Any hope that the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans had of getting center Marc Gasol back on the court before the end of the 2015-16 NBA season after suffering a broken bone in his right foot two weeks ago went up in smoke on Tuesday:
The Grizzlies say center Marc Gasol had season-ending surgery last Saturday to repair a midfoot fracture in his right foot.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) February 23, 2016
From the Grizzlies' announcement, which identifies Gasol's specific ailment as "a non-displaced Type II fracture of the navicular bone in his right foot" and claims "he is expected to make a full recovery":
“Marc remains a cornerstone of our franchise and we are pleased to hear that the surgery went according to plan,” Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace said. “Marc’s determination and competitive spirit will serve him, his family and the team well as he begins the healing and rehab process from which we expect him to make a full recovery. We are confident we will have Marc back anchoring our team next season and beyond.” [...]
“It is frustrating to not be on the court with my teammates at this time,” Gasol said, “but I understand that the focus of this process is on long-term health and stability. I look forward to the road ahead and a full and successful recovery.”
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As our Eric Freeman wrote when Grizzlies beat man Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported Gasol's fracture two weeks ago, the confirmation of the Spaniard's absence deals a devastating blow to a Memphis club built largely around the two-way stabilizing force that Gasol provides on the interior. Even in what's been, relatively speaking, a down year for the 31-year-old 7-footer — Gasol's per-minute scoring, rebounding, dime-dropping and shot-blocking had all decreased this season from last year's All-NBA First Team form, and his back-line captaining had visibly dipped from the Defensive Player of the Year-level work he produced two years back — Gasol still ranks among the game's better interior deterrents, and while the Grizzlies were a tick below par with Gasol on the floor this season, they were still about two points per 100 possessions better when he played than when he didn't.
From an Xs-and-Os perspective, the Grizzlies feed off Gasol's ability to organize their defensive coverages, make the subtle in-the-paint steps and shifts that helped blow up opponents' actions before they could become more threatening, cover up for the deficiencies of his colleagues (most notably longtime running buddy Zach Randolph), and make the most out of their frequently tight spacing with his orchestration and shotmaking from the elbows. In a broader sense, the Grizzlies feed off his iron will, his quiet determination, his willingness to take on the responsibilities of being a franchise player and lead the NBA's most delightful collection of misfit toys into battle.
For the balance of the season, then, Dave Joerger's crew will have to find something else to sustain them. For their part, the shuffled-up Grizzlies — still working their way through the aftermath of trade-deadline deals that shipped out rotation contributors Courtney Lee and Jeff Green for future draft considerations while importing colorful new pieces Lance Stephenson, Chris "Birdman" Andersen and P.J. Hairston, and also reintegrating long-injured center Brandan Wright back into the fold — are trying to get comfortable with the discomfort of finding a new normal without Gasol, according to James Herbert of CBSSports.com:
“To be honest, I still don't think it's set in,” [point guard Mike] Conley said. “It's kind of like, Oh, he'll be back at some point. That's what you think. But it's tough to sit back and know that he's just devastated, stressing out and it's an unfortunate situation for him.” [...]
“Really, we're in that position where it is ‘here we go again,' but in a different sense,” Conley said. “It's here we go with a little bit of adversity, people doubting us, a lot of people might be writing us off, giving up, so we're in that position where we have to turn heads again. We have to prove to everybody that we're not giving up, that we're going to continue to compete and fight and get as many wins as we can and see what happens when postseason time starts.”
While Memphis would obviously prefer to have Gasol in the middle, that "little bit of adversity" might not be the worst thing in the world for the "Goon Squad" Grizz, a roster that, as Chris Herrington of the Commercial Appeal notes, has already shown a capacity to stay light even in the midst of the heavy lifting they face without Gasol:
On Friday, [Memphis] played like there was nothing at stake. Well, nothing but a playoff spot. Nothing but a new contract, for Mike Conley and Mario Chalmers and Matt Barnes. Nothing but a career, threatened by age ( Vince Carter, Chris Andersen), ineffectiveness (P.J. Hairston, Lance Stephenson, watching from the stands) or lack of opportunity ( James Ennis).
And, yet, there was none of that heaviness in the air. It felt like a loping, lovable, low-stakes lark. There was playoff energy, growl towels included, without playoff anxiety. I can’t remember being at a game quite like it.
That could be because players and fans alike have accepted the current state of play. Without Gasol, nobody would bat an eye if the Grizzlies slipped down out of the West's top eight. That would represent something of a bummer, since Memphis' 2016 first-round pick will go to the Denver Nuggets if it lands between the sixth and 14th selections in this summer's draft, but as I wrote last week, perhaps not a total bummer; since nobody at this point would reasonably expect the Grizzlies to contend for the NBA championship, it might just make the most sense to take the medicine of losing the already-traded-away selection now.
On the other hand, Memphis enters Tuesday's action in fifth place in the West at 32-23, five games clear of ninth place with 27 games left on the schedule; at this stage, going .500 (or even a bit worse) down the stretch against what looks like a pretty middling upcoming slate should keep them in postseason position. (For what it's worth, FiveThirtyEight's projections give the Grizz a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs.) In a season that began with title hopes only to quickly descend into the brutal realization that the Grizzlies weren't on the same level as the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, maybe it's worth taking pleasures where you can find them ... like, say, in the odd sight of Lance Stephenson and Vince Carter making plays in red Memphis Sounds jerseys, or the two-point-guard backcourt of Conley and Mario Chalmers generating enough scoring punch to help put the Grizzlies one win closer to a sixth straight postseason, against all (or at least some) odds.
In the big picture, of course, none of what happens over the next 27 games matters nearly as much as how well Gasol can come back from Saturday's surgery. Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer reports that his team sources are "pretty optimistic about Gasol's recovery," noting that the specifics of the break — "A Type II fracture without displacement is a much better diagnosis than a Type III fracture [...] which means the navicular bone breaks all the way through" — should give him "a much higher likelihood of recovery" than other NBA big men who have suffered similar foot injuries over the years. As Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal puts it, the hope is that Gasol's post-fracture future looks more like the way things worked out for Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale than it did for Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who needed several more surgeries before eventually being able to return), or than it has thus far for Philadelphia 76ers draftee Joel Embiid, who has yet to play a single NBA game due to complications from his foot fractures.
Those questions won't be answered for months, as Gasol works through what promises to be a protracted and grueling rehabilitation. (The answers to those questions could have major implications for Memphis' future, too, with Gasol still having four years left on the nine-figure max contract he signed last summer and Conley set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer.) For now, all the Grizzlies know is that he won't be back this season, and that if they're going to mount a late-campaign push, they're going to have to put it together using perhaps the most mismatched population of misfit toys they've ever featured. Whatever they come up with might not be quite the version of grit and grind to which we've become accustomed, but it figures to be pretty entertaining all the same.
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