Well, that didn’t last long.
Just 2 weeks ago, we witnessed the biggest, shiniest, most fuck you rings in sports history being handed out to the 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors.
We saw front office, coaching staff and players alike thrusting their massive rocks in the air like superheroes, the glare of which could be seen from Pluto.
We the champs. We good, right? We’re not going to sweat this season. No way. It’s all bright sunshine and fluffy marshmallows.
At least that’s what we told ourselves.
It only took a loss to the Boston Celtics and then the Milwaukee Bucks for the championship honeymoon to end.
Sure, we’re still basking in the glow of the rings. But we’re also asking ourselves, how well can this team hold up against the league’s better teams?
Raptors Twitter was on classic red alert throughout the entire Bucks game, especially after getting pummelled in the first quarter.
Should Fred be starting? Why’s Siakam covering Giannis?! Where’s OG?! Get OG back in the game! What’s Nurse doing?!
But the biggest question is, what is going on with Marc Gasol?
While players like Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet have all impressed early on, Gasol looks like a shell of his former self.
To say he appears sluggish is an insult to slugs everywhere.
On some nights, he looks unrecognizable from the player who just 5 months ago helped the Raptors do the impossible — lift its first ever Larry O’Brien trophy.
Where’s the guy who rebounded the ball, fired outlet passes, hit timely 3s, set punishing screens, provided savvy help defence and was a nightly nightmare for the other team’s bigs?
We all knew Gasol would be a little tired going into this season. I mean, how could he not be?
He played almost a full year’s worth of highly competitive basketball, including winning the NBA championship and the World Cup with Spain.
That’s a lot for any player, let alone an aging 7–1, 255-pound centre who’ll be 35 in January. But I don’t think anyone thought it would be this bad.
Something that rarely gets mentioned are the serious air miles he accumulated. In only a few months, he criss-crossed the globe several times, traveling from Toronto to Spain to China to Spain to Toronto to Quebec City to Japan to Toronto.
So, not surprisingly, he’s been very up and down so far.
His defensive struggles have been the most glaring, especially his help defence.
No one has ever accused Gasol of being quick. But he could always move his feet. He looks like he’s moving in quicksand while wearing anvils for shoes.
This often leads to him being a revolving door on defense, looking more like the Lithuanian pylon he was traded for than the former DPOY and NBA champion we remember.
During the Detroit Pistons game, he was so slow on defence that he was forced to foul, resulting in early foul trouble. He collected 3 fouls in his first 8 minutes.
Perhaps more alarming was allowing caveman Robin Lopez to get to the bucket in that Bucks game. Yuck.
Although he pulled down a season high 12 defensive rebounds vs. the Bucks, his rebounding has been inconsistent. In order to ignite the team’s offence, specifically the running game, he needs to be more consistent on the boards.
We’re used to Gasol rebounding the ball and throwing perfect outlet passes to Siakam or Lowry for easy fast break points.
If Siakam is forced to pick up the slack on the boards, this will prevent him from leaking out and running the floor to create easy offence.
In the Celtics game, Gasol had just 4 defensive rebounds, stalling the team’s run and gun offence and leading to a shit ton of second chance points for Boston.
Gasol’s reluctance to shoot continues to be a problem for the Raptors. If he stops shooting, defenders will just sag off him to double Siakam more quickly.
And when Siakam does draw a double team and passes the ball to Gasol, he can’t pass up open shots, otherwise the whole offensive set could fall apart.
This, of course, isn’t anything new. It goes back to last season, rearing its ugly head many a time during the playoffs.
What is new, however, is when he actually does shoot, he’s not making them at his usual clip. He’s even botched some easy, wide open paint buckets, which is a little scary.
He shot 46.5% from the floor with the Raptors last season. So far this year, he’s shooting a disastrous 31.7%. Clearly his lethargy is leading to his poor shooting.
In the Celtics game, he was 0–8 from the floor, including 0–4 from 3, and missed some close-range gimmies that he usually makes in his sleep.
Given Kawhi Leonard’s and Danny Green’s absence and the minutes Gasol is getting, the Raptors could really use his offence.
The Raptors obviously don’t win the championship without Gasol. And he’s a big part of this year’s team. But he’ll need to pull his weight (pun intended) and play at least close to the level he did last year for this team to have a successful season and long playoff run.
So what can the Raptors do?
Just wait it out
Although he looked like his old self vs. the Orlando Magic, going 4–7 from the floor, 2–3 from the 3-point line, while pulling down 10 boards and continuing his reign as Nikola Vučević’s daddy, we’re still not getting the full Marc experience.
Yes, a lot of players aren’t in game shape to start the year, especially with the shortened pre-season. But we’re 6 games in now and I don’t see his malaise just going away.
You can’t just snap your fingers and magically take away all the miles and strain Gasol has put on his body over the last year.
Sorry. Doing nothing and just riding this out isn’t an option.
Limit his minutes
One thing Nick Nurse can do is just limit Gasol’s minutes.
He can still start when the matchup dictates, but just monitor his minutes more closely. Lock him in somewhere around 15 minutes until he shows he can handle more, which could take a while.
However, significantly cutting back Gasol’s minutes isn’t ideal as it’ll put more strain on Ibaka who’s no spring chicken himself. The last thing you want to do is wear him out.
Ibaka is playing really well right now, has a ton of energy and looks incredibly sharp. But I’d be concerned about overplaying him to compensate for Gasol.
If you remember, Ibaka started out of the gates on fire last season, finally playing his natural centre position. He was money from the mid-range, seemingly never missing a shot.
But his shooting and energy appeared to dip in the second half of the season. He was clearly exhausted from compensating for the loss of Jonas Valančiūnas to injury before Gasol arrived via trade.
So there’s a bad precedent for making Ibaka shoulder too much of the load.
Also, despite Gasol’s mobility issues and horrid shooting numbers, he’s still a huge part of the offence thanks to his exceptionally high basketball IQ.
Whether it’s his court vision, ball movement, heady passes or killer screens, his contributions to the offence don’t always show up in the box score. In other words, he creates offence. His presence on the court makes the offence flow.
I like to remind fans of this when they’re screaming on Twitter to bench his ass.
In the Chicago Bulls game, he executed a thunderous screen on Lauri Markkanen to free up Siakam for a jumper. While in the Pistons game, he threaded a pass from the top of the 3-point line, through the defence, to give OG an easy bucket.
So limiting Gasol’s minutes will greatly affect the team’s offence. Despite this, it’s still something to consider. It won’t pay dividends now, but it could down the road.
Play him in short bursts
Another option is to play Gasol in 5–6 minute bursts so he’s always fresh. He can still play the 26 minutes per game he’s playing now as long as he doesn’t play for long stretches.
I always thought that this was the best way to play JV because he got tired quickly. And usually the longer JV played, the less effective he became. But Dwane Casey never saw it this way, playing JV entire quarters at times.
The drawback here is it won’t allow Gasol or the offence to get into any real flow.
Dig into the bench
Depending on matchups, Nurse could split some of Gasol’s minutes between Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as the recently G-Leagued Dewan Hernandez.
At some point, Nurse will have to dip into his bench anyway. He can’t go a full season playing just 8 guys.
Like what happened to mad scientist Nick, using the regular season to experiment?
Manage that load
Let’s give Gasol the Kawhi Leonard load management treatment. There was some chatter about this before the season, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened yet.
Get newly-promoted Toronto Raptors Vice President, Player Health and Performance, Alex McKechnie, to devise a year-long plan for Big Spain.
Target specific games to rest him, like the Bulls, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors. You know, the dregs of the NBA. And no more back-to-backs.
If anyone can use load management, it’s Marc Gasol.
DNP-CD him, like for a while
Actually, DNP-OLD is a lot more fitting.
This may sound crazy, but looking at the big picture, I believe the absolute best thing the Raptors can do is to shut Gasol down for a month.
Like starting now.
Just treat it like an injury and give him the time he needs to recover.
Again, what he’s going through isn’t something that’ll just suddenly go away. It’s not about playing himself into shape. It’s all the playing he’s done that’s the problem.
So just rest him. Sit him down for a month.
Yes. I know. I just said that removing Gasol’s ball movement, pinpoint passing and massive screens from the rotation will damper the Raptors’ offence. It’s true.
But this isn’t about the regular season any more. It’s about the playoffs.
It’s the East. The Raptors will make the playoffs even if Gasol misses 3 months. But having him play to his full capabilities will give the team a much better shot at playoff success.
So allow Gasol to rest up and get healthy for the long-term success of the 2019–20 Toronto Raptors.
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