This article is a facsimile of the original publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
We all thought it was Jimmy Butler's arrival in Philadelphia, but it turns out the most important acquisition at the 2019 trade deadline was Marc Gasol heading to the Toronto Raptors.
During this Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee, Gasol has averaged a seemingly "not-that-important" 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, five assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 39.1 percent from three. But he's also a center with 20 assists and six turnovers against the regular season's top defense in a series so deadlocked it may as well be played in Congress.
Offensively, Gasol plays third or even fourth fiddle behind Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry. His overall output has decreased since arriving north of the border as a result. He finished his 26 regular season games in Toronto with 9.1 points and 6.6 rebounds during only 24.9 minutes per game.
My colleague at The Basketball Writers Jeff Siegel argued two months ago that judgment on Gasol's effect in Toronto should be saved until the playoffs. Well, here we are.
Two games away from the NBA Finals, Gasol has established himself as the necessary chess piece for thwarting the Bucks' stylistic tendencies on defense. He's the stable veteran the rest of the budding roster can count on.
The series would not be 2-2 without him.
Understanding how Gasol became underrated first requires, well, properly rating him. The man was First-Team All-NBA four seasons ago, an All-Star two years ago and is a former Defensive Player of the Year. He helped guide the Memphis Grizzlies to the postseason for six consecutive years, including one Western Conference Finals berth.
During those six years, Gasol averaged 17.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 blocks.
He made a massive jump with David Fizdale taking over as the Grizzlies head coach in the 2016-17 season.
He attempted only three three-pointers, staying near the basket with his traditional game., as recent as 2015-16. That next season (under Fizdale), Gasol attempted 268 threes, making 38.8 percent of them and vaulting back into All-Star territory. The upstart Grizzlies, picked by many to fall out of the playoff race thanks to their aging core, grabbed the West's seven-seed.
The addition of that jump shot has not only made Gasol the perfect modern stretch-5 but also relatively ageless.
The burden is no longer on his plate to be the focal point of an attack. Instead, he gets to shoot threes, facilitate from the top of the key and protect the rim. It's a role that the Milwaukee Bucks have yet to figure out.
The Bucks have run a conservative drop pick-and-roll coverage all season, built around protecting the rim and encouraging tough mid-range twos. The scheme has so many great tenets for their personnel: Brook Lopez and other centers can stay close to the rim and avoid difficult closeouts or matchups on the perimeter. Antetokounmpo does the same, avoiding foul trouble and using his tentpole arms to swat shots near him.
By design, most teams get pull-up twos from the point of attack or kick to the perimeter, where the Bucks' length and high-IQ defenders can recover and take away easy catch-and-shoots.
Drop coverage is weak at one particular spot, however: The top of the key. A big man who screens and finds his way to the key is the single most difficult rotation for either his defender or the helpers around the perimeter.
It just so happens that Gasol has made a killing there, particularly in Games 3 and 4—both Raptors' wins:
Synergy Sports puts Gasol as 10-for-19 on pick-and-pop jumpers this postseason, with an adjusted field goal percentage (aFG%) of 68.4 percent. If the Bucks are giving that up by design, the Raptors need to get Gasol this shot more often.
They did during the two-game homestand; Gasol put up 16.5 points and was 7-14 from three.
Where does the help come from? Lopez must take away the rim, and the guys one pass away from Gasol don't want to leave their man and commit to him. The Bucks did that in Game 4, and Gasol quickly started a perimeter reversal that allowed Pascal Siakam to drive unimpeded from the corner and get a layup:
Gasol is far more than just a standard catch-and-shoot big, however.
He's an elite playmaker and high-IQ veteran passer that the Raptors can run offense through. They love to throw him the ball at the elbows and key, running screens around him while he picks defenses apart.
He's adept at finding the mismatch and delivering a strike to one of his teammates:
Gasol has developed surprising chemistry with Raptors star Kawhi Leonard after just a couple months.
Leonard has been denied and guarded more tightly by the Bucks since he turned on his playoff superpowers, and Gasol has been the perfect pressure release. Those same actions where he catches at the top of the key and Raptors swirl around him change when Leonard is involved. The face-guarding leads to backdoor cuts for Kawhi, and Gasol is the perfect dimer to spring him open.
