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Marc Gasol is the Lakers’ third-most important player

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By raising the floor of a team with a sky-high ceiling, Marc Gasol balances out aspects of a Lakers team that struggled with consistency last season.

Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

With the 48th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected the Memphis Grizzlies’ budding star Pau Gasol’s chubby younger brother, Marc. Pegged at the time as unfit for NBA basketball, Marc was viewed strictly as an organizational depth piece, with little chance of playing in the league anytime soon. Marc’s stint with the Lakers ended before it ever began, as he was just 24, still playing in Spain when he discovered he was amongst the scrapheap Los Angeles shipped to Memphis in exchange for his big bro.

Although the Lakers surrendered Javaris Crittenton, two late first rounders that never amounted to too much, and a former number one pick (KWAME BROWN!?) in exchange for a peaking superstar, Marc Gasol eventually helped rebalance what was viewed at the time as a total heist in the Lakers’ favor. Pau helped the Kobe Bryant-led Laker squad to NBA titles in 2009 and ’10, and Marc began his ten-year tenure as the centerpiece of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies. After an NBA Championship-winning season and change in Toronto, Marc’s back where he started, surely hoping to contribute to another chip.

Now, at 35, Marc Gasol’s best years are undoubtedly in his rearview, and to add insult to a hamstring injury he suffered while training for the ’20-21 season in Barcelona, to put it nicely, the svelte ectomorph on the right isn’t exactly the guy we’ve seen in the preseason:

To put it less nicely, re-appropriating an all-time Mike D’Antoni dig at a then overweight Frenchman Boris Diaw, he looks like he spent his offseason eating all of the churros in Spain. Huffing and puffing up and down the court has done Gasol no favors, as his conditioning has undoubtedly dulled his typically sharp edge on either end of the floor. After turning teammates’ heads with his play in training camp, In the preseason, he turned the ball over more frequently than he ever had before.

In this clip, we get the best and worst of the Lakers preseason Marc Gasol experience, highlighting his present shortcomings while providing the outline of a Laker team that could be far superior to last year’s. After barely getting off the floor for a defensive rebound, Gasol fires an outlet pass towards a streaking Kyle Kuzma. However, with Jevon Carter playing safety, Gasol’s heave never makes it to its intended target. After Carter shovels a pass into the corner for a wide-open Jae Crowder, Gasol lumbers towards the corner, but fails to close enough ground to contest Crowder’s 3-pointer, which he swishes.

While this compounding ineptitude created inefficient basketball, the outcome of this sequence belies its potential value to the team. Though this particular pass was evidently ill-advised, the intent is one that will provide a discrete value to the Lakers they were often unable to access last year. The Lakers excelled in transition, leading the league in points added per 100 transition possessions, and finishing second in points added per 100 transition possessions off live rebounds. However, they only ran the eighth-most often off of live rebounds.

When they did, LeBron James’s unparalleled ability to pinpoint 85-foot dimes to willing receivers, especially Anthony Davis, led to a whole lot of free money for his teammates:

Gasol might not quite have the pinpoint accuracy and playmaking gall of Playoff Rondo, but he should be able to out-outlet him by pure volume of opportunities. Last year, Rajon Rondo averaged 4.4 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes in the regular season, while Gasol averaged 7.6. Though Gasol is less of a threat in the endzone compared to the dearly departed and springier Howard and McGee, he can provide a quantitative upgrade over Rondo’s transition ignition duties.

Also, when sharing the floor with LeBron, the King himself can leak out more often, expecting to catch touchdowns instead of only to throw them. Even if in all likelihood he’ll be less willing to step on the gas to race past an unsuspecting defender as he approaches middle-age, it’s not something he’s been averse to in the past:

Returning to the original play in question, LeBron stood next to Gasol, likely waiting for him to advance it to him immediately after the catch. As James acclimates to Gasol’s penchant for firing zingers up-court, he’ll instead advance sans ball expecting Gasol to find him, hopefully developing the kind of chemistry Gasol’s already shown with AD.

Gasol should be able to successfully connect with LeBron in more ways than just Hail Marys. With Gasol as the roll man, we’ve already seen LeBron utilize his own driving gravity to clear space for Gasol pick and pops in the preseason.

With Ayton sinking to help Mikal Bridges contain LeBron’s potential drive, Gasol pivots behind the 3-point line, readying himself to catch and shoot, then drains the wide-open triple. While Gasol’s once expansive offensive arsenal has shrunk as he’s gotten older — there is a reason he was willing to accept the veteran’s minimum — he’s become quite the sniper from behind the line.

During the 2019-20 season, Gasol shot 38.1% from above the break, and 40.9% on shots between 25 and 29 feet from the rim. Further, the vast majority of Gasol’s 3.4 3-pointers per game were of the longer variety, often spotting up at the top of the arc as a counter to defenses overcommitting on drives. As the league’s second-worst above the break 3-point shooting team in 2019-20 (33.0%), Gasol’s pure stroke will be a boon to the Lakers’ offense. Also, his gravity will help open up the paint even more for James drives and Davis post-touches.

