In the modern NBA, many teams are moving away from lineups featuring two traditional big men. While the San Antonio Spurs have equipped themselves to match-up with these small ball lineups more this season than they have in the past, they continue to utilize lineups featuring two big men. One of the reasons for that this season in particular has been the high quality of play from the first two bigs in the rotation. While many are aware that LaMarcus Aldridge is currently having his strongest season as a Spur, Gasol is quietly having a successful season of his own.
Firstly, Gasol has still been an excellent passer this season – better than last season in fact. Gasol has assisted on 19.7% of his teammates’ made baskets while he is on the floor, tied for the third highest mark in his career and ranking in the top 93rd percentile of all big men this season. Of all possessions that end in an action by Gasol, whether that be a field goal attempt, turnover, or free throw attempt, only 12.9% resulted in a turnover. That is ordinarily a strong, above average number for a big man, ranking him in the 63rd percentile, but becomes even more impressive in light of his assist numbers.
Gasol has also had a strong rebounding season to this point as well, rebounding almost 24% of opponents’ missed field goal attempts while he is on the court. He has also rebounded 41.5% of opponents’ live-ball missed free throws and 6.2% the Spurs’ live-ball missed free throws. Each of these marks ranks in the top 80th percentile among big men.
He has played his particular role on defense at a solid level as well. Being 37 years-old, one of Gasol’s weaknesses defensively is having to defend the pick-and-roll, especially guarding ball handlers in a pick-in-roll off of a switch. The Spurs often mitigate this weakness by keeping him in the paint near the rim in these pick-and-roll situations, requiring the screener to beat them with his shooting. There are teams that have the big men with shooting skills to punish this strategy, but in those situations, the Spurs prefer to go small. An example of this is last season’s oft-discussed play-off series against the Houston Rockets. Gasol would drop back in pick-and-rolls involving Clint Capella, to much success, but the Spurs would usually only play one traditional big man, usually LaMarcus Aldridge, when Ryan Anderson played at center, as he has the shooting ability to punish teams that leave him open from long range.
Having a well defined role on defense that mostly involves defending the paint and protecting the rim, as well as the Spurs’ ability to go small against opponents that could punish Gasol’s defensive weaknesses, has resulted in one of Gasol’s strongest seasons defensively. This season, opponents are scoring 4.3 points per 100 possessions less when Gasol is on the court versus when he is on the bench, the second best mark of his career. Not only that, opponents are attempting 2.7% less field goals at the rim and have converted 4.1% less of those attempts when Gasol is on the court versus when he sits. Both of those numbers rank in the 80th percentile among big men.
This has not been as strong of a season for Gasol in terms of scoring, however. His effective field goal percentage is below average for a big man, and while part of that is the transition to a league that features more bigs who can shoot the ball (his current effective field goal percentage would have been above average in 2010, for example), a large part of that is his own shot selection.
While Gasol has taken a higher percentage of his field goal attempts from three point range this season than any season before, he has shot 48% of his field goal attempts from mid-range. Compared to other bigs, Gasol has converted mid-range shots at a below average rate, while his field goal percentage on three point attempts is healthily above average. Taking a higher frequency of his shots from behind the arc would undoubtedly hurt his percentage from there but he has shot well enough from long-range that even a small dip in shooting percentages would not change the fact that opponents have to respect his shot from distance. The space created by more long-range attempts would give Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ two most potent offensive weapons, more room to operate.
While many fans balked at the Gasol’s newly signed contract in the offseason, he has had a strong start to the 2017-2018 season. He seems to be more comfortable in the Spurs’ system, and the Spurs have been playing him in a way that enhances his strengths and helps minimize his weaknesses. While the Spurs have equipped themselves to play a higher frequency of small ball line ups more often than in seasons past, the play of both Aldridge and Gasol has allowed the Spurs to continue to be successful playing two traditional bigs.
All stats obtained from cleaningtheglass.com