Sports

Marc Gasol Made Magic in the Margins of the Game

Honestly, when I think of Marc Gasol, the first thing I think about is the nod. If you’ve ever watched him, you’ve probably seen it. If you watched him enough, you’re already picturing it.

There he is, parked at the elbow or the top of the key, holding the ball, examining. From your vantage point, it looks like there’s nothing available: defenders locked in position, all bases covered. But you don’t see what Marc Gasol sees, in part because you’re not scanning the coverage from 6 feet, 11 inches off the ground, and in part because only a handful of big men can see what Marc Gasol sees.

So he surveys, considers … and then he nods. Hey, you. Go there. Just trust me. And they trusted, because they knew that this dude who moved like a brontosaurus was also an all-seeing locksmith, and that when it came to stuff like this, he was right a hell of a lot more often than he was wrong.

Gasol has made that kind of play, and plenty of others, countless times in the past 13 seasons—often enough to rack up 2,996 assists, 13th most of any center in NBA history. It looks like he won’t hit 3,000 in the Association, though; the Spaniard is reportedly heading home.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that the Lakers, with whom Gasol spent an up-and-down 2020-21 season, traded the 36-year-old center to the Grizzlies, the franchise for whom he’d starred for more than a decade. For the Lakers, the move whittles down a hefty luxury tax bill and creates a $2.7 million trade exception—which could be pretty handy if Rob Pelinka and Co. want to add another vet on a minimum salary to round out L.A.’s top-heavy roster—while also clearing the path for the addition of DeAndre Jordan. The Grizzlies, straddling the line between competing for the playoffs now and adding assets for their still-in-progress rebuild, get an unprotected 2024 second-round pick and a quarter of a million dollars in cash for briefly fostering Gasol’s contract.

Gasol, for his part, gets a bit of narrative symmetry. He entered the NBA in 2008 with one trade from Tinseltown to Tennessee; now, 13 years later, another trade paves the way for his exit. The Grizzlies intend to waive Gasol to clear the way for him to sign with Girona, the Spanish club with whom he spent two seasons and won Liga ACB Most Valuable Player honors in 2008.

After playing for Spain at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Gasol said that he intended to return and play out the final season of his contract with the Lakers. According to Kyle Goon of The Orange County Register, though, “the Lakers were privately concerned that Gasol was not invested in making another run with L.A.” (This, evidently, influenced the Lakers’ pursuit of Jordan—just bought out by the Pistons after a trade away from Brooklyn—to pair with Dwight Howard in a revamped center rotation.)

Maybe that lack of investment stemmed in part from discontent with the organization after Gasol went from starting for the first two months of last season to coming off the bench behind midstream buyout acquisition Andre Drummond in a duct-taped frontcourt that never quite fit. (Gasol said after the season that, had he been usurped like that earlier in his career, he might have pushed for a buyout right then and there.) Part of it, though, might be a bit simpler: Woj reports that Gasol “made a decision to remain with his family in Spain” after “the tumult of the Orlando bubble in 2020 and the COVID-19 restrictions of the 2020-21 season.” Gasol and his family contracted COVID-19 in March—an experience that sidelined him for nearly a month, and one that he later said “puts basketball in a different place at the moment.”

“Or,” he rephrased, “it puts basketball in the right place at that moment. It’s not that important.”

The return trip—one that mirrors big brother Pau’s decision to return to FC Barcelona last season—likely ends an NBA career that marked Marc as one of the best and most decorated big men of his generation.

Gasol closes his NBA career as one of only 17 players ever to log more than 12,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 2,500 assists, 1,000 blocks, and 500 steals—a list that features 10 current Hall of Famers and at least a couple of others (Dirk Nowitzki, brother Pau) who’ll be enshrined in Springfield soon enough. He’s one of 16 players ever to win Defensive Player of the Year (with the 2012-13 Grizzlies) and an NBA championship (with the 2018-19 Raptors)—a list that features eight current Hall of Famers, with a few more (Dwight Howard, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Draymond Green) on the way.

He contributed in all facets of the game on both ends of the floor on nearly every possession: little hip-check screens to give his ball handler the edge to turn the corner; an early rotation across the paint to take away a driving lane; the extra pass to reverse the ball from one side of the floor to the other and get the defense scrambling. He was a brick wall in the post—just ask Joel Embiid—who was also surprisingly nimble in space before his latter years. He always had great touch; in fact, if there was one knock on Gasol for most of his career, it was that he wouldn’t shoot enough, whether with the Memphis teams of his heyday when they desperately needed more offensive juice, or with the Raptors and Lakers when they needed the threat of his pick-and-pop jumper to space the floor. Maybe that gets back to the vision and vantage point discrepancy: To us, it looked like Gasol could be a guy who averaged 20 if he took the shots he should’ve, but to Gasol, maybe it always looked like he could get someone else a better one.

Gasol made three All-Star teams and earned two All-NBA nods—including a first team selection in 2014-15, when he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game for a Grizzlies team that went 55-27 and held a 2-1 lead on the eventual champion Warriors in the second round before Mike Conley’s broken face, Tony Allen’s balky hamstring, and Stephen Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s shooting proved too much to overcome. Add that to Gasol’s incredible international career—a total of nine medals at major competitions with Spain’s senior men’s national team, including silver at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, back-to-back EuroBasket golds in 2009 and 2011, and gold at the FIBA World Championship (later rebranded as the FIBA World Cup) in 2006 and 2019—and you’ve got the résumé of a Hall of Famer.

Some who’d prefer a more exclusive Hall, with velvet ropes pulled taut to keep out the riffraff, might scoff at the suggestion that Gasol merits that sort of consideration as a a big man who never averaged 20 points or 10 rebounds per game, who spent most of his career as a member of ensemble casts that didn’t make NBA Finals, and whose lone title run came as a midseason addition to a ready-made squad. But I like the idea that halls of fame are museums that tell stories about what has mattered in the history of the game; I think that there’s more stuff that matters than just which team won the championship at the end of the season; and I believe that there’s space in Springfield for special players who were part of special teams, even if they didn’t wind up winning the whole thing.

Nothing about those early Grizzlies teams should’ve worked: Memphis, an expansion city pulling down the rebound of the NBA’s miss in Vancouver, seeking a second shot at viability after the brief success of the Hubie Brown–Pau Gasol era and doing so with a motley crew featuring Pau’s little brother (who, last time folks in Tennessee had seen him, wasn’t so little); Allen, an oft-injured reserve shooting guard who couldn’t really shoot; Zach Randolph, coming off an at-times tumultuous tenure in Portland and two lost years with the Knicks and Clippers; and Mike Conley, whose struggles through his first three seasons led some to view his five-year, $40 million rookie extension as “the single worst contract handed out in 2010.” (Conley would soon prove that wrong.)

And yet: Those Grizzlies teams friggin’ ruled. They made seven consecutive playoff appearances, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 2013; only six franchises boasted a higher winning percentage in that span, and nearly all of them featured multiple future Hall of Fame talents and much more offensive firepower than the Grizz. The league sped up and spaced out, but Memphis stuck to its strategy: slow it down, pound it inside, grind opponents out with a perennially elite defense, and find the beauty in winning ugly.

It was an identity that resonated deeply in Memphis. Allen was the spiritual leader, the acerbic prophet preaching the gospel of Grit and Grind. Randolph was the baby-faced bully, all cherubic smiles and chokeslams, high-arcing jab-step jumpers and “I’m a jackin’ dude” jokes. Conley was the conductor, getting everybody fed and acting as the tip of the spear on defense. Backstopping it all, though, was Gasol: the often fiery, sometimes swaggering, always reliable rhythm section, keeping time on the back line. He protected the paint without being able to jump over a phone book; he always found ways to squeeze just enough offensive harmony amid that claustrophobic, dinosaur-ball spacing.

The Grizz always fell short, losing wars of attrition to the star-laden Thunder, Clippers, and Spurs. Age and injury diminished Randolph and Allen, who both left in 2017. The Chandler Parsons gamble, intended to revitalize and modernize the franchise, um, didn’t pay off. Head coaches came, clashed, and went. Gasol, graciously, was sent to Toronto, where he won that elusive title; Conley was sent to Salt Lake City, where he’s got a shot at one. Things end, and time marches on. But it’s worth taking a second to celebrate what came before and the players who made it possible. Players like Marc Gasol, who made their magic in the margins of the game—who could take the ball and a beat, see a universe of possibilities unfolding, and then, with a little nod and just the right amount of touch, share one of those possibilities with the rest of us.



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