With a 92-72 loss to Slovenia in the EuroBasket semifinals on Thursday, Marc Gasol might have played his last game on the Spanish national team with his brother, Pau. It’s the end of an era for Marc. For the last 12 years, the two 7-footers have dominated European basketball, overwhelming smaller teams with their size and skill. However, they had no answer for Slovenia’s dynamic guard tandem of Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic, who carved them up in the pick-and-roll. Something was always open, whether it was the drive to the basket, the pull-up jumper, or the big man rolling to the rim. Spain preferred to play two traditional big men together, but they were forced to go small for stretches of the fourth quarter, sliding Juancho Hernangomez from the 3 to the 4 and playing four perimeter players around Marc. It looked a lot like what has happened to the Grit ‘n’ Grind Grizzlies in the NBA playoffs.
Marc has spent most of his career playing on supersized frontlines, whether with Pau in Spain or Zach Randolph in Memphis. Over the last few years, though, as his frontcourt partners have gotten older, his teams have seen diminishing returns from that style of play. To his credit, Marc is adapting to the way the game is trending: He took 268 3s last season after taking only 66 in his first eight years in the NBA. As he enters the final years of his prime, the Grizzlies will have to find ways to adapt in the same way.
Memphis knew this was coming. One of the first things David Fizdale did last season was move Randolph to the bench and put JaMychal Green in the starting lineup. The first-year head coach modernized the Grizzlies offense, and began an ostensible youth movement, although getting the team to buy into the transition wasn’t always easy. Randolph moved back into the starting lineup halfway through their first-round series against the Spurs, and he averaged seven minutes more per game than in the regular season. And with Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons out with injuries, 40-year-old Vince Carter was their most reliable wing in the series. Memphis pushed San Antonio to six games in a well-fought series, but like so many times before, they ultimately came up short.
If last year was the transition, this year is the metamorphosis. Randolph and Allen, the two spiritual leaders of the team, are gone, as is Carter. There aren’t many veteran presences left: Other than Gasol and Mike Conley (who will turn 30 before the season starts), the only players on the roster older than 30 are the oft-injured Brandan Wright and Mario Chalmers, who didn’t play in the NBA last season while recovering from an Achilles injury. Green, a restricted free agent who hasn’t come to terms on an extension, will presumably return, but there will still be plenty of minutes available for the many young players and reclamation projects on their roster.
The problem the Grizzlies had is they didn’t have the money to go out in free agency and replace the players that left. After committing so much money to Gasol, Conley, and Parsons, their salary cap situation over the next few seasons is dire:
Conley, Parsons, and Gasol Contracts
|Conley||$28.53 million||$30.52 million||$32.51 million|
|Parsons||$23.12 million||$24.1 million||$25.1 million|
|Gasol||$22.64 million||$24.12 million||*$25.6 million|
|Total:||$74.29 million||$78.74 million||$83.21 million|
Parsons was a lemon in his first year in Memphis. He played in only 34 games before being shut down, making it three straight years that knee injuries have ended his season prematurely. He looked like a shell of himself when he was on the court. His numbers have to be seen to be believed: 6.2 points on 33.8 percent shooting (26.9 percent from 3) and 2.5 rebounds a game. His jumper has always been flat, but without any lift coming from his knees, he was often putting up shots with no chance of going in.
It’s a shame: A healthy Parsons would have been the perfect player to transition the Grizzlies into a new era. At 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds, he had the size and athleticism to slide between either forward position, and give them a four-out look around Gasol. Instead, with him rehabbing in Los Angeles for most of the season, Gasol became the one spacing the floor for Randolph and Green. Parsons could stretch the defense, create his own shot, serve as a secondary playmaker and run the offense when Gasol and Conley were out. He was exactly the type of versatile swingman the Grizzlies had always needed to round out their core but had never been able to find. After trading Rudy Gay in 2013, the following wings have started at least 30 games for Memphis in a season: Allen, Parsons, Tayshaun Prince, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Matt Barnes. Lee was the only legitimate 3-and-D player in the bunch (Barnes was 35 by the time he played in Memphis), but he was never a guy you could run offense through.
In the pace-and-space era, building a championship team around a bulkier 7-footer like Gasol is always going to be difficult. Gasol is a great defender, but he will always be at a disadvantage against a five-out team like the Warriors that can put him in pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. However, instead of putting smaller and faster players around him to minimize his lack of athleticism, the Grizzlies doubled down on what he does best, playing him on a massive frontline with Z-Bo, another traditional big man who struggled to defend the 3-point line. It was time for a change.
