Marc Gasol's Impact as NBA Star Goes Way Beyond the Box Score

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Marc Gasol's Impact as NBA Star Goes Way Beyond the Box Score
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Points. Rebounds. Assists. Steals. Blocks. Shooting percentages. 

There's a lot that you can glean from the numbers comprising any NBA box score, but some players' value goes well beyond the digits littering the page. Marc Gasol is one of those players, as his impact as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies simply can't be identified quite so easily. 

Sure, the Spanish 7-footer is averaging 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per game since returning from his knee injury in the middle of January. He's also shooting only 44.4 percent from the field. 

Are those special numbers? 

Not exactly. In fact, they're rather pedestrian, especially for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, one who has become thought of as one of the premier centers in basketball.

Fortunately, those aren't the only numbers that matter for Gasol. 

 

Grizzlies are Winning

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the most important number of all: seven. 

Since the big man returned to the lineup on Jan. 14 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies have played eight games. Dropping only a lone contest to the New Orleans Pelicans, they've gone 7-1 over that stretch, which has gotten them right back into the thick of things in the Western Conference. 

After beating the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 29, the Grizz improved to 24-20.

It's a record that would leave them sitting pretty at No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, but the West is so difficult that Memphis wouldn't have a playoff bid if the season had ended last night. At least they've moved back into contention, as the Dallas Mavericks are only a half game ahead of them and hold down the No. 8 seed. 

But here's the key: 

Infogr.am.

The Grizzlies were above .500 before Gasol went down. They struggled to win games without him, and now they're right back on a winning trajectory since he's returned to the lineup. 

NBA.com shows that the Grizzlies outscore their opponents by 0.4 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is on the court. But when he sits, the opponents do the outscoring, this time by 0.3 points per 100 possessions. 

After the victory over the Kings, head coach David Joerger told the Associated Press via ESPN, "Our chemistry right now is as good as I've ever seen it. Our confidence is high and we're really trying to stay in the moment."

Hmm...I wonder why.

You could certainly say that the big man promotes winning. But how?

 

Defense Wins Championships

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It's all about the defense. 

Gasol isn't one of those players who racks up blocks and steals, but he's still able to make a monumental impact on the less-glamorous end of the court. I mean, he did win Defensive Player of the Year last season despite averaging "only" 1.0 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. 

If you look at the voting for that award, via Basketball-Reference, correlated with the combined number of blocks and steals, you'll see Gasol emerge as a pretty serious outlier: 

Infogr.am.

The big man may have been clear of the field by a rather large margin in terms of votes, but it's not like he stood out in either of the categories that typically show up in a box score. He made an impact in other areas. 

Intimidation, for example: 

The Grizzlies defense is predicated on toughness, and it helps when the man in the middle is setting the tone. But it also helps when he sets out to protect the rim whenever possible. 

According to SportVU data on NBA.com, the Spaniard is allowing opponents to shoot 50.7 percent at the rim, and he's facing 6.8 shots per game in that area. Are those particularly impressive numbers? Nope, not really. 

Among the 49 players who are facing at least six attempts per contest at the rim, Gasol is just about in the center of the pack for percentage allowed. However, that's not really his role on the defense. 

Players like Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders are supposed to protect the rim at all costs, but Gasol is a more versatile defender. He's constantly helping out other players by rotating and shifting his position, and his goal is to steer the defense as far as possible from the rim. 

It's the help defense that stands out, as do his individual numbers. 

Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows that Gasol is allowing his man to post 0.76 points per possession, which ranks him No. 44 among all NBA players. Again, this is a guy who constantly helps out his teammates, and there's generally a give-and-take process between individual numbers and help tendencies. 

No player in the Association has been better at closing out on spot-up shooters, and Gasol is also thriving against post-up players. Not a bad combination at all. 

82games.com shows a similar story unfolding. 

The Memphis big man has held opposing centers to a 12.8 PER during the 2013-14 season. That's a mark that puts him in the same class as Roy Hibbert (12.3) and leaves stalwart defenders like Joakim Noah (16.9) and Andrew Bogut (15.0) in the dust. 

There's no question that, even when returning from a severe injury, Gasol is an elite defender. You just have to know where to look for proof, as a box score won't typically leave that impression. 

 

Eases Pressure on the Backcourt Scorers

Cameron Browne/Getty Images

If you're looking for a center who can help facilitate for the rest of the offense, Gasol is your man. 

His assist numbers aren't as impressive this season as they've been in the past, but he still functions as a hub of the offense, as B/R's Tom Firme explains: 

Gasol should help the shooters around him reach even higher as he grows more comfortable. Last season, he led centers with four assists per game.

He serves as a secondary facilitator to Conley. Gasol generally takes the ball at the elbow, with an equal tendency to pass as to shoot.

Even when the pass doesn't turn into a dime, Gasol still helps the offense generate a positive flow. The ball moves more freely, and defenses are left scrambling to catch up. That's why the Grizzlies shoot the ball so much more effectively when the big man is on the court. 

Based on NBA.com's data and some calculations of my own, the disparity becomes pretty clear. 

When he's on the bench—whether catching his breath or sitting out due to injury—Memphis has drained 45.2 percent of its shots from the field and 35.4 percent of its three-point attempts. That's good for an effective field-goal percentage of 48.3 percent. 

When he's on the court, though, the Grizzlies shoot 46.5 percent from the field and drill their three-pointers 34.6 percent of the time, which results in a 49.4 effective field-goal percentage. 

Unfortunately, the calculation isn't that simple. Those on-court numbers include the ones generated by Gasol himself, so we aren't isolating the effect he has on his teammates. 

With the center removed from the equation, Memphis is shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 35 percent beyond the arc. The effective field-goal percentage rises to 50.5 percent as a result. 

So he's improving that crucial shooting metric 1.1 percent, which makes a pretty big difference over the course of an entire game.

Will the Grizzlies make it to the playoffs?

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Again, this doesn't show up in the box score. But it sure matters.

The Grizzlies are a significantly more dangerous team on both ends of the court when Gasol is healthy and in the lineup. There's so much he does that doesn't get recorded by the official scorers, even though you can find it if you do a little bit more digging.

Now just imagine how much of an impact he'll make when those per-game stats rebound to their 2012-13 levels.

Memphis will quickly become one of those squads no one wants to face during the postseason festivities.  

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