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Marc Gasol's Uncertain Future Fueling Memphis Grizzlies' Title Chase

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterApril 22, 2015

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Marc Gasol already owns the most impressive resume of any player to come through the Memphis Grizzlies' ranks—his older brother Pau included. In seven seasons with the Grizzlies, the younger Gasol has been tapped for two All-Star Games (once as a starter), appointed to an All-NBA team and named the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year.

Along the way, the man known to many in Memphis as Big Spain has carried the Grizzlies to new heights since returning to the River City in 2008. He played a pivotal part in the team's first playoff win, its first postseason series victory, its first trip to the Western Conference Finals and now its fifth straight playoffs appearance, the longest such streak in franchise history.

Now, Gasol, who's been a Memphian since moving to Tennessee with his family for Pau's Grizzlies debut in 2001, is aiming to bring a championship to a place he calls his "home away from home." So far, he and the Grizzlies are off to a good start, with a clear upper hand in an injury-riddled first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

"[Winning a title in Memphis] definitely has your stamp in it from being there for so long. Of course, it's more special," Gasol said during the Grizzlies last regular-season visit to L.A. in early April. "I don't know what the parade would be like, but it would be fun to see, to see it on Beale Street."

This summer will bring another first for Gasol and could do the same for the Grizzlies. Come July, Gasol will be a first-time unrestricted free agent, with no shortage of suitors pursuing his services. That opens up the possibility, however slight, of the team operating without a Gasol under their control in some capacity—be it on its active roster or stashed overseas—for the first time since leaving Vancouver.

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Zach Randolph has had a front-row seat for Gasol's growth into one of the more decorated players at the center position. He and Gasol have shared the Grizzlies frontcourt since 2009, when the Los Angeles Clippers traded Randolph to Memphis in exchange for Quentin Richardson.

Even then, Z-Bo could tell there was something special about Gasol, aside from Marc's sturdy, 7'1" physique.

"Just, you know, a smart player, knew the game, real high IQ for the game, very high skill set," Randolph said. "I seen it. I seen it in him. The next year, I seen it, he [was] constantly improving and improving. Now he's the best big man in the game."

"I think he's the best player at his position in the game," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger concurred. "He does it in a way that's not just hook it down there to him 62 times a game and he goes and gets 25 and 10. He runs a lot of our offense for us."

Indeed, when it comes to centers serving as offensive fulcrums, Gasol is among the best. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Gasol ranked third among regularly used pivots in assist percentage (19.3 percent) in 2014-15, trailing only Chicago's Joakim Noah and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins. But Gasol's Grizzlies scored at a more efficient rate (105.3 points per 100 possessions) than Noah's Bulls (103.7 points/100) and Cousins' Kings (103.5 points/100).

As always, Gasol does much of his damage from the elbows. Per NBA.com, Gasol has led his peers in elbow touches per game since the league installed SportVU cameras in all 29 arenas prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

"He makes plays. He's our point guard most of the time," said Randolph. "He's at the elbow, dribble-handing off, making plays."

The Grizzlies have a pretty good floor general in Mike Conley. But with Conley battling a right foot sprain, Gasol's skills as a table-setter will be more crucial than ever for Memphis.

Gasol's own skills as a scorer have taken a significant step forward this season, as well. He posted career highs in points (17.4) and usage rate (24.6 percent) at the epicenter of Memphis' improving attack. That uptick has made Gasol an even greater focus of opposing defenses, which, in turn, has made it that much easier for his teammates to do their jobs.

"He draws attention. He's a guy that wants to make the right play," said Courtney Lee. "He's passing it to me on time. I like playing with bigs that have a high basketball IQ. He understands the game. He knows that when a double-team comes, he knows where everybody is going to be in the right spots. It's just on us to get there."

That's to say nothing of Gasol's invaluable role on defense—a role in which he took home Defensive Player of the Year honors two seasons ago.

"Certainly, he's the leader of our defense," Joerger went on. "We have some terrific defensive players as well, and everybody's tied together—we can be pretty good. But he's the linebacker. He's a high-IQ guy on both ends of the floor, very professional. He's a heck of a player. I love working with him every day."

Lance Murphey/Associated Press

Gasol put in plenty of work to prepare himself for a season that saw him perform like a bona fide MVP during the first half of the schedule. Last year, per The Wall Street Journal's Jen Murphy, Gasol spent his annual summer back in Barcelona working out with Tony Caparros, the strength coach for the Spanish national team, and adopting a cleaner, reduced-carb "flexitarian" diet.

The result? Gasol dropped 20 pounds and improved his body's ability to handle a bigger burden on both ends of the floor. Even that pales in comparison to the physical transformation Gasol underwent during his post-high school basketball sabbatical in Spain.