People in Memphis are cautiously optimistic about Parsons’s recovery; since he was shut down so early last year that he had the entire summer to recuperate, the first time that has happened in the last three years. However, even if he is healthy, the Grizzlies still need to fill out their wing rotation from a collection of veteran cast-offs and unproven young players without much of a pedigree:
Tyreke Evans: A hometown hero who lead John Calipari’s final Memphis team to the Sweet 16 in 2009, Evans is trying to revive his career after playing in only 65 games the last two seasons due to a series of knee injuries. A guard with a powerful build (6-foot-6 and 220 pounds) who has always been able to get to the rim at will, he will have to adapt his game if he can’t regain the explosiveness he was known for. A career 29.5 percent 3-point shooter who needs the ball in his hands to be successful, Evans will probably come off the bench in a sixth-man role.
Ben McLemore: McLemore is a former lottery pick out of Kansas who was never able to find a consistent role in four seasons in Sacramento. He’s a ridiculous athlete with prototypical size for a shooting guard (6-foot-5 and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) and a good 3-point stroke (a career 35.2 percent shooter on 3.6 attempts per game), but he has struggled with confidence and mastering the finer points of the game. At only 24, he’s exactly the type of low-risk flier the Grizzlies should be taking. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in the offseason, and it’s unclear when he will return to the court. He also recently tweeted Kobe Bryant to ask for a “Mamba Challenge.” He never received a response.
Wayne Selden: Another former Kansas shooting guard, Selden had an unremarkable 17-game stint with the Grizzlies in the regular season and playoffs after they picked him up off the waiver wire last season. Undrafted after three seasons in college, Selden made a name for himself in the G-League by averaging 18.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 0.9 steals a game while shooting 34.9 percent from 3 on 6.2 attempts per game.
The only reason NBA fans should recognize the 22-year-old is his viral dunk from earlier in the season:
James Ennis III: Their steadiest option at the position, Ennis established himself as a 3-and-D player last season in Memphis, shooting 37.2 percent from 3 on 2.1 attempts per game. After playing for three teams in three seasons (including two stints with the Grizzlies), the 27-year-old knows who he is. He will compete, understand his responsibilities, guard multiple positions, and move the ball, but there’s not much offensive upside there.
Dillon Brooks: Memphis took Brooks with the no. 45 pick in the draft after his dominant junior season at Oregon, where he won the Pac-12 Player of the Year Award and averaged 16.1 points on 48.8 percent shooting, as well as 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game. He’s a fearless player with a good feel for the game and a knack for scoring, but he’s also a limited athlete who may struggle to hold his own defensively at the next level. As a rookie, he will have to balance playing within himself and earning the trust of the coaching staff without changing the style that made him successful in college.
Rade Zagorac: The no. 35 pick in the 2016 draft, Zagorac is coming over to the U.S. after a long career with Mega Basket, one of the rare European clubs that features its young players. The team has sent a number to the NBA in recent years, including Nikola Jokic, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Ivica Zubac. At 6-foot-9 and 205 pounds, the 22-year-old Zagorac has great size for the wing, as well as a versatile offensive game. But given his size, there are questions about how he will fare against elite athletes, something he rarely faced in Europe.
If Fizdale and his staff want to play unconventionally, they could slide bigger point guards Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin to the wing, although neither impressed much in their natural position last season. Memphis could also use Jarrell Martin, the no. 25 pick in the 2015 draft, as a small-ball 4, if Parsons can’t give them minutes at the position. With so many question marks to choose from, they will have a lot of work to do in training camp and the first few months of the season.
They don’t have much time left to figure their team out. Gasol will turn 33 this season and Conley turns 30 in October, and their window to be the best two players on a title contender grows smaller by the year. If this youth movement doesn’t work, Memphis doesn’t have many other options. They don’t have any trade assets or cap space, and they have already sent away one future first-round pick to the Celtics, which is protected 1-8 in 2019, 1-6 in 2020, and is completely unprotected in 2021. They have as little roster flexibility as any team in the NBA. Over the last few seasons, the Grizzlies have made a habit of winning more games than their underlying point differential would suggest, often pulling out wins with clutch heroics in the final seconds. The amount of continuity and collective experience on the roster likely played a role in that, and that’s gone. If this season starts going the wrong direction, they will have some tough choices.
Of their two franchise players, Gasol would be much easier to move if they blow things up. Players with Conley’s profile—smaller guards in their 30s who rely on their speed—tend not to age well, while a 7-footer with Gasol’s shooting touch can play at a high level deep into his 30s. If they can’t find enough quality perimeter players to put around him, it would be in everyone’s interest to move him to a team that could. The days of Gasol being effective in a Twin Towers line-up have come and gone. When Pau retires from international basketball, Spain will have to choose between flanking Marc with a traditional big man in Willy Hernangomez, or a combo forward in his younger brother, Juancho, and it’s hard to see how they can keep up with teams like Slovenia if they stay big. Marc Gasol has spent his career playing with great big men. It’s time for him to play with some great wings.