While Gasol’s Raptors legacy is undeniable, more offence now would help

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (Sarah Stier/AP)

The ultimate value provided by Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors is, and forever will be, encapsulated by one row of numbers:

17.6 points on 37 per cent shooting, with 28 turnovers in seven games.

The line belonged to Joel Embiid during the Raptors’ razor-thin win over second-round win last season over the Philadelphia 76ers – arguably their most significant obstacle on their way to the 2019 NBA championship.

When Gasol was acquired at the trade deadline there were all kinds of justifications for giving up Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles in the deal – Gasol’s experience, his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting and knack for keeping the ball moving as an offensive cog were chief among them. But the ultimate deal-maker might have been his track record of frustrating the Sixers superstar big man and on that count Gasol delivered.

Do the Raptors get by the Sixers without Gasol’s defensive contributions against Philadelphia? We’ll never know for sure but there is no question that he came through and the whole team has rings the size of small sofas as a result.

So it’s worth keeping those bona fides in mind when you consider where Gasol’s game is right now, which is – to put it charitably – somewhere between awful and horrific.

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He did muster 10 points and 12 rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Raptors’ loss on Saturday night, which was one of his better outings of the season. But even then Raptors head coach Nick Nurse could only point out the obvious with respect to his starting centre, who has yet to shoot more than 50 per cent from the floor or score more than 10 points in a game.

“Well, [the Bucks] play a style where [Milwaukee centre Robin Lopez] chases the ball a lot so [Gasol] had a lot of opportunities,” said Nurse. “Both on rolls [to the rim] and short rolls and pops so I think it was more opportunity.

“But yeah, we want him to be a focal-point offence scorer at some point this year.”

But when? Or how?

The season is still young and the sample sizes small, but Gasol’s basic stats paint a disturbing picture of a player in decline as he approaches his 35th birthday.

He’s averaging 6.3 points and 2.2 assists on 31.8 per cent shooting in nearly 26 minutes a game. He’s shot reasonably well from distance at 36.8 per cent on just 3.2 attempts a game but on anything other than a wide-open catch-and-shoot three he’s been awful.

On the whole he’s shooting 27.3 per cent on two-point shots – by far the worst rate among centres with at least five games played this season, and hard to justify for a player earning $26.5 million in the final year of his contract, even if he brings a wide range of intangible values.

The seven-footer has less than a 50-50 chance to score with the ball in the restricted area converting on just 4-of-9 chances.

No one is looking for Gasol to be catching lobs any time soon, but he needs to roll with more purpose and look to finish harder than he has so far this season. This play with the Raptors down four with less than two minutes left against Milwaukee being just one example of too many this season:

He is shooting just 6-of-19 on all shots in the paint, which is problematic because he’s yet to make a two-point field goal from outside the paint.

The hope was that with Kawhi Leonard gone and Gasol coming into his second season with the Raptors that he would begin to assert himself more offensively. No one is looking for him to re-emerge as the 19.9 points-per-game scorer he was in 2016-17 when he was last a Western Conference all-star, but even before being acquired by the Raptors in February Gasol was averaging 15.7 points a game in 53 starts with the Grizzlies. This past summer with Spain’s gold-medal winning World Cup team Gasol averaged 14.4 points in just 28.5 minutes a game.

But so far in 56 playoff and regular-season games with the Raptors Gasol is averaging 8.9 points on 43 per cent shooting from the floor, although his three-point shooting has been a consistent positive at 40 per cent.

The question is if his slow start this year is just that – a sluggish beginning for a veteran finding his legs. Or perhaps Gasol is feeling the burden of playing with the Raptors until well into June and then joining the Spanish national team for most of the summer.

His teammates are of the belief that a more assertive, effective version of Gasol is just around the corner.

“Everyone goes through it, his [struggles are] right now,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “He’ll figure it out. Marc’s played a lot of basketball in the last few months and we trust he’ll figure it out.”

Part of that process is rejigging his balance between looking to score and looking to keep the ball moving.

In this Gasol often finds himself fighting his own instincts. In the early going against the Bucks the Raptors’ offence was struggling mightily — they shot just 3-of-18 in the first quarter and 31.7 per cent for the first half.

In those moments Gasol seems to feel like it’s his duty to make the next pass, to avoid falling into the trap of one person trying to take on too much.

“Everybody takes it personally and everyone wants to help the offence and make shots so our offence can get going [but] you can’t take it upon yourself,” said Gasol. “You have to continue to execute the offence, be patient with it, move the ball side to side especially against a long and athletic team like the Bucks. … So you have to have that patience and trust your offence and the shot it will create. Let the ball go through your hands a couple of times and make somebody else drive and collapse and move it. You just have to trust it and move it and run and move your body and create separation from the action and get open shots.”

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It’s a sound theory but passing up an open shot is a sin in the NBA given the mercilessness of the shot clock. Too often as a Raptor Gasol’s determination to keep the ball moving has meant passing up shots that are available when the ball finds him, effectively allowing Gasol’s defender to drop back in help, gumming up things elsewhere.

“We need him to be more aggressive,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, while pointing out that the 12 shots Gasol took against the Bucks was a sign of progress. “We’ve been talking to him and Marc is a great passer but sometimes he is too unselfish. I think teams play him to pass. He is going to have to start getting in a rhythm offensively and scoring-wise.”

It was perhaps no coincidence that the Raptors’ second-half surge against Milwaukee included Gasol taking seven shots and contributing seven points.

Gasol needs to look to the score – or at least look at the rim – to keep defences honest. He believes he’s making headway.

“I thought I was looking at the rim when I had it,” Gasol said Saturday in the hallways of Fiserv Arena. “Sometimes you just don’t have the ball as much [and] you can’t have five guys out there who are shot-first mentality. …

“When you are out there at the top of the key you have to let the ball go through and swing side to side and create some other action,” he said. “But trust me, the last few games I have been looking at the basket a lot more and I have been conscious of it. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen right away, but you have to stick with it, but I think I’m getting back into it for sure.”

Gasol brings more to the Raptors table than offence and he’s already provided the franchise the ultimate payoff. But as they try to make a credible run at defending the championship he was instrumental in Toronto winning, a little more offence from Gasol could help a lot.

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