Last Friday, after Marc Gasol dished out 8 assists in a 106-98 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers — the eighth time in 11 games this season in which he'd had at least 5 assists; last season he did this 14 times in 65 games — I asked head coach Lionel Hollins about Gasol's playmaking this season.
The Grizzlies offense this season has improved dramatically, from 21st in points scored per possession up to 5th, per ESPN.com, but it isn't because they're simply making more shots. The team's overall shooting percentage has actually declined slightly, from .447 to .446. Instead of making more shots, the team has improved offensively by taking better shots:
Grizzlies Shot Distribution, 2011-2012
Grizzlies Shot Distribution, 2012-2013
Essentially the Grizzlies have cut down on mid-ranger jumpers — the game's lowest-efficiency shot, on average — while replacing them with more interior attempts and more three-pointers. (The team actually is shooting better from long-range, but percentages are actually down a little in the paint.) The increase in interior attempts also seems to be reflected in an increase in free-throw attempts, up from 22.8 a game last season to 24.3 a game so far this season. On a related note, after being among the league's worst assist teams for the past five seasons, the Grizzlies have inched toward league average (currently 19th in assist ratio).
The causal relationships among all of these offensive factors are unclear, but Marc Gasol's emergence as an elite playmaker at the center position seems to have a lot to do with this.
Always a terrific passer, Gasol has taken his game to a new level this season. His current 4.8 assist average is not only by far the highest of his career, but second only to Lebron James among frontcourt players this season. (And calling James a “frontcourt player” probably deserves an asterisk.) It's the best mark from a true center since Vlade Divac averaged 5.3 assists in the 2003-2004 season, and Gasol's array of offensive skills at his size has drawn multiple comparisons this season to the great Arvydas Sabonis.
On the Grizzlies' very first possession of this season, against the Clippers, Gasol sent a bounce pass to a curling Rudy Gay for a reverse layup, and he hasn't let up since.
A bounce pass to Rudy Gay for a dunk against the Warriors:
Operating mostly from the middle of the floor, at the high post, Gasol can survey the entire floor and pick apart a defense. And so it goes:
Lobs to Gay flashing along the baseline or sealing a fronting defender on the low block. Laser passes to a darting Tony Allen. All variety of bounce passes — hard, old-fashioned two-handers facing the basket; flick-of-the-wrist, no-look one-handers facing away; swaggering, tennis-swing-style whip passes from the top of the key — to back-door cutters. Cross-court bullets or nonchalant handoffs to spot-up three-point shooters. Pinball give-and-go plays. Little pocket passes, drop-down deliveries, or soft lobs in close quarters for Z-Bo lay-ups.
And that's not all. Touch passes. Pick-and-roll feeds. More than once, we've even seen him run the break and find open shooters on the move.
Another bounce feed for a Gay dunk, against the Rockets:
By design or not, stationing Gasol in the high post — by my own charting, 32 of his 57 assists have come from halfcourt sets in the high post — and running so much of the halfcourt offense through him has been a key catalyst for the team's improved shot selection. With Gasol occupying much of the mid-range area as a playmaker, the recipients of his passes have more often been at the rim or beyond the arc. Again, based on my own charting, here's how Gasol's assist distribution has broken down based on what kinds of shots he's created:
Interior: 36 (63.2%)
Mid-Range: 5 (8.8%)
Three-Pointers: 16 (28.1%)
Twenty-three of Gasol's 32 assists from the high post have been for layups or dunks. Only three of them have resulted in mid-range jumpers. More than 91% of his total assists have resulted in dunks, layups, or threes.
Gasol's effectiveness as a passer this season is one thing. Another element — and one that shouldn't be taken lightly — is how enjoyable it's been to watch. I've gotten more pleasure watching Gasol play this season than I have in probably any other player in the team's history, passing James Posey (the original grit-and-grind Grizzly) in “the Hubie Brown year.” That's not just about his passing. Gasol, uniquely, checks every box at his position. He scores high and low. He rebounds. He defends — on the block, at the rim, in pick-and-roll, wherever. He sets hard picks. (He nearly flattened Metta World Peace, of all people, at center court in the Laker game.) He directs traffic. He does all the little things. If he's not the best center in the world right now, it's only because he lacks dominant athleticism, but he pretty well outplayed the ostensible top center, the Lakers' Dwight Howard, head-to-head.
But the passing is the most fun — and it seems to be the element of the game Gasol himself takes the most pleasure in. (Remember his skipping retreat after setting up Zach Randolph against the Heat?) And as enjoyable as it is to watch him meticulously and patiently pick apart a defense from the high post, two of his most memorable feeds this season have come in other contexts, ones that highlight his more reactive play.
Take this instinctive touch pass to Rudy Gay against the Bobcats, which, according the the NBA.com box score, wasn't even credited as an assist:
My favorite, though, is this one against the Knicks, part of an 18-1 second-half run on national television. Rudy Gay is handling the ball in transition, on the left wing. But watch Gasol running down the middle of the floor. As soon as he crosses halfcourt you can see him see what's about the happen, if only Gay gets him the ball in time. Head swiveling back and forth between the potential play in front of him and Gay to his left with the ball, Gasol has his hands up, begging for the ball. As soon as he gets it, he snaps a bounce pass down the lane to a cutting Tony Allen, whose and-one finish breaks the Knicks back. Gasol pumps his fist and heads to center court, howling: