Marc Gasol Is Changing The Raptors

03/14/2019 at 01:03pm

By Ian Levy
Nylon Calculus, brought to you by The Step Back

The Raptors’ addition of Marc Gasol at the trade deadline was a bit overshadowed by deals that saw Nikola Mirotic head to the Bucks or Tobias Harris head to the 76ers. While the 34-year-old veteran center may be six years removed from his Defensive Player of the Year season back in 2013, he still has the potential to swing a playoff series with his skill set on both ends of the court.

The Raptors just need to figure out how they want to use him first.

Initially it looked like Gasol would just supplant Jonas Valanciunas in the rotation, allowing Serge Ibaka to continue starting and playing starter’s minutes as a floor-spacing small ball center. Ibaka has played fewer minutes and been in-and-out of the starting lineup over the past three weeks. Across the entire season, the Raptors had been much more effective with Ibaka on the floor but that impact has tailed off a bit over the past two months and Gasol absolutely offers a different look.

Ibaka is mostly a floor-spacer or rim-runner on offense, whereas Valanciunas’ role was screen-setting, finishing around the rim and crashing the offensive glass. You can see from the numbers below that Gasol acts more as an offensive conduit, with the ball moving to, and through, more often.

Gasol touches the ball more frequently but holds it for less time and is far more likely to end up passing the ball, and particularly for a potential assist. The effect of his presence has been fairly dramatic on the scoring efficiency of his teammates, as evidenced by the chart below.

Gasol’s passing has proven to be more valuable than what Valanciunas brought to the table but over the larger sample of the season, the Raptors have still scored much more efficiently with Ibaka on the floor. Part of the issue may be that Gasol hasn’t been shooting the ball particularly well in his short time in Toronto -- just 28.6 percent on 3-pointers and 38.0 percent on all jumpers of any distance.

It would stand to reason then, that Gasol would be most valuable as a facilitator with a bench unit and complementary shooters where he can have the ball more often instead of creating any gravity collapse as an off-ball threat when players like Lowry and Leonard are working. However, this has actually been the exact opposite of what’s played out -- Toronto has scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions in the 780 minutes Ibaka has played with Leonard and Lowry, and 117.6 points per 100 possessions in the 98 minutes Gasol has played with that duo.

The Raptors then find themselves in the weird situation of having both of their big men working best with the starting rotation. However, as the sample size grows the drop-off in effectiveness of bench units with Ibaka in the middle will probably be greater than Gasol and Toronto may be better off with Ibaka as the starter even if those groups score better with Gasol’s passing.

A lot of the team’s rotation in the playoffs will be dictated by specific matchups and the versatility and experience Gasol brings is unquestionably an upgrade over Valanciunas. But versatility means there are more variables to manage and more possibilities to explore. As important as playoff seeding will be for Toronto, the real mission of this last part of the season has to be exploring as many ways as possible to stagger and separate minutes for Gasol and Ibaka, looking for units that work in different ways and different contexts so that Nick Nurse knows what he’s getting when he starts pulling levers for postseason adjustments.

Nylon Calculus covers basketball analytics for The Step Back, the premium NBA vertical at