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BOSTON – The Memphis Grizzlies are in a free fall, losers of 10 straight, winless on the road in 2018, and you know that has to drive Marc Gasol crazy. Gasol played his 700th regular-season game for Memphis on Monday, and it may have been his most inconsequential: a 109-98 drubbing in Boston that dropped the Grizzlies to 18-41 on the season.
Pity Gasol. Well, don’t pity him, I guess. Hard to feel too bad for a guy who will earn $22.6 million this season and is guaranteed $50 million over the next two. But feel for him a little. This is Marc freaking Gasol, a leader of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, one of the best centers of the 21st century. Memphis won 24 games in his first season, 40 the next and since 2010-11 they have never fallen below .500. Until this season, when they are bottoming out.
I wanted to ask Gasol about this season on Monday, but after playing 33 minutes in another frustrating defeat, Gasol wasn’t up for the media — me or otherwise. He ducked out a side door when reporters were allowed into the locker room and hustled down a hallway before anyone knew he was gone. It was understandable. As the losses pile up, what else is there to say?
But this has to be wearing on Gasol. Memphis has never been the best team in the Western Conference, but the Grizz were often the toughest out. No one wanted to play the Grizzlies. You might win, but you left wounded. As the league drifted outside, Memphis remained committed to a bruising interior attack. It was Gasol and Zach Randolph, and you better be ready to fight.
Now? The Grizzlies just roll over. Randolph is gone, Mike Conley is out and Gasol finds himself surrounded by rookies and G Leaguers. That’s not a dig. Dillon Brooks, who played 30 minutes on Monday, is a rookie. Deyonta Davis, the Grizzlies’ leading scorer off the bench against Boston, is an Iowa Energy/Memphis Hustle alum. Gasol could play brilliantly — and the Grizzlies could still lose by 20.
This is where it needs to be noted that Gasol has not played brilliantly this season. His field-goal percentage is at a career low, his 3-point percentage is off by six points from last season and he is ranked 206th in defensive rating among starters, per NBA.com, sandwiched between Spencer Dinwiddie and Ryan Anderson.
Still, a basketball luminary, one of the all-time great international imports shouldn’t go out like this, should he? Prior to absorbing the Boston beating, I asked Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff if he could appreciate how tough a season like this is for Gasol.
“It’s frustrating,” Bickerstaff acknowledged. “A guy as competitive as he is, and a guy who every day matters to him, whether it’s practice, drill work, three-on-three, he’s trying to win. The games come on, same thing, he’s trying to do everything in his power to lift his team. A guy who is so unselfish, he doesn’t care how many points he scores. The only thing that matters to him are wins and losses. I think we all understand and appreciate guys who are that way. There’s no doubt about it, it’s frustrating for him.”
Has he seen signs of that frustration?
“He has his moments,” Bickerstaff said. “But one of the things he has done is he’s embraced the young guys. You watch him put his arm around guys, teaching guys, working with guys. And then he has started to work on his game and do different things that will help him moving forward as a player. He’s human, and those moments [of frustration] do come up, but he’s spent more time focusing on growth than he has on the situation that we are in.”
“He’s working on different parts of his game,” Bickerstaff said. “Post-up game. The way teams are playing, you don’t see a ton of post-up opportunities any more. He’s working on his face-up game, he’s working on a different array of shots, in the paint, how he gets to those spots, things like that. Playing from the perimeter, being able to attack off the catch versus other big guys. Those things we’ve seen him be able to implement. He’s been able to implement them quick. As soon as he puts his mind to it, he can add it that night.”
At 33, Gasol’s days as a high-level player are numbered. And it’s hard to see how Memphis builds a winner around him while he still is. The Grizz spin a story of how Mike Conley returns, Chandler Parsons lives up to his max contract, an elite rookie enters the mix and — poof — the Grizzlies are back in the playoffs. But Conley is coming off a serious heel injury, Parsons has played 51 games the past two seasons, and Memphis’ draft track record (Wade Baldwin, Jordan Adams) is spotty.
This is how Gasol’s prime years could end. The Grizzlies have shown no interest in trading him, and Gasol has no leverage until 2019, when he can opt out of the final year of his contract — and leave $25.6 million on the table.
Will he? Gasol sounded plenty frustrated on Tuesday, when local reporters got a crack at him. Asked to describe his frustration level, Gasol said, “It’s pretty high.” Later, Gasol added that “winning is what this is about. It’s not about somebody playing well or getting your reps or developing players. We have a league [the G League] for that. We have a team here in Memphis to develop guys. This is the NBA, not the [G] League.”
Marc Gasol has had some tough battles. This may be his toughest yet.
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