NEW YORK – They are two parties completely aligned in what they want out of their relationship – the first and most important step to any partnership succeeding.
All Marc Gasol has ever wanted out of a basketball game or his basketball career is to win. In his first comments since being traded from the only NBA home he has ever known on Thursday, it came up over and over again.
The chance to win was what motivated him to welcome moving on after nearly 11 seasons in Memphis and a relationship with the city that goes back to his high school days when he lived there as a teenager while his older brother Pau was with the club in their first seasons after leaving Vancouver.
His knowledge of what it takes to win; his willingness to do it and his experience doing it in the heat of the hardest-fought battles was what made the Raptors eager to trade a younger, cheaper and very effective Jonas Valanciunas as the centrepiece of a 3-for-1 deal – the most significant the Raptors have ever made at the trade deadline.
Gasol and Toronto need each other: the franchise that has but one trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on its résumé and a burning desire to make it farther while their window is open; and the 34-year-old centre who has won at the highest levels of international basketball but is still thirsty to win his final game in an NBA season.
“It gives you a chance to compete at the highest level,” Gasol said before stepping on the floor for a team other than the Grizzlies for the first time in his NBA career. “Once [Raptors president Masai Ujiri] called and I talked to some of the guys in there and everyone said the same, about making a run to the title. That gets your juices going and gets you excited.”
His first game as a Raptor won’t go down as particularly memorable or remarkable. Toronto took care of business 104-99 win against a Knicks team determined to give themselves every possible chance to win the draft lottery. The Raptors’ tendency to occasionally shoot like the basket moves made it closer than it should have been but they did improve to 41-16 and swept their three-game road trip.
Gasol played just 19 minutes but there were signs of what he can bring if you were looking beyond his not unimpressive seven points, six rebounds, two steals, a block and two assists.
The Spaniard’s a big man at 7-foot-1 and 290 pounds, but Memphis was always a good defensive rebounding team despite his relative lack of athleticism. Gasol showed why as his first play as a Raptor was to deliver a stiff forearm to Knicks centre Mitchell Robinson as a prelude to a sound, fundamental boxout. A moment later, he deflected a post-entry feed to spark a Raptors fast-break. On Toronto’s last possession of the first quarter, he ran a lovely pick-and-pop sequence with Fred VanVleet that ended with Gasol firing a laser pass to a wide-open VanVleet that would have been his first Raptors assist had VanVleet’s triple not rimmed out.
He looked good in his minutes with the starters too, finding open cutters, drawing charges and playing some impressive post defence. He generally seemed focused on making life easier for his teammates and harder for their opponents – a good formula in any environment.
“I’m just trying to learn [my teammate’s] tendencies, learn the plays as well, learn the schemes defensively. There’s a lot of learning that has to go on,” he said after the game. “Obviously I was asking a lot of questions about what should have happened on particular plays. But at the end of the day it’s about reads and reactions and understanding where you are going to get the ball and what kind of shots you are going to get. It feels good.”
Winning – or the chance to win is what gets Gasol going. As the fulcrum of the Grit’N’Grind-era Grizzlies, he played in the post-season six straight years beginning in 2010-11 – an era in Memphis not altogether different than the run the Raptors are on now. With the Spanish national team, Gasol won gold at the World Championships, silver at the Olympics and gold at EuroBasket.
He doesn’t expect a difficult transition to the Raptors even though he comfortably came off the bench behind Serge Ibaka for the first time in 740 games because his guiding principle is not what a team can do for him, but what he can do for them.
“[The plan is] Just help guys and help the group be as good as we can be come April and May and June,” he said. “That’s my main job and to see how can I help and when things get a little hectic in there, just help everyone.”
Helping him will be a cadre of Raptors who he has past ties with. He fought some Western Conference playoffs wars against Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard when both were with the San Antonio Spurs. He played on the Spanish national team with Ibaka while Raptors head coach Nick Nurse coached against him when his was with the British national team, witnessing his growth into a three-time all-NBA talent first-hand:
“I remember playing him one summer and we were concerned about Pau and barely talking about Marc,” Nurse said. “The next summer you are like ‘Holy Smokes, what are we going to do about Marc?”
Drafted in the second round with the 48th pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, Gasol stayed in Spain in his first years as a pro, was the Spanish league MVP in 2008 years later, and an NBA all-star by 2012.
Encouraging that development in part was Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo, who has coached the Spanish team during its run as the best in the world outside of Team USA. He’s known Gasol for a long time, since his transition from a talented but overweight teen toiling in the shadow of his gifted older brother, to his status as one of the game’s elder statesmen.
“This guy started as chubby, even fat, when he was a kid,” said Scariolo. “Then he grew as a professional and he developed great skills. They were there, but he didn’t really know how to use them and he’s been kind of a late bloomer … his best came later, this is why he has a lot to give yet.”
What he has to give is what the Raptors are desperately in need of, and maybe always have been.
“He probably brings to this team something which they never had. A type of player who never was in this team,” said Scariolo, before listing more evident strengths like his ability to shoot from the perimeter and his knack as a smart, physical defender.
“Basically, he is a great passer, someone who sees the next play a split second before most of the opponents, most of the teammates as well, most of the coaches … I would say a very versatile player who is right now in his best, basically the peak of his career in terms of maturity, his ability to fit into a team, to do what the team needs to win.”
“He’s a very deep guy. Very smart, he’s an emotional guy, he’s driven. He learned to mild his temper. He’s mature, he’s a grown man, has a family but still he is an emotionally-driven man, always moving from his heart.
“Great, great family guy, very good teammate, very good help for the coaches as well because he has a great basketball mind. Great, great guy to have around.”
Gasol is excited to be around too, which helps.
“Obviously, my relationship with Memphis and the team goes back a long time and I gave it my all,” he said. “Maybe sometimes it wasn’t perfect but I gave it everything I had, and I plan on doing the same thing in Toronto. That’s the only way I know how to play, dedicating yourself to the game, to the city and the fans.
“My family also is very excited,” he said, smiling. “My wife and two kids, they know they get to meet a different mascot now.”
Everybody wins. Or at least that’s the plan.