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Essay: Marc Gasol And Diminishing Returns

The Memphis Grizzlies have gone undefeated since their bitter opening night loss to the Clippers. On Sunday night they beat the defending champs to move to 5-1 on the season. Defeating the Miami Heat was nice, but they did so as part of an outlier performance from their reserve shooting guard, Wayne Ellington, who was 7-11 from long range.

In the game, Marc Gasol, their lumbering center, scored a season-low two points on 1-6 shooting from the field. He made up for a poor shooting night, if six field goal attempts is large enough to count as that, by also grabbing 10 rebounds and handing out six assists in 32 minutes of action.

It’s a performance that’s common for the Spanish Grizzlies center. If Ellington hadn’t shot lights out from long range, they could have benefited from more Gasol shooting; in fact, they could benefit from more Gasol on most nights. Taking advantage of their center’s skills has been frustrating for a team that’s found scoring hard to come by (they ranked 21st out of 30 teams in offensive efficiency last season, per Hoopdata) even as they’ve become an upper tier Western Conference team.

While Memphis has been able to maintain their place as a legitimate playoff team out west, and a dark horse candidate to win an NBA title, they’ve done so while ignoring their all-world center’s offensive skills.

Marc Gasol is the most efficient member of this Grizzlies team, and he has been for the last couple seasons. But he’s also the third or fourth offensive option. Last season, Gasol had the highest PER on the team, but was eighth in usage percentage. This season, even through a small data set like six games, Gasol is again high in PER—19.8, good for third on the team—but low in usage percentage (16.3%, just 10th on the team).

You might point to the plethora of scoring options the Grizzlies have, but Z-Bo is still getting back to his 2011 form (although, he has been a double-double machine this season), and after him, there isn’t a player on the team that’s as efficient as Gasol. The only real problem with giving Gasol more touches on the offensive side of the court is the presumption of diminishing returns.

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, it’s meant to show a decrease in the marginal (per-unit) output of a production process (in basketball terms, this would be scoring points) as the amount of a single factor of production (Marc Gasol) is increased. Basically, if Gasol shot more, or was involved more in the offense, his efficiency would actually drop. This is the same reason many people expected—rightfully—that James Harden’s stellar shooting efficiency as a sixth man for OKC last season would drop as he got starter’s minutes in Houston.

Except in Harden’s case, he was playing with two top 10 players in the league (Westbrook and Durant). Not so with Gasol in Memphis. In fact, with a paucity of big men in the NBA these days, there are very few players that can actually match-up against the 7’1″, 256 pound behemoth.

Gasol has rounded into a younger, stronger version of his older brother, Pau. He has a soft touch on his shot, which he can make all the way out to 18 feet. He’s comfortable in the post, able to drop a jump hook from either hand and body opponents with a stocky, mostly immovable frame. Witness his comfort in the post in these brief highlights from the Memphis-Utah game earlier this year.

In the first two clips above, he’s very relaxed with the ball and his back to the basket. He can spin around and shoot over smaller big men, or display enough of a shimmy to get separation for a turn-around on larger defenders; he’s like a less athletic Hakeem Olajuwon.

Gasol’s primary spot is below, or near, the elbow on the left-hand side, but he’s effective nearly everywhere inside the 3-point line. But it’s not just shooting the basketball where Gasol excels on the offensive end.

The final clip above shows him passing to Zach Randolph from a spot on the left elbow, then getting the ball back. After Randolph passes the ball back out to Gasol, he re-establishes his position closer to the basket on the block with his defender on his right side, opening up his left side, which—since he’s left-handed—is a more effective position.

Gasol see’s the slight change in positioning and immdiately fires a bounce pass back to Randolph to his strong hand. Once Randolph gets the ball back from Gasol, he can just go up and drop a left hook in like it’s a layup. This single play shows the wherewithal of Gasol: he notices the positional change Randolph makes to open up his superior left-side, Then, with rare passing ability for a big man, gets the ball right back to him for an easy basket. Ask most people around the league which big men could make that play, and most of them would say Marc, or possibly his brother.

Yes, the Law of Diminishing Returns is a very real factor when you see an increased role for an NBA player with unusually high efficiency ratings, but Gasol’s basketball smarts outweigh this fear, and he’s already playing over 30 minutes a night. Memphis struggles at times to score the ball, but when they make a concerted effort to get the ball to Gasol in a scoring position, they’re more successful.

The more time Gasol is on the court, the better Memphis does as a team. As the game wears on, Rudy Gay, Z-Bo, and Mike Conley Jr. become more of the focal point for the offense, and while all three of those players bring their own skills to the team, it’s Gasol that’s more effective. This is not Bill Cartwright on the Bulls in the early 90′s. Marc Gasol might be the best center in the game not named Dwight.

The Grizzlies would do well to get him the ball any time their offense has entered a prolonged draught. In fact, why not get him the ball as often as possible regardless of situation. Good things always seem to happen.

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