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NBA Sunday: The Ascension of Marc Gasol

No longer ‘Pau’s little brother,’ it’s time to call Marc Gasol something else: the best center in the NBA.

Moke Hamilton

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Way back in 2001—before his move to Germantown, Tennessee and long before his older brother became an NBA Champion—Marc Gasol was merely a figment of his own imagination.

Long before he became the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and long before he became renowned as one of the top centers in the NBA, he was simply known as “Pau’s little brother,” before being affectionately referred to as “The Big Burrito.”

But today, you call him something else—the best center in the NBA.

It has been a long 13 years.

In 2001, as Marc heard his older brother’s name called during the NBA Draft and saw him immediately traded by the Atlanta Hawks to the Vancouver Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, it was only in Marc’s wildest dreams that he could imagine himself one day playing a primary role in his older brother being traded for a second time in his career, but on February 1, 2008, that’s exactly what happened.

But even before then—before his professional career began with FC Barcelona—Marc was quietly persevering in a new country, new environment and, frankly, a new world.

Back in 2001, after relocating from Barcelona to Tennessee with his parents, Marc enrolled at Lausanne Collegiate High School in Memphis and immediately earned the reputation for being a reserved, lucid student of the game. Sporadically working out with his older brother, Marc enjoyed standout years in high school before beginning stints with the Spanish National Basketball team and in Spain’s Liga ACB.

He refined his game, entwining the skill set required of an American big man with those necessary of a go-to pivot-man in a more Eurocentric playing style. The duality of his playing experiences, both in the United States and in international play for Spain, paid major dividends.

Before long, Marc found himself on the radar of a few international scouts in the NBA before the Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the 48th pick of 2007 NBA Draft.

Seven years later, no longer is Mark referred to merely as “Pau’s little brother.”

He slowly began to outgrow that shadow. Today, he towers above it.

——

On the continuum from glossy-eyed neophyte to perennial All-Star, the 29-year-old has both paid his due and put in the work. And as his Memphis Grizzlies close out the first 12 games of the NBA season with the Western Conference’s best record, it is Gasol who has emerged as the primary catalyst for his team’s success.

With amazing stature, the younger Gasol is the little brother only by virtue of his birthright, not his size. Standing at 7’1 and weighing in at 265 pounds, Marc is the antithesis of today’s svelte NBA center, but he is light on his feet, nimble and has amazing footwork for a man of his size.

His international experience is evidenced in his game. He possesses the underrated and under-discussed skill of being able to effectively read pick-and-roll coverages and simultaneously possesses the ability to both roll to the basket and catch and finish with either hand as well as step out and comfortably hit a jumper as far as 18 feet away.

His growing up observing the American style of play that was mostly seen around the league in the early 2000s is apparent, as Gasol has footwork and a back-to-the-basket game that is reminiscent of some of his predecessors that served as their team’s primary playmakers from the pivot.

In flashes, you can see remnants of Rik Smits, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and even Shaquille O’Neal.

Today, as the NBA relishes in the “Golden Age of the Point Guard,” the traditional big man has become an endangered species.

That makes Gasol all the more valuable, particularly when he is set to become a free agent in July 2015.

This season, as he plays out the final year of the four-year, $57 million extension he signed to remain with the Grizzlies in December 2011, he has emerged as not only the top center prospect of the free agent class of 2015, but arguably the top free agent overall.

By virtue of his $15.8 million salary this season, Gasol will be eligible for a maximum salary of $16.6 million in the first year of his next contract. A maximum offer from the Grizzlies would be somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $95 million.

Before the beginning of the 2014-15 season, whether or not Gasol would be worth that type of investment could have led to a very reasonable debate, especially as the center inches toward his 30th birthday in January. However, a confluence of events—the NBA’s new television deal, the Grizzlies thriving as the West’s top team and Gasol’s increased productivity—almost make the debate a futile one.

In short, any NBA team that is truly serious about competing for an NBA Championship could not and should not allow a talent like Gasol to end up elsewhere if it can at all be avoided. That is especially true considering the financial flexibility the Grizzlies have maintained by strategically inking Zach Randolph to a cap-friendly, two-year, $20 million extension that is set to kick in next season.

With just $41 million in guaranteed salaries on their books next season, the Grizzlies have the funds available to re-sign Gasol without necessarily hitting the luxury tax. With his improved productivity this season and their entering play after four weeks of regular season action as the top team out in the Western Conference, the reasoning for re-signing him should be readily apparent, as well.