Watch for those fairly obvious head-tilts from Gasol that instruct The Claw to go backdoor. They're happening about once a game:
Don't resign Gasol's passing prowess to a stationary position, either. He's still rolling to the rim and keeping the Bucks on their toes as for when he'll pick-and-pop to the key.
When he does, he's adept at finding the hole in the defense for a pocket pass, then making the appropriate read to find an open teammate. We call these "short rolls", as Gasol doesn't head all the way to the rim, but to an open area where he can still probe the back-line of the defense.
He's an outstanding short roll decision-maker and has put his teammates in positions to take open shots:
The Raptors don't need to play through their center in order for his impact to be felt, even if the effect is not tangible. He's still fourth on the team in usage, so in no way does the Bucks' pick-and-roll defense necessitate for Gasol to be the primary onus of the Raptors' attack. Simply having him on the floor around Leonard, Lowry and Siakam has given a boost.
One prime example comes in how the Raptors like to mismatch post.
Leonard and Siakam are great passers and playmakers, deserving of isolation opportunities when a size mismatch bodes in their favor. Like any team would do, the Bucks don't just sit back and allow the Raptors to annihilate them one-on-one down low. They send helpers—mainly bigs that can aid with their size—and collapse on the post.
Gasol has relocated himself to the top of the key, his favorite spot along the three-point line, and simply waited for Lopez to collapse. When he does, the kickouts are clear catch-and-shoots for Gasol:
Lowry and Siakam are eyeing Gasol's man, Brook Lopez, the entire possession above. As soon as Lopez commits to the post, they zip it to Gasol and let him shoot. It's an easily effective strategy when guys like Lopez are too slow to cover both spots and recover once they make their move. From Milwaukee's perspective, they'd rather give up a shot from anywhere else than Kawhi in the post, so such a stunt makes sense at times.
Gasol's impact is certainly felt during the minutes he's not on the floor with the starters.
While Serge Ibaka is a solid three-point shooter, he's nowhere the threat Gasol is, nor an effective playmaker or facilitator. The Raptors' shooting and floor spacing sharply decline and those mismatch posts turn into double-teams, where Lopez will fully commit to Leonard and try to force the Raps to play elsewhere.
While they scored in the one instance of a post trap in Game 3, said trap may not have even occurred if Gasol was in:
The simplicity of the Bucks' approach and style is why the Raptors were my prediction to win at the start of the series, and why I stand by that now.
Budenholzer notoriously does not adjust throughout the course of a series. His team won the most games and had the top defense during the regular season, which is a pretty good justification for such a philosophy. But if Gasol continues to pick the Bucks apart and hit threes at the top of the key, some adjustment may be needed.
The Bucks did try in a minor fashion during Game 4, and the Raptors were prepared.
Lopez tried to hedge higher on one occasion in the fourth quarter when the Bucks were down 16. Gasol and Co. were ready, forcing a switch with a physical screen and removing Lopez from his comfort zone. He was forced to stay on Norman Powell, and the Bucks lost their roving rim protector on the possession:
It's not so much that Budenholzer isn't willing to adjust as it is that he probably cannot.
His frontcourt personnel isn't defensively diverse enough to thrive in multiple types of schemes. Lopez gets immediately targeted when they hard hedge. Trapping ball screens against a team with as many playmakers as the Raptors is a dangerous game.
Game 5 will provide some insight into exactly what Budenholzer is thinking to hide his center, or at the very least to stop the bleeding from Gasol's point of attack. Bud has to be careful not to devote too much attention away from Leonard; he only scored 18 points in the Game 4 blowout, but they cannot afford to let him go off in Milwaukee.
As for the "Sniping Spaniard", Gasol is clearly on the downswing of his career. His athleticism is waning and his ability to be the focal point of an offense is in the rearview mirror. But Gasol is still a vital piece to the Raptors approach and the exact weapon designed to thwart their Conference Finals adversary.
Without that midseason trade, we would not be heading back to Milwaukee with an even series—if at all.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).