There have been plenty of positive things about the Memphis Grizzlies' surge since trading starting small forward Rudy Gay as part of a three-team deal that was lambasted in some quarters and lauded in others, with the team's 16-6 mark since the move, of course, topping the list. One of the neatest from a basketball nerd perspective, though, is the increased amount of attention, both in the Grizzlies' attack and in subsequent analysis of it, that has been going to the work done by Marc Gasol.
The Memphis center has been taking advantage of an increased number of opportunities to showcase his offensive wares ... like this lovely blind alley-oop feed from the left elbow for a cutting Tony Allen during the second quarter of the Grizzlies' Monday night win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:
Just beautiful, and an illustration of something we've been seeing more and more since Gay was shipped to the Toronto Raptors — the Grizzlies love running offense through Gasol at the elbows, and for good reason.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote last month, Gasol ranks at the top of the league in "elbow touches," according to optical tracking data compiled by STATS through their SportVU system, which I've written about before. (That's the high-tech system where six special high-definition video cameras are installed above an arena's basketball court at different angles to track, capture, record and store information on the location and movement of all 10 players, all three referees and the ball 25 times per second, every second, for an entire NBA game. Right now, 15 of 30 NBA teams have the cameras installed; more are sure to follow.)
According to SportVU, Gasol is not only one of the league's most frequent targets at the elbow, but also one of its most productive players with the ball there, owing in large part to the "full bag of tricks" he displays while operating from that spot. He can be an eclipsing screener, using his 265-pound frame to open up daylight off dribble hand-offs for drives by Memphis guards Allen, Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless and Tony Wroten. He's a fantastic high-low player who, at 7-foot-1, can stand tall, see over the defense and dump it down into the low post, working a devastatingly effective high-low game with partner Zach Randolph or picking out cutters working smartly in space off the ball and along the baseline, as Allen did on the alley-oop. And if the defense sags off a bit to clog up his interior passing lanes, he can stick the foul-line-extended midrange jumper at an above-league-average clip, especially as he moves from left to right on the floor. Many more good things can happen for Memphis running offense through Gasol at the elbows than just allowing a 40-percent shooting wing to isolate and attack the basket one-on-one ... and, y'know, it has.
Before the Gay trade, the Grizzlies ranked 22st among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency, a stat that measures how many points your offense scores per 100 possessions; Memphis was averaging 100.1 points-per-100, according to NBA.com's stat tool. In 21 games since adding Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye to the lineup following the trade, they've moved up to 13th in the league at 104-per-100; over the course of the full season, that would rank just above the Brooklyn Nets as the NBA's 10th-best offense. That's a pretty significant improvement — over the course of the full season, four points-per-100 is the difference between the Nets' No. 10 offense and the Chicago Bulls' 25th-ranked unit.
That's not all due to Gasol, of course; Gay's absence has meant a greater distribution of touches, opportunities and responsibility for other Grizzlies, too. While Gasol's "usage rate" — the share of Memphis possessions that end with him attempting a field goal, getting free throws or turning the ball over — is up (as is his field-goal percentage and as are his per-game scoring, rebounding and assist numbers; he's averaging just under five dimes a game after the trade, which is nuts for a center), the same is true for Conley, who is also "using" more Grizzlies trips, assisting on teammates' buckets more often, turning it over less frequently, and shooting a higher percentage from the floor and the foul line. The upticks for Randolph aren't quite as stark — his scoring's up a half-point and his rebounding's down a half-board per game, and his field-goal and free-throw percentages have dipped a bit — but he, too, is using more possessions, dishing more assists and turning the ball over less often.
All of these ploys — Gasol at the elbow, Conley in the high screen-and-roll or on off-ball cuts, even a slightly-less-potent-than-before Z-Bo on the block — are far more effective offensive options than Gay's volume-shooting, not-especially-accurate brand of inefficiency. Plus, it's not like the Grizz have been missing Gay defensively — they were tied with the Chicago Bulls for second in the league in defensive efficiency (how many points your defense gives up per 100 possessions) before the deal, allowing 97.5 points-per-100, and they've been second (and actually a tick better) since the deal, too, holding opponents to 97-per-100. (Gasol's a pretty big reason for that, too, literally and figuratively.)
Add it all up and it's hard not to like where the Grizzlies find themselves today compared with where they found themselves a month and a half ago, not only on the balance sheet, where they're no longer responsible for the two years and $37 million owed Gay after this season, but on the court, too. Whether they're good enough to be a legitimate Western Conference contender remains an open question — weekend losses to fellow seemingly-sub-Spurs-and-Thunder-tier-mates the Los Angeles Clippers and the freefalling Utah Jazz give some pause — but if Randolph, Allen and the numbers think the Grizzlies are better suited to compete with top-flight comp now than they were before, I won't argue — just like I'm not arguing with Hollins' decision to run more possessions through Marc at the elbow.
Video via SB Nation's Mike Prada.
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