Marc Gasol is the Model Championship Center
After securing his first title, Marc Gasol, and players like him, will be hot commodities on the free agent market.
Somewhere between Kawhi Leonard’s stoic leadership, Jeremy Lin’s historic achievement and Drake’s newest EP, Marc Gasol sits atop his own pillar of success. The 11-year veteran center has finally made good on accomplishing that which he so desperately sought as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies: he’s an NBA Champion.
Prior to earning a place in NBA history — he and his brother Pau are the only siblings to win NBA titles — Gasol’s career was emblematic the NBA’s mini-epochs. In the early 2010s, Gasol and the Grizzlies were Western Conference gatekeepers. Before the rise of the Golden State Warriors, Memphis was regularly one-half of the most grueling playoff contests. The Grizzlies, usually seeded in the bottom half of the post-season standings, cornered higher ranked teams into seven-game series marked by defensive tenacity and a working-class support system. Though they never made it past the Western Conference Finals, Memphis and Gasol were beacons of NBA parity, forcing teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers to take the hardest road in the Playoffs.
More recently, Gasol’s career paralleled the plight of small market teams. Memphis couldn’t build a winning team around him. Part of that struggle falls on his and former co-star Mike Conley’s rash of injuries. But even in good health, free agents weren’t beating down General Manager Chris Wallace’s door to play in Memphis. As far as NBA cities go, Tennessee’s second-largest city was (and is) a free agency after-thought.
This season things changed for the better. Gasol played 50 games with the Raptors after being traded on February 8. His first few outings were statistically unimpressive but visually symbiotic; Head Coach Nick Nurse brought Gasol off the bench for the first time in years and he looked fine. He rolled to the basket after screens and tossed up soft handed floaters at the rim. His outlet passes were crisp, and he demoralized opponents on defense. Everything he put to use in Memphis, from his fearless shooting and tactile footwork created a perfect fit in Toronto. Gasol was immediately confined to a new basketball system and it worked to his benefit. The Raptors’ practiced plurality on the court, and Gasol helped profess that style by seamlessly integrating with his new co-stars.
Though he couldn’t seal the deal in the Volunteer State, which would have certainly spurred a change of fate in Memphis, Gasol’s championship victory with the Raptors will have a rippling effect. No other title-winning team in the last two decades has fielded a center quite like Gasol. He pairs his post-up acumen with a point guard’s clairvoyance in the high post. Throughout the Playoffs and the Finals, he dished dimes like these:
Just as Leonard’s post-season heroics softened the league’s “super team or bust” mentality, Gasol’s level-headed play might update the NBA’s stance on employing centers. Once thought as weighty, stagnante players who set picks and grabbed boards, Gasol has reintroduced the idea that the most impactful player on the court might also be the tallest.
If you asked me who my favorite NBA centers before these Playoffs happened, I’d have probably given you a canned answer. “There’s Anthony Davis and Steven Adams and Joel Embiid. Can’t forget about Rudy Gobert.” They represent the type of center that would make Hakeem Olajuwon proud and are the ones who stand tall above the rest. Their picks are the hardest, blocks the meanest and always play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Before the playoffs I would have completely forgotten about Gasol. Not for his lack of influence, but his game, diverse as it is, doesn’t speak to the same commanding presence guys like Embiid profess. Gasol was silently setting the standard for center success.
Now, two weeks out from free agency, Gasol’s archetype will be a hot commodity. The man himself will be a free agent and will likely earn looks from potential powerhouses like the Los Angeles Lakers or Toronto Raptors. But more importantly, a truckload of other centers will be sent to market, few of whom sport skill sets as impactful as Gasol’s.
About 50 centers will be free agents come 6 p.m. on June 30. (The NBA’s new free agency date doesn’t sound nearly as cool as midnight on July 1). Among them are household names (Al Horford, Kristaps Prozingis, Demarcus Cousins) respected veterans (Brook and Robin Lopez, Nikola Vucevic, Jonas Valanciunas), and plenty more players who are on the verge of falling from grace. By Gasol’s model, Horford and Vucevic should be snatched up when the clock strikes six; Horford is renowned for his passing, if arguably undersized compared to Gasol, while Vucevic has been on the rise leading up to his first selection as an All-Star in 2019.
The remaining free agent centers will have a hard time fitting through a Gasol shaped cutout. How will Hassan Whiteside fare — assuming he opts out, which might be in the cards given his recent social media post ogling a Charlotte Hornets-clad bus — with a play style that should have him anchored to one of the blocks? What about DeAndre Jordan, who struggled to make an impact in Dallas in absence of his Lob City security blanket?
In addition to wielding a Gasol-like skill set, how many centers are willing to take Gasol’s route? Pau’s younger brother spent a decade in Memphis as the alpha. He was the face of the franchise, only to become an add-on to Leonard’s sheer dominance in these playoffs. In an ideal world every player would sacrifice their own ego for a shot at a championship. Realistically, most players only begin to sacrifice when Father Time express mails them a reminder after an injury (see Cousins, Joakim Noah).
The future for centers looks bleak. The NBA, quick to latch onto prototypes for success, will be looking to recreate the mold from which Gasol was shaped. The Denver Nuggets already have a Nikola Jokic-shaped model. A few more teams will pick up a decent replica. And for the rest?
Marc Gasol is going to get paid this summer.