Marc Gasol may be flailing through his first few games back, but the Memphis Grizzlies will climb on his shoulders for a postseason ride. The holes he'll soon patch on both the Grizzlies' offense and defense will lift their competitive ability.
Never mind the slow return
Gasol is easing back into the mix. He's averaging 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per 36 minutes on 38.9 percent shooting and 77.8 percent from the line in four games since stepping to the court after missing 23 games.
The pace is slower than usual for the NBA's most tortoise-like offense. According to NBA.com, the Grizzlies' are seeing 91.67 possessions per 48 minutes, 0.73 fewer than the season rate. The Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe noted that, "since Gasol has yet to integrate with what the team is trying to do, the Grizzlies are driving with the parking brake on."
Such an occurrence shouldn't surprise fans of the three shades of blue. Teams that adapt to performing without a player for several weeks require time smoothing him into the recipe. The same happened when Zach Randolph returned from his partial MCL tear in 2012.
Considering Gasol is a highly intelligent player, he'll regain familiarity while improving his conditioning.
Opening offensive opportunities
Even more stunning than Gasol's shooting rates since his return is his assist figure. He had one assist in his first two games back, the first such occurrence in two regular-season games since January 2012.
He's the best passing big man in the league, averaging 4.1 assists per 36 minutes since the beginning of last season. Gasol looks to create for others as much as he does for himself.
Also, the chemistry between Gasol and Zach Randolph makes it easier for the latter to find easy baskets. Taking better passes will lift Randolph from his horrid 44.5 percent shooting.
The Commercial Appeal's Chris Herrington discussed how the Grizz missed the 28-year-old's playmaking, saying Memphis has been struggling, with Randolph facing tougher defenders, Mike Conley fighting to find lanes to the bucket and inferior players being called upon to make plays.
Gasol's season-long struggle is strange. He's 44.6 percent for the season, seven percent below his career average. His problem lies at mid-range, where he had been among the best before this year. As shown in his NBA.com shot chart, he's hitting 37.1 percent from that area.
Within a couple of weeks, he should regain rhythm from that range. That will restore the spacing created by the arrival of Courtney Lee. Having Gasol draining jumpers rather than Kosta Koufos clanging close shots for more than 30 minutes per game, the Grizz will both improve their shooting clip and open the offense.
Bearing the defensive standard
With the Grizz far from their old "grit 'n' grind" defense as the No. 16 team in defensive rating, Gasol can fix their stopping capacity.
Allowing 102 points per 100 possessions, Gasol stands among a few Memphis players defending well.
The 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year is coming back with greater defensive drive than early in the season. He has allowed 98 points per 100 possessions in the past four games. He blocked four shots against the Sacramento Kings on Friday and has three steals in the last two games.
As Gasol reinstated his rim protection, he brought back something the Grizz had missed with him sidelined. Aaron McGuire explained the missing effect in an article last week for Gothic Ginobili:
With Gasol in the game the Memphis perimeter talent (mainly Conley and [Tony] Allen) are able and willing to adhere to their men like glue, keeping players off the three-point line and largely eliminating the easy threes that many offenses live off. The Memphis perimeter attack is unable to stay quite as locked in as they are with Gasol in the middle, and they have to fade back to guard against drives to the rim.
Since his return, they've allowed 41.1 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Also, as his condition improves, he'll make up for Randolph's defensive lapses. Gasol's interior partner has fallen off on that end, allowing 106 points per 100 possessions. He's perfectly able to sense when Randolph can't stop his man, but will rotate more quickly as he regains speed.
The Grizz paved the way for their best player's arrival by performing well enough to stay in the postseason position.
Before long, he'll be integrated into the offense and will start dishing inspiring passes and rediscovering his mid-range form. He'll help improve a leaky defense in which some are performing below expectations.
The improvements Gasol allows open the odd possibility that the Grizz may enter the top half in both offensive and defensive rating.
Having said that, a Grizz team that scores and defends effectively would not only make up the couple of games for the last playoff spot, but also render them a threatening low seed. A properly functioning Gasol pairs with Randolph to once again impose themselves on opposing big men, while Conley, Lee and Mike Miller combine for respectable perimeter scoring.
If Gasol brings Memphis' defense closer to its form under Lionel Hollins, that would be the biggest effect of the Spaniard's return.
Statistics are current through Jan. 22 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.