It’s fair to say that Marc Gasol has not played his best basketball of the season for the Lakers since returning from a nine-game, three-week-plus absence in the NBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocols. The team has been 20.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor than when he was on the bench during that three-game stretch.
But considering that Gasol hasn’t played NBA basketball in weeks, him not producing at his highest levels is understandable. Even more so when you consider that he wasn’t just in contact tracing isolation; Gasol confirmed last week that he had COVID-19, and that it hit him hard.
“It got me pretty good for five or six days. I was down. I couldn’t move much. The worst symptoms for me were the headaches, and difficulty breathing,” Gasol said.
At one point, Gasol, a 12-year NBA veteran who is only 35, says he could barely get up and down the stairs at his house.
“That’s really when I realized how hard it was,” Gasol said. “How it was affecting my body. The fever, the body aches, it’s manageable, but the headaches and the difficulty to breathe for me were the worst symptoms. The loss of taste and smell, that happened too.
“I’m slowly getting it back, but it’s serious,” Gasol continued. “It’s not just about you and how you deal with it, but who you pass it on to. Sadly it went around the house too, so it’s nothing to play around with. It’s something very serious.”
That context explains the deep level of caution the Lakers have taken for Gasol’s return, at first limiting his minutes even after holding him out of the first two games after he was cleared to leave isolation as he tried to rebuild his conditioning. Gasol said he got an exercise bike so that he could work out at home after he was through the worst of the illness, but with the NBA’s limited practice time — the Lakers are only having their 12th of the season on Tuesday — it was hard to fully ramp back up without actually playing.
He at least appears to be taking the difficulties in stride, cracking jokes at his own expense.
“I’m still un-athletic, so the infection didn’t affect me much (there),” Gasol deadpanned. “I’m still not a very athletic guy, so that’s still the same, so that’s good.”
The good news for Gasol and the Lakers is that they didn’t sign him for his athleticism. And when looking at the game logs from his return stint and watching him play, it’s clear he hasn’t been all bad. 50 minutes over three games is an astronomically small sample size, and Gasol shot 3-5 over the first two before going 2-7 against the Orlando Magic. There have been flashes of how a more aggressive version of him can benefit the team’s offense, and how the former Defensive Player of the Year’s communication can help the team on the other end at times.
The Lakers will also now have the option of taking things even slower with Gasol. They will reportedly be giving his spot in the starting lineup to new signing Andre Drummond, allowing them the option to bring Gasol off the bench. Now, that does mean that between Drummond, Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Anthony Davis — the last of whom mostly in the postseason — the Lakers are pretty crowded at center, which has led to whispers in the league that Gasol could get bought out (via Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report):
“As much as Marc Gasol’s subpar contributions helped lead Los Angeles to pursue Drummond, Gasol remains under contract. There remains some speculation from rival executives that he could now come to a buyout agreement with the Lakers”
Now maybe Gasol asks out. There is no indication he’ll do so, but maybe he wants to go start somewhere, or doesn’t like the demotion. The Lakers might do right by him in that case, they tend to do those favors, historically. But whether Gasol is willing to accept coming off of the bench or not, there is also the reality that he’s under contract for next season, making a buyout unlikely and illogical because it wouldn’t help the Lakers’ tax bill. There is also the matter that the Lakers are unlikely to be able to keep Drummond or Harrell in free agency this summer because they don’t have either of their Bird rights — and thus can’t go over the cap to re-sign them. Gasol may be needed, cheap depth at that point.
But beyond all those future concerns, the team has also not given any indication publicly that waiving Gasol is in the cards, and while this could be posturing, or just plain optimism, it seems like Vogel is actually excited to have multiple types of weapons at center right now:
Frank Vogel says he wants to be able to play Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond when the Lakers get to the postseason for flexibility in different circumstances: "We're gonna need em all. There's no doubt in my mind that we're gonna need all three of them."— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) March 29, 2021
And if Gasol is happy to accept a demotion to the bench after starting every game he’s played in this season, there is plenty of reason to think he can still offer utility in certain matchups. For one thing, as injury-riddled as the Lakers are right now, they just plain need guys who can play NBA basketball. But even when LeBron James and Anthony Davis get healthy, there is reason to think Gasol can help.
For one thing, for as much criticism as he got early in the season, Gasol has been part of a Lakers starting lineup that is one of the best five-man units in basketball. As our own Christian Rivas pointed out yesterday, the starting lineup “Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James, Davis and Gasol has posted a net rating of +13.9 in 280 minutes this season. Of lineups that have played at least 250 minutes together this season, that lineup ranks third in net rating.” His playmaking is on full display with that group, as a team-high 19% of the Lakers’ baskets are assisted when Gasol is on the floor.
And while the Lakers’ toy box of options at center really only held three viable options last season — JaVale McGee for cheap points on lobs to start games, Dwight Howard for defensive physicality, and Anthony Davis for overall talent and impact on both ends — and dropped to two (Davis and Howard) in the postseason, this year the Lakers could be even more versatile in that area with Gasol in tow. Drummond as the far more talented rebounder and lob-catcher who starts games and can actually player longer minutes, Montrezl Harrell as the energizer bunny off the bench to attack second units with scoring and activity, and Gasol as the most overqualified third center in the league, a guy who can come in, get physical with big men like Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid when needed to at the very least provide six hard fouls and potentially some stout post defense, and a wheel greaser if the Lakers just need to juice up the passing with one of their bench units. He’s also great injury insurance for worst-case scenarios.
Gasol also has the potential to help right now, while Davis remains sidelined. Pairing him and Montrezl Harrell is likely not an option that would work very well in the postseason when teams can gameplan more for specific opponents, but in the regular season he could space the floor for Harrell on offense as well as finding him and other reserves — like Kyle Kuzma — on cuts, and play the five on defense so that Harrell can scramble around and do the things on that end that he’s better at then protecting the rim. It’s not a perfect pairing, but the Lakers also can’t let perfect be the enemy of good right now, and the tandem is at least worth experimenting with as Davis remains sidelined.
There are obvious reasons Gasol has struggled. When he gets blown by, it looks really bad, which explains why he’s become such a popular target online. But even since returning from his bout with COVID, it’s actually been offense where the numbers say Gasol has more adversely affected the team, not defense. He can still play and is an asset on that end of the floor. So if he’s willing to accept a role coming off of the bench and is all right with not playing on some nights when this team gets fully healthy, he can help this roster in a more limited role, both now and moving forward. It might even allow him to be more effective, in the end. So while there will surely be speculation and rumors about the Lakers moving on from him, unless he wants to leave, right now the benefits of keeping Gasol in uniform would seem to massively outweigh any potential downsides of having him around.