Well, this doesn't bode well for the Memphis Grizzlies' ability to move back up into the upper half of the Western Conference.
The team was struggling to adjust to Dave Joerger's new systems, and those struggles were present on both sides of the ball. They've had trouble moving the ball and creating offense, and they've also experienced far more difficulty with defensive rotations than anyone expected.
Fortunately, it's not as bad as it could have been. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Gasol has a Grade 2 MCL sprain, far better than the tear that could have kept him out for around 10 weeks or an even worse injury that could have knocked him out for the season:
It's a report that has since been officially confirmed by the team:
Sheridan Hoops' Brett Poirier speculates that it's an injury that will leave him out of action for right around a month:
That's a little bit more aggressive than I'd be with my speculation, seeing as Greg Stiemsma is the most recent player to experience a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Plus, six to eight weeks is the typical recovery period for this injury.
One month is doable for the Grizzlies. Much more than that might not be.
Given the competitive nature of the Western Conference, they can't afford for Gasol, the true centerpiece of this team, to be out for much longer than a month. Even that's a lot, but it's possible for them to survive during his as-of-yet undetermined recovery period.
Why? They actually have depth at center, which makes the reigning Defensive Player of the Year a little bit more expendable than he would have been otherwise.
Kosta Koufos is the man who will step into the starting lineup, and it's a job he's actually held down in the past, just for the Denver Nuggets instead of the Grizz. During his first season in Memphis, he's averaging 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47.9 percent from the field.
Ed Davis and Jon Leuer will also experience upticks in minutes, though it's only Davis who should be receiving a significant boost. The natural power forward is tough enough that he can make an impact on the glass, though it'll be tough for him to generate much offense against centers. As for Leuer, his shooting should be beneficial, but he's in no way the defensive presence that Memphis needs.
Obviously, none of them brings the same set of skills to the table that Gasol carried along with him on a consistent basis. The Spanish 7-footer won Defensive Player of the Year last season thanks to his stellar interior defense, a skill produced by his heady rotations and quick feet in the paint.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is the part of Gasol's game that is easier to replace.
Koufos is by no means on the reigning DPOY's level, but he's still a big and physical player who can hold his own in the paint. As shown by NBA.com's statistical databases, the Grizzlies have actually been a better defensive team when he's on the court.
Memphis is allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions when that happens, and the number skyrockets to 106.2 when he takes a seat on the pine. He's a natural fit for Joerger's system, as the plodding nature of his defensive game doesn't allow him to get caught out of position as often as Gasol has in 2013-14.
But Gasol was so much more than a stopper for the Grizzlies, and that's why his loss is such a big deal.
Gasol also functions as an offensive hub, operating with the ball in his hands far more often than most centers do. According to SportVU data, Gasol was averaging 67.7 touches per game, sandwiching him right in between Kevin Durant and James Harden. That should give you a solid idea about how involved he was in the offensive schemes.
In fact, no player came close to Gasol in elbow touches per game before his injury:
- Marc Gasol, 18.0
- Blake Griffin, 12.8
- Kevin Love, 11.6
- Pau Gasol, 11.5
- Anderson Varejao, 10.5
- Zaza Pachulia, 10.4
- Tim Duncan, 10.4
Not a single player absent from that list has averaged double digits in elbow touches, and it's pretty clear that Gasol, the master of the behind-the-back pass from the elbow to a backdoor cutter, stood out from the rest of the crowd in a big way. That's what will be most difficult to survive.
It's plays like this one against the Sacramento Kings that really make the now-injured big man so special.
Tony Allen has just flashed down through the paint, and while Zach Randolph looked him off, he did manage to throw the Kings defense into disarray.
Now DeMarcus Cousins is left with two assignments and has to stay in between Gasol and Allen. There's no positive outcome for him here because Gasol is such an adept scorer and passer from that particular spot.
Z-Bo swings the ball over to his frontcourt teammate.
And "Boogie," because he has no choice, is left rotating over to prevent Gasol from crashing down to the hoop for an easy bucket. By doing so, he makes Gasol's decision pretty darn easy.
This is pretty much the definition of a touch pass.
Gasol doesn't actually take time to catch the ball, but rather keeps its momentum going and throws it behind his back to Allen. The result is an easy layup and an aesthetically pleasing assist. Just add it to the passing highlight reel that needs to be compiled for Gasol.
None of the replacements can do this, and Memphis will resultantly have to shift the focus of its offense. That means that Mike Conley is about to have a lot more responsibility.
The floor general has been fantastic this season, averaging 19.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and posting a PER of 24.02, per ESPN.com. But as good as he's been, he's been hesitant to attack as much as necessary, knowing that there are so many ways for the Grizzlies to generate offense.
That has to change.
Conley has been one of the most heavily involved players in the NBA, finishing in the top 10 in both touches per game and time of possession per game, but now he has to be more aggressive with the ball. It's up to him to push into the interior of the defense and break down the opponent, even if it results in a declining field-goal percentage.
Other than that, Z-Bo can go to work more as well, which means that Joerger must be willing to slow down the tempo on offense. That's the best way to maximize the value of what should still be a stellar defensive unit.
With the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Grizzlies all expected to compete rather heavily for the final three seeds in the Western Conference's postseason picture, there isn't much room for error here. The Grizzlies have to keep pace while Gasol recovers from the MCL injury.
If it takes too long, or if Memphis struggles to replace him, the lottery could very well be beckoning.