The Lakers certainly lose some vertical spacing that McGee and Howard provided as legitimate lob threats, but they’ve just inked the league’s best one, Anthony Davis, to a five-year extension. Also, while Dwight and JaVale’s redundancies with Davis’ offensive skillset made them hard to play together, especially in the playoffs, Gasol’s ability to shoot deep threes should entirely ameliorate that issue.

In lineups next to LeBron, Gasol can also serve as a decent roll man with the soft hands and touch to catch and finish around the rim, though he shouldn’t need to often as long as AD is on the floor. Gasol can and should guard fives, especially next to Davis, lessening the regular season pounding he’d have to take as a full-time center, just as his Laker predecessors — Dwight and JaVale — did before him.

Per the Basketball Index, Gasol also still grades out as one of the game’s better rim protectors, receiving an A or A- on six of their eight interior defensive metrics.

Screenshot via The Basketball Index

As LeBron recently recalled regarding his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year finish behind Gasol, Marc isn’t quite as staunch on that end as he once was, but he still does a better job than most other big men. Though he’s never racked up a ton of blocks, Gasol has always been able to contest just about everything in the paint by staying a step ahead of his opponent and maintaining verticality. However, as noted earlier, he’ll have a hard time closing ground quickly in his current condition, so he ought to be deployed sparingly against lineups capable of pulling him away from the paint, and should gain a step or two as he hopefully plays himself into better shape, instead of ballooning on the bench like the belovedly beefy Jared Dudley.

In lineups without either of the Lakers’ stars on the floor, which should see even more floor time than last year given the team’s improved depth and willingness to load manage, Gasol provides a whole new kind of engine to keep their offense from sputtering out as it has in the past. The team can utilize his sixth sense for the open man to encourage off-ball movement from players (I’m looking at you, Kuz) with a tendency to occasionally ball-watch.

Beyond throwing some of the best outlet passes in the game, Gasol is also one of the greatest passing big men of all time and is still as good an all-around passer as ever. With the combination of his shooting gravity and knowledge of what to do with the ball before he even touches it, Gasol makes otherwise mundane passes more quickly and on-target than other bigs might, leading to improved scoring chances for his teammates. Like a blast of WD-40 into a set of gears, Gasol’s low-usage lubrication can help make an average half court offense into an awesome one, as Frank Vogel himself was quick to admit.

In addition to his elite passing, Gasol is still capable of occasionally snacking on post ups, something we’ve already gotten a taste of in the preseason.

Here, Gasol backs down his defender, then turns around, catching a pretty good post defender in Serge Ibaka on his heels. Marc’s deep bag of cheeky tricks, full of fadeaways and flip shots, isn’t efficient enough anymore to be an offense’s primary scorer, but it’s plenty to punish mismatches or occasionally jumpstart a stalled Lakers possession or lineup.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Gasol is coming off the worst mid-range shooting season of his career, and as a non-threat to catch lobs and lacking a slithery post game, is barely able to get in close to the rim. Last year, no Laker big other than AD, was able to create offense for himself or others, despite being capable finishers when others made plays for them. This year, Gasol is joined by Montrezl Harrell, who is at least as capable of creating for himself in the post, and even more potent than Gasol or last year’s duo as a roller. The Lakers’ new tandem of Gasol and Harrell should more than make up for what the team lost in rim running while also adding a pinch of post scoring as needed.

With his passing, shooting, defensive, and post scoring abilities, Marc Gasol adds a host of skills possessed by a few of the Lakers’ bit players of last season, but in one fully loaded package. His shooting range makes Gasol an especially good fit in almost any lineup construction, so long as he’s not tasked with guarding a perimeter scorer. Though he’ll scarcely, and frankly shouldn’t ever, be the best player on the floor in a Laker uniform, he can be the third or fourth best player in a dozen or so different lineup machinations. As the presumptive starter, he stretches the floor while improving upon McGee/Howard’s rim protection capabilities, even if he’s not as flashy a shot blocker. In bench units, even with another big like Harrell or Markieff Morris, Gasol can work the high and low posts, using his vision to dissect the floor, making the game easier for the rest of the reserves.

Coming off the 17th championship in franchise history, the Lakers’ ceiling, as determined by the strength of their two stars, is already sky-high. No marginal personnel additions could improve upon what Bron and AD do when both of them are at their best. However, last year’s team sorely lacked floor raisers—guys that could keep the machine moving when the team’s top two were either out or off. Kyle Kuzma (or Talen Horton-Tucker) might have the most potential, and either Harrell or Schroder might be the most likely candidate to be the team’s third-leading scorer. However, due to the wide range of ways he augments their preexisting strengths and shores up past weaknesses, Marc Gasol will prove to be the Lakers’ third most valuable player by the time they have a chance to earn banner No. 18.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who also covers the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.