"I did know of him because we went overseas to play Barcelona, and Marc wasn't really playing for Barcelona. Marc was a little overweight," said Dahntay Jones, who spent his first four NBA seasons in Memphis. "He was working on his body and his skills. I remember him as just the younger brother of Pau. But when he came on the scene in the NBA, it was just a whirlwind."

Jones didn't anticipate Gasol becoming a premier player at his position. Among those who knew of Marc from his pre-NBA days, he was far from alone.

"I never thought he'd have the career he has right now," said Clippers guard Lester Hudson, who played high school ball in Memphis around the same time Gasol did. "He'd probably tell you that, too. But I think it was great for him going overseas when he got drafted to lose some of that weight and play against some of the pro guys over there in Spain. It worked out great for him."

He's the biggest star on the only major league sporting outfit in town. But the Grizzlies' success has left the team's fans yearning for much more than they did when Pau was Memphis' man in the middle.

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"It's definitely a different kind of feel in the city now," said Denver Nuggets guard Ian Clark, a Memphis native. "They kind of expect to win now rather than being younger, it was just happy to kind of make it to the playoffs."

The eldest Gasol brother led the Grizzlies to three straight playoff berths between 2003-04 and 2005-06, but not once did they come away with a win. A season-and-a-half later, Pau was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, leaving behind 12 Grizzlies franchise records and a less-than-sterling standing among the locals.

"It was shaky towards the end, but it was always great with Pau," said Jones. "Pau was their guy. He was the center of our team, Rookie of the Year. He was going out there and putting up great numbers and playing extremely hard, so they had a love for Pau."

All the while, Marc was overseas, plying his trade in Barcelona. Come the fall of 2008, Marc, betrothed to the Grizzlies by way of the trade that sent Pau to L.A., made his triumphant return to Memphis. Two-and-a-half years later, Gasol was celebrating Memphis' shocking first-round playoffs triumph over the San Antonio Spurs—the same team that had swept Pau's Grizzlies out of the postseason in 2003-04.

That success is among the many reasons that Marc's standing in Memphis has surpassed what Pau's once was. Only one turned the Grizzlies into perennial contenders in the Western Conference, and only one has multiple murals to show for it:

But Marc isn't concerned with those comparisons. He has plenty of his own reasons for chasing the Larry O'Brien Trophy with the Grizzlies, beyond watching Pau do the same.

"It didn't motivate me the way people think it did," Gasol said of Pau's two title triumphs with the Lakers. "I was really happy for him and really excited just to be there the second time around; the first time I couldn't be there."

Pau left L.A. behind last summer, parting ways with a city that embraced him (and a team that toyed with him at times) in pursuit of further success with the Chicago Bulls. Marc will get to explore his own options this summer, though the odds of the younger Gasol leaving his "home away from home" seem slim at this point.

For one, the Grizzlies can offer Gasol a longer, more lucrative contract than any of his potential suitors.

According to The Memphis Commercial Appeal's Chris Herrington (h/t Grizzly Bear Blues' Joe Mullinax), Gasol could earn around $108 million over the course of the next five seasons if he stays in the River City. Should Gasol decide to explore his options elsewhere, the best he could hope for would be a four-year deal worth about $30 million less than what he can garner, by rule, from the Grizzlies.

To be sure, there will be more to Gasol's decision than the basic dollar figures.

Should the San Antonio Spurs come calling, they might be able to entice Gasol with the opportunity to step in for Tim Duncan, who's soon to turn 39 and could opt for retirement after this season. No player set to hit the market this summer can more closely approximate what Duncan does than Gasol. Throw in the Spurs' winning culture and Texas' notoriously friendly tax regime, and the gap between Memphis and San Antonio figures to shrink considerably—if not vanish entirely.

Neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the New York Knicks could draw Gasol in with quite the same opportunities to win right away. Nor are the tax men in California and New York all that lenient. But both organizations can boast strong ties to the Gasol family (Pau played in L.A. for Phil Jackson, who's now the Knicks' team president) and all the spoils that major markets afford. The Knicks, in particular, would likely be delighted to employ Gasol's skills as a passer and mid-range shooter within Derek Fisher's version of the triangle offense.

There may be cap-flush teams in other cities that come calling, as well. The Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks will be among those with both potential frontcourt openings and the flexibility to max out Gasol.

But while no city in America can offer Gasol the creature comforts of his true hometown of Barcelona, only Memphis can come close to claiming him as one of its own.

"They love him around there, man," said Randolph. "It's great, man. I know he's got free agency coming up. Whatever makes him happy, that's what it's all about. But, you know, I want him to be here. I support him too."

So does all of Memphis.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter.

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