Adding a three-time All-Star like Marc Gasol at the trade deadline was a no-brainer, especially since it only cost the Toronto Raptors three bench players and a distant second-round pick.
But second thoughts have creeped in now that Jonas Valanciunas is averaging close to 20 points and 10 rebounds as the featured scorer for the Memphis Grizzlies. By contrast, Gasol has been aggressively deferential to his new teammates – to the point of attempting just one shot in a loss to the Thunder last weekend – and the 11-year vet is scoring single digits for the first time in his career.
That begs the question: Did the Raptors really improve in the Gasol trade?
Where the Raptors improved: Playmaking and three-point shooting
Gasol is the second-best passing center in the league outside of Nikola Jokic, so naturally, his addition has coincided with upticks in every passing metric. The Raptors went from running a standard pick-and-roll offense to occasionally putting on a convincing impersonation of the 2014 Spurs.
That change is almost entirely attributable to Gasol, as his passing has become infectious for his teammates. Since his arrival, Raptors are fifth in passes per game, fifth in assists, second in hockey assists, and third in points scored off assists. The starting unit, in particular, play beautiful basketball.
The main beneficiaries of Gasol’s presence has been Kyle Lowry (who is shooting 58 percent after passes from Gasol) and Norman Powell (55.6 percent), but just about every wing player has benefited. Gasol demands movement with his unselfishness, he keeps the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam from settling for one-on-one attacks, and he’s a bailout option in a short shot clock situation.
“We’ve made an emphasis on it of late – whenever you’re in trouble, throw it to Marc and start flying,” Nick Nurse said of Gasol’s role in last Wednesday’s win over the Thunder. “Because he’s going to start finding some passes, keep that thing facilitating, and keep you moving. It’s one thing to cut, but when you receive it once in a while, it’s like that receiver running the route hard – you have to throw him the ball once in a while.”
The addition of Gasol has also helped the Raptors reach their potential from beyond the arc, as they lead the league in 3-point percentage (40.2) since the trade. Their improvements aren’t entirely attributable to Gasol (some of it is just random variation) but Gasol is definitely a more capable outside shooter, and he already assisted on 41 threes in 18 games as compared to 22 assists in 30 games for Valanciunas.
It’s worth noting, however, that more passing and an uptick in assists does not necessarily equate to better offense. The Raptors have posted a slightly lower offensive rating with Gasol in the lineup instead of Valanciunas (111.8 vs. 113.3). Sometimes, the simple approach is simply more effective.
But the addition of Gasol did make the Raptors more balanced, as they can now initiate offense from both the perimeter and out of the post. The Raptors struggled to adjust when opponents trapped Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in previous playoff runs because there wasn’t a playmaking option in the frontcourt like Gasol who can make reads and create open shots. That added dimension will make the Raptors harder to scheme for in the postseason.
Push: Interior scoring and defensive rebounding
Valanciunas attempted 37 percent of his field-goals from within three feet, as compared to 17 percent for Gasol, which reflects the difference in how they approach the same position. Gasol prefers to operate on the perimeter, whereas Valanciunas is singularly focused on getting to the rim.
Despite playing outside the paint, Gasol is still helping the Raptors score inside. Toronto has attempted 40 percent of its shots from the restricted area since the trade, as compared to 42 percent when Valanciunas was in the lineup, in large part because Gasol has opened up the floor for others to score. Again, Lowry and Powell have been the obvious beneficiaries of Gasol’s addition, but anyone willing to make a hard cut will receive service from Gasol.
There were also concerns that the Raptors would take a hit on the defensive glass, but those fears have yet to bear out. Gasol lacks the physicality and endurance to compete for rebounds with the same tenacity as Valanciunas, who is nearly a decade his junior. But the Raptors have actually secured a higher share of defensive rebounds since acquiring Gasol since he is so positionally sound. Gasol doesn’t always secure the miss, but he ranks second in the NBA in defensive boxouts per 36 minutes since arriving in Toronto.
Downgrade: Offensive rebounding and depth
Despite improving on the defensive glass, the Raptors did take a hit on the other end. Gasol almost never chases misses, whereas Valanciunas was persistent on putbacks. This drop-off most likely accounts for the dip in overall scoring efficiency – the Raptors ranked 14th in second-chance points with Valanciunas as compared to 28th with Gasol.
The bigger downgrade has been at the end of the bench. Toronto sacrificed depth in making a 3-for-1 deal for Gasol, and banked on the buyout market to cover for the difference. But that has yet to transpire, which only made an already struggling bench even weaker.
The Raptors recruited Lin from the buyout market to cover for Wright, but that appears to be a loss. Wright was maddeningly inconsistent, but he could at least make an impact on defense and occasionally slash to the basket. Lin has recovered over the past two weeks, but he didn’t hit a single three in his first seven games with the Raptors, and is now in danger of falling out of the rotation altogether. Lin’s struggles were also magnified at a time where Lowry and VanVleet battled injuries.
Even the loss of Miles has been noticeable despite his painful struggles to start the year. Miles was a net negative on both ends, but he could at least provide the occasional scoring outburst. The Raptors have cycled through Pat McCaw, Malcolm Miller and Jodie Meeks in hopes of finding a consistent shooter off the bench, but none of them of them have stuck. McCaw is strictly a pesky defender, whereas Miller and Meeks are too one-dimensional to truly make a difference.
The bigger issue relates to Serge Ibaka, who is struggling to produce off the bench after he grew comfortable with starting while Valanciunas was out. Ibaka is averaging just 8.5 points and 7.1 rebounds over his last eight games as a backup (compared to 16 points and eight rebounds in 50 starts) and he was a net-negative in seven of those appearances. Granted, Ibaka’s struggles are entirely symptomatic of the dysfunction with the second unit, but wasting Ibaka’s talents negates most of the added value from Gasol.
There’s some hope that these issues will resolve itself once Nick Nurse shortens his rotation. Ibaka is at his best playing next to a pass-first guard like Lowry who understands how to run the pick-and-pop, and those two will share more time together once Lowry takes Lin’s minutes as the main playmaker with the second unit. The tragic triumvirate of Lin, Powell, and OG Anunoby will also be separated when the games truly matter, which should lessen the need for Ibaka to force his offense.
In the meantime, Gasol needs to continue building chemistry with the starting unit to truly make the trade worth it. The best case scenario is that Gasol unlocks the full potential of the likes of Lowry, Siakam, and Leonard, and the early returns are promising. Toronto’s starting five with Gasol is shooting 58 percent overall and 44 percent from deep in 75 minutes. If those averages hold steady in the postseason, then the Gasol trade would have been well worth the price.
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