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Lakers vs. Grizzlies Preview: The case for running more offense through Marc Gasol

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Marc Gasol can make life easier for everyone on the Lakers. LeBron James sounds ready for that to happen. Will we see the next step in that process against the Grizzlies?

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Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Because there isn’t a whole lot to preview about the Lakers facing a Grizzlies team that will be missing sophomore star Ja Morant for the foreseeable future, let’s talk a bit about arguably the greatest Grizzly of all time: Marc Gasol.

The preseason hype about Marc Gasol was real. Our own Alex Regla wrote that he was “the Glue of the Lakers’ Offseason,” while Cooper Halpern called him “the Lakers’ third-most important player” on this very website. He was the only player we did a specific season preview for on our podcast, because he was the addition I personally was most interested in.

But it wasn’t just on the blogosphere where Gasol was getting buzzed about. The Athletic did a glowing preseason profile on his journey from Spain, to the Lakers, to Memphis, to Toronto and finally back to Los Angeles, and Sports Illustrated graded the signing as an A.

Even within the walls of the UCLA Health Training center, there was plenty of excitement about Gasol. Frank Vogel practically glowed about how Gasol’s passing would make the Lakers much harder to guard this year, and later raved about his almost unparalleled basketball brain.

“Marc’s amazing. He’s a great guy to be around. You can see when you’re talking to the group, just the intelligence factor (he brings),” Vogel said during training camp. “There’s a lot of smart guys in this league, where they’re intelligent, but it can be displaced. But he’s a guy that gets it. He understands how the pieces fit with this team and the way our coaching staff does things, and he’s been a joy to be around on a daily basis, even talking non-basketball items, and a guy who gets into the film and some of the things that we’re trying to do with our group. You can see how his intelligence and IQ are going to benefit us.”

Through six games, it’s been hard to see why everyone was so excited if you’re not paying close attention. Gasol is averaging career lows of 3.8 points and 6.2 rebounds — albeit on a career-high 66.7% shooting — and another career low of 18.7 minutes per game as a starter. Gasol also has the lowest usage rate of his career, with only 8.3% of the Lakers’ possessions ending with him either shooting, getting an assist, turning the ball over or drawing a foul. That is the lowest rate on the team of anyone other than Wesley Matthews (8%) and human victory cigar Jared Dudley (3.2%).

After the Lakers’ win against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night, LeBron James made it sound like he’d like to change all that. He was asked how the Lakers could better incorporate Gasol into what they’re trying to do, and it’s clear he’s thought about that question quite a bit.

“I just think playing through him a lot more. When we do that, we’re very good because his ability to see the floor, pass the ball, he does some special things out on the floor,” James said. “When he is on the floor we have to do a better job of not playing much pick and roll with him setting the picks, but more just letting him play that point center position at the top of the key. Letting the offense flow through him because he makes great decisions. We are going to get him more involved because he is going to be a big part of what we do.”

Now again, it’s worth noting that James was asked specifically about integrating Gasol better, so this wasn’t some unprompted demand or plea to take the ball out of his own hands and put them into Gasol’s. But that noted, it’s worth considering the specific points he made, and analyzing why he might have made them.

To James’ point, Gasol’s usage rate makes it clear that he’s not being fully optimized within the offense when the Lakers have had him out there. And perhaps it’s not an accident that Gasol (and Kyle Kuzma) have had their best games for the Lakers this season on a night Anthony Davis — the Laker with the second-highest usage rate — sat out. But the answer is clearly not to take the ball out of Davis’ hands, or to sit him entirely. He is a really good player, after all. But it does mean that if Gasol is going to start and play a ton of minutes with Davis, he has to find other ways to affect the game at times.

On Friday, he began to do so, and it wasn’t by using his passing in the high post, like most thought he would in the preseason. Instead, he utilized his length and touch to earn the Lakers’ second chances on some “Tyson Tap-outs,” named for the way Tyson Chandler made a career of tapping the ball out to teammates instead of trying to control an offensive rebound. Gasol earned two of his three assists in the Lakers’ 109-103 win by making those plays in the first quarter, taking advantage of the undersized Spurs on the glass:

But while it’s certainly good that Gasol is finding other ways to be effective on offense outside of serving as a passer from the high post, it’s not hard to decipher why LeBron himself might want Gasol working there a little more. The Lakers’ short turnaround this season, with just a little over two months separating their 2020 title and the start of the 2020-21 campaign, has been covered here ad nauseam. But having Gasol serve as an offensive hub is one way the team could try to save James’ 36-year-old body for the postseason. Whether it is the most effective way for the Lakers to run their offense is a different debate — how much do you really want the ball taken out of James and Davis’ hands, after all? — but there is no argument that it doesn’t make things easier on James and his teammates, especially during the regular season. And given James’ appreciation for players who think the game on his level, it’s no surprise that he’s noticed how Gasol could serve the Lakers better by doing so more.

For example, James missed this dunk, but little doses of two-man game between him and Gasol, where they link their supercomputer basketball brains to outthink a defense, can certainly get him easier attempts (although you’ve got to make the dunk, LeBron! Even as impressive as the recovery backflip was for someone who just turned 36):

Gasol’s vision can also save James from often bearing the sole playmaking burden for the Lakers, as the Big Spaniard’s third and final assist of the game to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as part of the latter’s eight-point explosion to begin the third quarter demonstrates:

However you feel about how sustainable such offense would be in the playoffs, or how much the Lakers should do it during the regular season, there is just no debate that the way Gasol is facilitating there does require less effort for the Lakers to dribble and create their own looks against a defense, instead letting them glide to the basket on cuts. Taking the ball out of their best players’ hands more often may seem counterintuitive, but it also might be the best way to both save the team’s energy for the postseason while simultaneously best utilizing all their other weapons. Think of Gasol as a sort of seven-foot, supercharged version of what Alex Caruso did for the Lakers on offense last year: A wheel greaser who doesn’t necessarily pop with their own production, but makes things easier on everyone else with their basketball IQ.

At the very least, one would think the Lakers could find a middle ground where they opt to utilize Gasol more than the career-low rates they currently are, and how they continue to attack integrating him into their lineup — both with the starters, and with partial reserve units — will be an important basketball storyline to monitor, both on Sunday against Memphis, and moving forward. It will also in large part determine whether Gasol’s addition can live up to the preseason hype, or if it will fall short of all that lofty offseason praise.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers will be missing Alex Caruso (health and safety protocols) for a fourth straight game, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (ankle sprain) is hoping to play. We will update this post with word on the rest of the Lakers’ availability as it develops.

The Lakers and Grizzlies will tip off at 3:00 p.m. PT on Sunday. In a first this season, the game will only be televised locally, and you can watch it on Spectrum Sportsnet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.