It’s fitting to start this with a storm rolling in. The sky outside gone suddenly dark, the air shock still, then all at once a flat out deluge. Rain so hard it shreds petals from flowers and the streets, for a few roaring minutes, flood. Then all at once it passes, the birds wink back out as the petrichor lifts.
Fitting, because it’s the kind of basketball that Marc Gasol plays.
Roiling and slow, building pressure like a barometric drop, Gasol’s game is elemental. Like an ominous swell of dark clouds, he’ll be out at some some impossible distance until, seconds later, his body is there and towering — splitting the defense, wrecking the picnic. Whether it’s because of lineup aesthetics or Frank Vogel and the franchise’s perpetual enforcement of a golden, star-tinged flash over adjusting for need, the Lakers have been reluctant, or outright unwilling, to unleash that storm.
When Gasol signed with the Lakers it was for the assurance of a two-year deal that the Raptors, still holding out for Giannis Antetokounmpo, wouldn’t give him. Within that promise of time was an expectation of minutes, not an unlikely expectation given that every center on the season prior’s championship team had by then been cut or traded away. As private and occasionally guarded as Gasol can be, his career choices and off-court actions have shown him to be as discerning in life as in defense. So while he understands very well that he’s 36 in a game that skews younger every season, and that the Lakers were always looking to add another big before or during a potential repeat season, his frontcourt savant status still lent him any leverage he would need to secure a place in the starting lineup.
And he did start. For 35 games he collected the same quiet, if not invisible stats that have made him a perpetual difference-maker across 14 seasons. The reliable boards and assists are what the numbers show but the elite passing, laconic disruptions in the lane, cool physicality and wide-lens perception of the game spreading out in front of him are what make Gasol invaluable, and what made him such an auspicious get for a Lakers team that for all its flash and bullying lacked in awareness, held nothing close to the chest.
Then the thing made recklessly inevitable by the league, through its urgent push for revenue, hit. Gasol was out with COVID-19 for most of March, his minutes clipped in his first handful of games back toward the month’s end but recording his highest scoring all season. What should have been runway to Gasol’s return collided with the trade deadline, and the Lakers drawn-out process of extracting Andre Drummond from Cleveland ended both Drummond’s time in the east and Gasol’s starting minutes.
There was no phasing Drummond in, it was a hard switch between the two big men with Montrezl Harrell in the middle. For his utilitarian knack for rebounding, Drummond has a higher propensity toward turnovers. He tends to crowd the paint, opting to use his size as the play itself and reacting over preempting. The slide the Lakers were on that started when Gasol was sidelined in March began to get steeper, and by mid-April the team was slipping down the standings. Gasol watched from the bench.
Rather than relent, or at minimum ease off Drummond’s minutes until he could better acclimatize to the style of flashy, dominant bully-ball the Lakers favor, Vogel seemed intent on forcing a fit. Drummond was positioned as a star on the rise, not through gameplay or a sudden shift in his own capabilities on the floor, but via proximity to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It was an optics fit for a desired team aesthetic — bigger, stronger, faster — versus adjusting for what was needed or what could enhance the team as-is. And while there is no doubt Drummond is adapting, growing comfortable playing a more physical game, it’s a transformation that shouldn’t need to be sold, or see Vogel force-peeling back the layers on Drummond’s ceiling-raising chrysalis.
By the end of April, with Davis hurt and three straight losses preceded by scattershot wins, Gasol’s teammates started to wonder out loud where he was. Being outscored and out rebounded by a Toronto team that lacked anything close to the Lakers size, Kyle Kuzmathat he “didn’t know what to do”. He went on to suggest more minutes with Gasol “would be pretty good for us, for sure”. None of it was on him to figure out, but he was right.
Vogel deployed Gasol as a fixer, playing him in games where the Lakers lagged behind in scoring, defensive efficiency, or both. It was the case in some of the team’s biggest late season matchups with the likelihood of the play-in looming. In their last meeting with Phoenix of the regular season, Gasol had a net plus/minus of +7 in close to 18 minutes, compared to Drummond’s -7 in just over 19 minutes on the floor. In a May 3rd game against Denver, Gasol was +30 in 17 minutes compared to Drummond’s -26 in 21.5 minutes, but more notably, Gasol disrupted Nikola Jokic.
