Despite the Lakers (10-3) coasting to the best record in the NBA so far with blowouts allowing them to go at half speed while they set a franchise-best mark with a 7-0 start on the road, there has still been a lot of chatter about whether or not the team needs another traditional big man, or if Marc Gasol — or more specifically, his lack of foot speed — will become an issue for them defensively.
So far, the numbers have not borne that out. The Lakers have actually had better rim protection statistically so far this year, allowing both a lower shooting percentage on shots at the rim while limiting opponents to even fewer shots there. The defense looks different than last year’s rangier, quicker and more physical version, but it’s still been the best in the league so far, holding opponents to 104.4 points per 100 possessions (albeit against less-than-stellar competition, to be fair).
But while such stats may be surprising to some, Anthony Davis is not among them. Earlier this month, he essentially foretold exactly what Gasol could do for this team.
“He’s huge. A former DPOY. He’s able to protect the rim for us, we have his back when he’s switched out on smaller defenders. He does a good job of talking out coverages,” Davis said. “He talks to me all the time on the bench about defensive schemes and what he sees on the floor, so his mindset and his mentality on the defensive end is huge for us. It only makes us a better defensive team, and the more and more that we lean on him on the defensive end to be that anchor, it’s only going to help us.”
The Purple and Gold now lead the NBA in defensive rating pic.twitter.com/LoZ9qEnJNv— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 14, 2021
So far, the Lakers have actually been slightly worse defensively with Gasol on the floor, allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays vs. 103.3 when he sits. But considering that Gasol starts — thus often going up against better players — and has lately been replaced by Anthony Davis blocking every shot in sight even while playing “power forward,” the difference is pretty negligible. And so far, the trade-off has been well worth it for what Gasol brings on the other side of the ball.
The only player that has a better offensive rating — how many points the team scores per 100 possessions while they’re on the floor — than Gasol (120.8) is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (129.3), who missed games recently and thus has only played with the Lakers’ normal starting lineup, instead of the one with Kyle Kuzma (who the Lakers are at their best with offensively when he’s off the floor) in his place that partially skews Gasol and the rest of the starter’s numbers down.
Even with that context, the Lakers are still a whopping 12 points per 100 possessions better offensively when Gasol plays than they are when he sits.
If that’s too many numbers for you, let me simplify: Gasol has helped the Lakers so much on offense so far that even with whatever slight defensive deficiencies he brings, they’re still 11.7 points per 100 possessions better overall with him on the floor, the highest disparity of any Laker other than the invaluable Caldwell-Pope (23.6) or LeBron (12.3).
“Well we’re trying to highlight shot quality, and no forcing, playing no-stress offense,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel recently. “(Gasol) being out there as a shooter has helped us, but also the space that he adds allows us to get in the paint with more ease and when you have five out, the ballhandlers just have more space to make better decisions.”
And that’s to say nothing of his passing, which has helped even more:
Marc Gasol's got every pass in his bag pic.twitter.com/bDRdOmvBYV— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 4, 2021
None of this is to say that these numbers prove that Gasol is some secret superstar. There is all kinds of context to these metrics, like the Lakers not playing that stiff of competition yet, Gasol only playing 3.8 of his nearly 20 minutes per game when LeBron is not on the floor, and spending most of his time with the starters (the Lakers best five-man lineup to play significant minutes).
What these stats do hint at, however, is that Gasol is better than his box score or the eye test consistently indicate. He has helped this team, even if he hasn’t carried them. His teammates and coaches see it, and the numbers bear it out. He may not be a perfect player by this point in his career, but the Lakers are lucky to have him as a fifth starter.