Pyramid when they were bad. He talked about how much it excited him to see the first playoff teams, and how the city got excited about them. What he most takes pride in is the way Memphis sees itself in the Grizzlies when things are going well. The way the team lifts up the whole city and says "We are playing for you." Gasol, historically, has more Memphis ties than anybody else on the team. He's not Zach Randolph, a symbol of the city himself, an adopted hero just like so many others, but he's the guy who actually grew up here. He's the former Tennessee "Mr. Basketball." (Brandan Wright is, too, but I'm leaving Nashville out of this, as is right and proper.)

click to enlarge Marc Gasol, between high school in Memphis and the NBA in Memphis.
  • Marc Gasol, between high school in Memphis and the NBA in Memphis.

So what? What do we want from this man? What could Marc Gasol do to make the questions stop, to quiet the noise? He can't go back in time and have a better relationship with David Fizdale. He's not the guy who made this roster, and he emphatically refuses to even have a voice in those kinds of decisions. He's not asking for a trade, and he's been very open about the fact that he hasn't been playing well, that he's been in his own head, that he needs to develop patience, that he's struggling to come to terms with how much the ground situation has changed around him over the last 24 months. We're a long way from that "Memphian Of The Year" article. The 2015 Warriors series, in hindsight, was the last peak of the thing that we all (Memphis, the media, the world) thought would go on forever, even as we were writing about how it couldn't.

After hearing Gasol empty his mind for an hour and nine minutes yesterday, and after sifting though the Rashomon-like differences in the takeaways from several people who were party to the same conversation, I'm still left with that question above all else. What do we want from this guy?

If he demands a trade because he doesn't want to be on a bad team, he'll become the bad guy, just like his brother was before. (Gasol artfully non-answered the question I asked him about what advice Pau has given him about how to handle this situation, with a Memphis press and Memphis fanbase slowly collecting pitchforks to be used at a later march on 191 Beale.) If he doesn't demand a trade, it's clear that he's going to be stuck on a team that isn't very good—at least for the rest of this season, if not for the next couple, and that seems like something that's just as intolerable. He knows what this team means (or meant) to this city, and sounds genuinely bothered by the fact that that relationship is no longer what it was.

It's the same on the court. Do we want him to be the dominant player who dropped 21 points in a quarter against the Celtics, and couldn't even sit for two minutes without costing the Grizzlies a game? Do we want him to be the facilitating, assisting guy who makes his teammates better? Do we expect him to be the Defensive Player of the Year on a team without any good perimeter defenders in front of him? Because that's now how he's ever been good before. If we want him to take over Zach Randolph's low post duties, how can he do that when he's not playing with anybody who can make a clean post entry pass? What role do we want him to fill as a leader, and what is he supposed to say when he doesn't play well? What is he supposed to do to keep people happy? What is this idealized version of Marc Gasol who has never existed before that people expect to materialize how that he's stuck trying to carry a roster of unproven and/or inadequate rotation players to a playoff berth without a starting-quality point guard? 

Is there a coach that Gasol would get along with, who isn't some kind of Euroleague dictatorial type? Is that what he wants? (It sounds like it is.) Why didn't he just sign with the Spurs in 2015? Is that a question he asks himself every time he hits the showers after another punishing loss? He says it's not, but we all have questions we'll never admit we ask, things that we wonder about, all of us ultimately unknowable. Marc Gasol is even more unknowable than the rest. And maybe that's what it comes down to: there is nothing he can do that would satisfy what's now growing, the discontent with the team and its front office and its ownership—whoever that's going to be—and its legacy of ashes, of taking the best thing that ever happened to them and running it so long and so hard that it dropped dead like a punched-out horse in Blazing Saddles. Grizzlies fans are looking for something to save them.

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As Gasol said yesterday about how he feels about the roster, "there is no one else coming to help us." It's true of the roster, it's true of the fans, it's true of the incessant questioning of his motives and motivations, and in 2017, it's probably true of the whole dang city. There is no one else coming to help us, and Marc Gasol cannot do it himself, and I'm not sure it would be for the best if he could. He's in an impossible situation faced with contradictory demands and very few paths forward that don't lead downward before the turn back up towards the light. Until the ownership situation settles, the Grizzlies seem like a body without a head. The same is true on the court with Conley out. Whatever hard choices have yet to be made, by Gasol or by the apparent lame ducks at the top of the Grizzlies' org chart, no one could possibly satisfy the roar that's building outside the gates. 


It seems like no matter what Marc Gasol does, it won't be the thing that Memphis wants from him, because it doesn't seem like Memphis much knows what it wants, not really.


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