With Marc Gasol sidelined for a good portion of this season, the Memphis Grizzlies sputtered on both ends of the floor. The team only mustered a 10-13 record during that period, falling out of the Western Conference playoff picture after making the conference finals last season.
At 20-20, Memphis still finds itself three games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot. But things have begun to pick up with Gasol back in the fold, as he's been able to better anchor their defense and facilitate the offense off the elbow.
Part of what makes Memphis effective on offense is their two-big lineups, which fly in the face of the small-ball revolution facing the NBA. Because both Gasol and Zach Randolph can operate effectively from the free-throw line, they create a nice high-low combination that puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses to collapse the paint.
Furthermore, Gasol isn't just a big due to his size. He plays the 5 position as it's meant to be played, able to put his back to the basket and utilize his massive frame properly. Much of Memphis' offense relies on this versatility, keeping the defense off-balance by never revealing until late in the set which big goes high and which goes low.
Memphis takes advantage of this by initiating their offense from the elbows, with Gasol and Randolph planted on either side of the floor. Without an overload on one side of the floor, the defense doesn't know through which side of the floor the offense will be run. Add in point guard Mike Conley's comfort attacking off the dribble with both hands and Memphis is often able to gain an offensive edge.
Take this simple Horns set, with Gasol on one elbow and Randolph on the other. Most teams will use a big on one elbow and a stretch-4 on the other, thereby revealing the direction of the play before it starts. This is because the offense wants the stretch-4 to pop while the other big rolls, meaning the point guard will come off a pick-and-roll with the big.
Memphis adds a layer of deception because the play can go either way here. In this instance, Conley goes left. Gasol sets the pick and rolls while Randolph pops.
Once Randolph catches the ball from Conley, Gasol doesn't just roll weakly into the paint. He throws his body right into his defender, DeMarcus Cousins, rocking him backwards. Notice the angle of Cousins' body.
It's not often that a post player can body DeMarcus Cousins—he's huge in his own right and doesn't particularly enjoy getting knocked off his spot. It also helps that Jason Thompson, Randolph's defender, cannot completely sag to deny the post entry. Randolph can shoot it from there and is also able to go off the bounce.
It's only icing on the cake that Gasol is seven feet tall and Randolph can lob the ball in with ease to him. The ensuing turnaround jumper is an easy shot, leading to two points.
The real value of Marc Gasol is his ability to facilitate off the elbow. He's an excellent passer, always willing to pass up his own look for that of a teammate. Simply put, he almost always makes the right offensive decision.
Here's a simple example of that, with Gasol catching it on the elbow in transition. Because he's moving at speed, it would be defensible for him to take two steps with his own momentum and attack the basket. It's also a nice opportunity for an in-rhythm pull-up, as his defender, Greg Stiemsma, is backpedaling and not in a position to contest.
Gasol, however, chooses a third option with a very subtle move. Though his teammate Courtney Lee has cut to the hoop and is wide open, Stiemsma's positioning cuts off the passing angle. To slide the pass in to Lee, Gasol manipulates Stiemsma's instincts with a quick shot fake. This goads him into lurching out towards Gasol, knocking off his balance and throwing his hand forward.
It's just enough to open up the passing angle, and Gasol fits the ball in to Lee for the basket.
There's also the matter of defense, Memphis' calling card from last season. Gasol was the 2012-2013 Defensive Player of the Year, and his prowess on that end of the floor has continued into this season.
Gasol's greatest strength defensively has always been his technical understanding of positioning and help defense. He's never been the quickest or most athletic, but he diagnoses plays well before they happen. This allows him the time to get into proper position, and his quick thinking compensates for his average foot speed.
Take a look at Rudy Gay here, who's about to rip baseline and get to the rim. Gasol, who's all the way on the other side of the floor, reads the play and sees what's about to unfold.
Right before Gasol sprints into a help position, he slides his feet out of the paint. This is a very heady move, as he buys himself an extra 2.9 seconds to avoid a defensive three-second call.
Though Gay is driving baseline, he doesn't know if he's going to kick the ball out. Because the defensive three-second countdown begins once a defensive player is in the paint and more than an arm's length away from an offensive player, Gasol knows he needs every moment of that 2.9 while he's floating between men.
As Gay approaches the rim, Gasol is already in position. What's more is that he's stationary and vertical, giving Gay absolutely nowhere to go.
This is the true mark of a great defensive big man. There's no need to reach forward, as Gay is not going anywhere. He simply stays straight up and is able to block the shot.
The real key, however, is that he's beaten Gay to the spot. By predicting where he would end up, Gasol is able to cut him off and force him to pick up his dribble. There's no need for a reaching swat or any other type of gamble; all it took was a bit of quick thinking to deter Gay's drive to the rack.
Marc Gasol has never been the most skilled or athletic man on the floor. He's not the strongest, either. But he has an understanding of the game that is rivaled by few players, and he uses that brain power to outthink opponents on both ends of the floor.
Players like Gasol extract every ounce of production out of their skill. By conventional thinking, he shouldn't be that good. But he is because he knows the game of basketball, and the Grizzlies' only hope for a deep playoff run will rely on him staying healthy and on the floor.