Jokic, a master at slipping defenders up close and under the basket, twists and pivots to work every angle, he feigned steps and pump-fakes in repeated efforts to shake the looming frame of Gasol, all but draped over him. In one desperate moment halfway through the 4th after failing to cut Gasol loose, Jokic lifts his right arm to heave the ball as fast and hard as he can away. It falls markedly short of the rim, like the swing of a kid spun before hitting a piñata, and the look on Jokic’s face as he finally frees himself in transition is beleaguered relief. Gasol’s reaction is the same as it ever is, the same as it was after he went 3 for 4 from deep that game, or after he’d launched a full-court outlet pass to Wesley Matthews on the kind of psychic fastbreak Gasol has a sixth sense to see coming — a shrug.
Because with Gasol there aren’t ever any secrets, it’s basketball. When you are so good, sure, and smart about something it becomes a function, simply the way it’s supposed to work. It’s why when pressed in April and May about his lessened minutes, or asked who he thought was the stronger option: him, Drummond or Harrell, Gasol stressed that what was important was whether or not the team played “on a string”, everyone tied together. It wasn’t a cop-out, only an assessment of functionality, and in terms of functionality the Lakers vastly improve in some of the most fundamental ways when Gasol is on the floor.
While his defense is elite, ranked 7th in the NBA in all-time defensive win shares, Gasol's greatest offensive attribute is his timing, and the space it affords the shooters around him. Gasol uses size as a suggestion, drawing defenders out to the wings or else unbalancing them by leaning his body so they can’t get around him to give chase to a freed up shooter. He does this with the Lakers, understanding where over-helping will hurt, knowing he is better to hang out in space and pull bodies toward him, turning the space around the key to a wasteland for shooters — Gasol limits overall field goals attempted to 79.5, compared to Drummond’s 87.7.
It’s this necessary slowing that will be useful to the Lakers as their series with the Suns, and any extended postseason, continues. The Lakers are a much less versatile team than they had the potential to be when the playoffs rolled around, given Vogel’s preference for jamming Drummond in the lineup at the expense of Gasol and Harrell. Vogel has said he wished his team had more time to acclimatize after the addition of Drummond at the deadline, but he’s had Gasol, James and Davis all season. There is a rare opportunity now to make up for lost time and team scheming by taking advantage of three of the brightest and biggest basketball brains available and their collective wellspring of IQ.
Since his absence in Game 1 of the series, Gasol has seen the floor for minutes of reprieve over multiple quarters, and has used that time to create much needed space for L.A. Albeit a small sample size, with Gasol on the floor in the playoffs James is seeing an uptick in points per possession from 27.5 to 33.3, compared to 25 to 30 with Drummond, and Davis is seeing a staggering increase from 29.6 to 50.8, compared to 41 down to 28 with Drummond. For Davis, Gasol delivers clear lanes in the paint for him to menace and fast, clean entry passes while pulling defenders away. Even with James, who prefers a big man he can plant under the rim to wait, Gasol eases some of the load of playmaking without monopolizing possessions. It’s a benevolent a relationship as either star could hope for, and it will only grow more important if the team advances.
On a Lakers team as dense with size as this one, a fixed center only hinders the potential for smart and explosive basketball. The answer isn’t one over another as much as it is striking a fluid and necessary balance. Drummond gives energetic, assertive physicality in close-out and contentious minutes and Gasol, while he can’t provide the Lakers added speed or the same eruptive verticality of a player like Davis, offers much needed equilibrium. A cool counterweight to the occasionally overwhelming aesthetics of tell-don’t-show Laker grandiosity.
Vogel seems to grasp, to a degree, what he has in Gasol. He’s called him “a hell of a weapon” while doing the equivalent of setting him back on the shelf. In the playoffs, where every game in a series is its own small war, wins are often yanked from the margins. Gasol, with his sly disruption of easy buckets, pragmatic intelligence and elemental embedding of the backcourt, makes those marginal intangibles add up while exhausting opponents in the process. In the maelstrom of the postseason you don’t pocket a storm, you make your own weather.