Thirteen years ago, the Lakers drafted Marc Gasol, a chubby 22-year-old who was nicknamed the “Big Burrito” and best known for being the younger brother of Pau. Seven months later, the Lakers traded for the older brother, and in doing so, had to send away the rights to Marc. He was already loved in Memphis, having won Division 2’s Mr. Basketball while playing there in high school during the early part of Pau’s career.
The Lakers won the trade by advancing to three straight Finals and winning two, but the deal wasn’t as lopsided as people around the league bemoaned at the time. Marc Gasol blossomed just as his brother had in the Grind City, becoming a three-time All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, and All-NBA first-team selection while helping the franchise win its first ever playoff game (and series) in 2011, and earning the team’s lone Western Conference Finals berth in 2013. Even as the Lakers transformed into a powerhouse with the elder Gasol, it was impossible not to have a soft spot for the younger brother, who was also building a Hall of Fame-worthy resume of his own.
It’s only fitting after all these years, Marc Gasol would end up in Los Angeles. The Lakers have officially signed the center — reportedly to a two-year, $5.3 million deal with no player or team options — the team announced on Tuesday, and Gasol’s career arc has come full circle. This is the home of the greatest big men in NBA history, and the Lakers were the first to identify his talent back in 2007, even if they later (correctly) determined that he wasn’t the right player to put them over the top in that moment. Now, he very well could be.
Gasol is a suffocating defender, absolutely the kind of player Frank Vogel would have loved to construct a defense around in his prime. He doesn’t have to be that player with Anthony Davis already on the Lakers, but Gasol still commands a defense as well as anybody in the league. He knows how to read opposing offenses, can identify which actions are decoys, and can snuff out the good stuff before the other team creates an advantage. Gasol relies on his positioning because he doesn’t have the vertical mobility to be a shot-blocker, but he can contest shots in the paint, and more importantly, deter them altogether.
For the last nine years of his career, opposing teams have taken fewer shots at the rim when Gasol is on the floor, which adheres to rule No. 1 of a Vogel defense: protecting the basket. Combine that with above-average steal and block rates as well as an ability to avoid fouling, and it’s clear why Gasol has anchored so many great defenses in his career. He is also outstanding at defending big centers, notably giving Joel Embiid hell over the past two seasons. That could make Gasol particularly useful in matchups against Denver, especially now that Dwight Howard is no longer around.
Offensively is where Gasol has slipped more noticeable since his peak days in Memphis. The most glaring difference in Gasol’s game is his increasing unwillingness to score. He often won’t even look at the basket when he receives the ball on the perimeter, and his post-up game, which was once a hub of the Grizzlies offense, has essentially disappeared.
Fortunately, those aren’t really concerns for the Lakers. They’ll have to excise the lob plays they ran for JaVale McGee from their playbook, but otherwise, what Gasol still does meshes quite well with what this team needs. He is still a fabulous playmaker who enjoys conducting the offense instead of looking to score. He likes to set up in the high post, often out of horns actions, and is great at hitting cutters in the paint. His height enables him to make that pass without fear of it being deflected. Gasol is also really good at passing out of the pick-and-roll, again a set that often leads to the rolling big scoring, but one that Gasol likes to turn into an assist opportunity.
The Lakers need players other than LeBron James who can move the ball and create advantages as secondary playmakers, and that’s exactly what Gasol does. He doesn’t bring the ball up, run pick-and-roll, or direct fast breaks; rather, he finds openings in the halfcourt by capitalizing on mistakes and thinking a beat faster than this opponent. He won’t have to score on a team that has plenty of people who want to put up points. Gasol can just get them in better position to do so.
There are reasons to worry about Gasol’s age — he turns 36 in January and only played 44 regular-season games last year due to separate ankle and hamstring injuries. He was also played off the floor at times in Toronto’s semifinal series against Boston, but context is important here. Gasol is essentially replacing McGee on the roster, and McGee wasn’t exactly lighting it up during the postseason. The Lakers need Gasol for regular-season duty and for specific playoff matchups, like against Nikola Jokic, and can revert to their Davis at the five lineups when Gasol is a bit too slow. Furthermore, prior to last season, Gasol’s injury history was fairly clean as he was regularly playing at least 70 games per year. The Lakers can manage his minutes like they did with McGee and increase the load when they need his particular skill set.
Gasol is a veteran who knows what it takes to win in the playoffs and is coming to Los Angeles explicitly to win, and maybe to reunite with assistant coach Lionel Hollins after their time together in Memphis. This contract isn’t a financial windfall for Gasol; he made this decision to add another championship to his trophy case.
The Lakers have re-tooled a surprising amount of their roster in the last week or so, but having Gasol almost feels like a familiar face. He was a draftee of the team all those years ago, and his brother is Laker royalty. It’s a new team for Gasol, but it should be a comfortable position considering his style of play and the goals he and the Lakers have in mind. This franchise has been good for the Gasol family so far, bringing one brother into the league and the other into eternal glory. If Marc Gasol can win here, it could be a storybook ending to a tale that began in 2007.