Marc Gasol is no longer one of the best big men in the NBA, but he can still shut down the best when he needs to. He frustrated Nikola Jokic in an 81-69 victory over Serbia on Sunday in much the same way that he bottled up Joel Embiid in last season’s playoffs. Gasol may be 34, but he is still good enough to help Spain win the FIBA World Cup and help the Raptors transition into a new era.
Gasol does a little bit of everything for Spain. He is now its undisputed leader following Pau’s retirement from international play. In China, Marc is leading the team in minutes (28.2 per game) and blocks (0.8), and he’s second in points (11.6) and rebounds (5.8), third in steals (1.2), and fourth in assists (3.0). The most important thing that he does is create structure on both sides of the ball. Gasol is one of the hubs of the Spanish offense, directing traffic from the high post and hitting cutters all over the floor, and he’s the quarterback of their defense, calling out coverages and walling off dribble penetration at the rim.
Gasol’s ability to defend the post is no longer as valuable as it was when he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but it still comes in handy against players like Jokic and Embiid. Those guys are used to bullying weaker big men. They can’t bully Gasol.
Jokic looked unstoppable in his first four World Cup games, averaging 13.5 points on 83.3 percent shooting and 4.5 assists per game. He scored at will and picked apart defenses when they sent help. Gasol, however, pushed him out of the paint and prevented him from getting into a rhythm. Jokic finished with six points on 2-for-4 shooting, one assist, and three turnovers, and was ejected midway through the third quarter after arguing with the refs following a particularly aggressive double-team. Gasol spent the whole game hacking and shoving Jokic when the refs weren’t looking, leading the normally level-headed big man to snap. That is one of the benefits of an experienced center who knows exactly how much he can get away with.
Gasol put on a defensive clinic against Embiid in the playoffs. Embiid overwhelms the vast majority of defenders with his freakish combination of size and athleticism. He didn’t have a Plan B when Gasol held his ground and forced Embiid to beat him with skill and finesse:
Giant Killer: Joel Embiid’s Playoff Falloff Against Gasol
|Against Everyone Else
There are limits to how valuable a lumbering big man like Gasol can be on defense in this era. It’s hard for him to stay in front of smaller and faster players on the perimeter, so all he can do is put a hand up and hope they miss. He struggled when forced to guard Danilo Gallinari in Spain’s 67-60 victory over Italy on Friday.
Gasol doesn’t have an answer when teams go small. Not only does he not have the quickness to defend at the 3-point line, he doesn’t have the offensive game to punish a smaller defender. Gasol is more comfortable facilitating than being a primary option. Pounding the ball in to him in the post so that he can take contested shots in traffic is not a winning strategy. His inability to exploit those types of mismatches has long been Spain’s Achilles’ heel against Team USA in international play.
The same thing could happen again if Spain faces the U.S. in the World Cup championship game on Sunday. The Americans have been at their best in China when they have taken out their centers and spread the floor with five perimeter players. Gasol can win an old-school matchup with Myles Turner and Brook Lopez, but he can’t chase Harrison Barnes and Khris Middleton around the perimeter. The best chance for Spain to win a gold medal is if France or Serbia upsets Team USA and advances out of that side of the bracket, allowing Gasol to dig deep into his bag of tricks against Rudy Gobert or Nikola Jokic.
At this stage of his career, Gasol is best as part of a center platoon, which was how he was used in last season’s playoffs. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse pushed all the right buttons when it came to mixing and matching Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the 5. They are no longer a championship contender now that Kawhi Leonard is playing for the Clippers, leading to speculation that they could trade veterans on expiring contracts like Gasol and Kyle Lowry as part of a rebuilding effort. But Gasol could actually be more valuable to them now than if Kawhi had stayed.
Developing Pascal Siakam should be Toronto’s primary goal next season. The 25-year-old is coming off a breakout campaign in his first season as a starter, when he averaged 16.9 points on 54.9 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. He’s eligible for an extension on his rookie deal and will be a restricted free agent next summer if he doesn’t get one. Given how weak the rest of the free-agent class will be, Siakam should be able to secure a max contract.
Toronto needs Siakam to take another step forward without Kawhi, which is where Gasol comes in. Siakam was at his best last season when he was playing next to the Spanish big man:
Real Friends: Siakam Soars Next to Gasol
|True shooting percentage
|True shooting percentage
There are a couple of factors at play. Siakam loves to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim, so it’s important to play him with a center who can shoot well enough to drag his defender out of the paint. And while Siakam is a good passer who can find the open man when the defense collapses on his drives, he’s not a point forward like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons. Siakam needs other players who can keep everyone else involved in the offense and set him up from time to time.
Gasol checks those boxes in a way few others can. His offensive skill set has evolved over 11 seasons in the NBA, from a scorer in the post to one who can operate at the 3-point line. He averaged 3.5 3-point attempts and 4.4 assists per game last season in Memphis and Toronto. Jokic was the only other center in the NBA to come close to those statistical benchmarks.
The other way the Raptors could open up the floor for Siakam would be to move him to the 5. But that’s a strategy more for the playoffs than the regular season. There is no reason for Siakam to bang with supersized centers like Embiid over the course of an 82-game season when Gasol can do it for him and still give Siakam the same amount of room to attack the rim that he would have as a small-ball center. Gasol is essentially a lead blocker who clears traffic for Siakam and gets him into open spaces without having to put miles on his body in the process.
Gasol won’t take shots away from his younger teammate, either. He’s the rare NBA player whom coaches have to encourage to shoot more. He makes everyone around him better on offense because he creates driving lanes, sets his teammates up, and then gets out of their way.
The Gasol boost isn’t confined to Toronto. It happens in international play too. Juancho Hernangómez, a 23-year-old combo forward who has never established himself in three seasons in the NBA, has looked great at the World Cup, where he’s averaging 10.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting and 6.2 rebounds per game. Gasol makes the game easy for him. Hernangómez attacks the rim when Gasol is playing on the perimeter and gets easy points on backdoor cuts.
The Raptors could have a really bright future if Siakam becomes an All-Star–caliber player. They have one of the cleanest salary cap situations in the league: They currently have $32.2 million on the books for 2020-21 and $15.2 million in 2021-22. Toronto is a well-run organization located in a huge market that should be appealing for international players, if not American ones. The Raptors could become a really attractive free-agent destination if they had a young star to sell to a second star.
Gasol is keeping Spain in the gold-medal race in China by raising the games of those around him. The first step for Toronto to get back to title contention is for him to do the same for Siakam.