And that comes much to the chagrin of Phil Jackson and his New York Knicks.

——

After being named the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks back in March 2014, Jackson immediately let it be known that he was a proponent of “system basketball” and that he would do his best to implement the triangle offense in New York City. That offense, obviously, helped him win 11 NBA Championships as a head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles.

One thing Jackson knows better than anyone else, though, is that a successful triangle requires at least two dynamic sides. After re-signing Carmelo Anthony this past summer to a five-year contract worth about $124 million, Jackson has one.

Now, phase two of Jackson’s grandiose plan will continue in July 2015. Armed with cap space, it is a poorly kept secret that Marc Gasol is Jackson’s Plan A.

The subject was discussed when Pau and his Chicago Bulls visited New York City to do battle with the Knicks during the first week of the 2014-15 season, with Pau agreeing that it was “possible” that his younger brother could end up as a member of the Knicks. Pau also divulged that the two have spoken about Jackson in the past.

As the NBA’s Lord of the Rings, Jackson knows a thing or two about what it takes to win at the highest level in the league and as the master of the triangle offense, he knows that running it at a championship level requires a pivot-man with special virtues.

Jackson requires another front court player than can effectively play with his back to the basket, keep opposing defenses honest and pass from the post and make plays for his teammates.

In a word, that player is Gasol, so it doesn’t necessarily take a rocket scientist to figure out that Jackson and his front office will be among the first teams on Marc’s doorstep come July 1. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they will offer Gasol a maximum-allowable four-year, $71 million non-Bird contract.

Across the league, there will be scores of other teams lining up to throw offers and scenarios at Pau’s younger brother. As arguably the most skilled big man in the NBA today, he has emerged as the apple of many front office’s eyes, particularly in a world where most NBA teams employ one-dimensional starting centers who lack “traditional” big man skills.

Still, the summer is quite a ways off. For Gasol and his Grizzlies, the focus remains on the present.

——

One thing that has proven to be true, quite consistently for that matter, is that tomorrow is promised to no one.

Back in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, when Derrick Rose gave the Boston Celtics all they could handle in a seven-game first round playoff series, we all imagined how bright the future would be for the Rose-led Chicago Bulls.

Five years and a myriad of injuries later, we continue to qualify the designations of the Bulls being the team to beat with “if they are healthy.”

Back in 2012, when LeBron James ascended to the throne of the NBA, James Harden’s miserable performance in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s five-game NBA Finals defeat was shrugged off by many as growing pains. We were certain that the Thunder would be a fixture in the NBA Finals.

Four months later, with Harden dealt to the Rockets, everything changed.

And now, as Thanksgiving nears and the 2014-15 season is well underway, it is at this point that we can begin to surmise the true identity of some of the NBA’s tougher teams. It is at this point that we can begin to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

As we peruse the landscape, we see that the Eastern Conference is being led by the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls are still in search of the health necessary of a champion and the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers are experiencing some appreciable growing pains. Out West, we know that the Thunder face a very real challenge in recovering from the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and that the recently revealed knee ailment that is plaguing Dwight Howard could open things up to a batch of contenders not previously thought to have the talent necessary to contend for the NBA Championship.

The Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and even Dallas Mavericks certainly expect to have a puncher’s chance at competing for the Western Conference’s crown.

Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows no more, with a bruising front line, pesky perimeter defense and an improved bench platoon being led by a few veterans, the Grizzlies have completed the first lap of the NBA season with a firm grasp on the attention of the entire league.

And it is behind Marc Gasol, no longer known as “Pau’s little brother,” that the dream of the Grizzlies playing into June and triumphantly emerging as NBA Champions is legitimate.

Indeed, way back in 2001, with his older brother serving as a shining example, his international experience and dedicated work ethic has helped Marc Gasol become more than he himself probably imagined.

With his Memphis Grizzlies and their improbable rise among the West’s giants, he is something new all together.

Today, lurking in the shadows no more, he is his own man. Truthfully, he is now the superior Gasol.

Today, finally, we can safely say that he has fulfilled his promise.

Today, finally, we can say that he has emerged as the best center in the game.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform, he clearly has his eyes open. On Silver’s watch, the league also eliminated the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, and it’s become clear that he simply gets it. Silver isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in order to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

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