Brooklyn, NY — It was nearly a year ago when swarms of reporters descended upon Pau Gasol’s table at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown-Manhattan for media availability at All-Star Weekend. While some wanted to ask about his season for the Chicago Bulls, the primary purpose for the overflow crowd was to find out what his brother Marc was planning on with his impending free agency.
Fast forward and Marc Gasol is in the news again. No, not because he signed with the New York Knicks or anything like that, but because he’s out indefinitely with a fractured right foot, creating a layer of devastation for the Grizzlies and the possibility of a franchise-altering injury just as things are going reasonably well following an uneven start.
As significant of a story as Gasol’s free agency was throughout the NBA, his serious injury has major ramifications for the Grizzlies, especially if they have a lottery pick between sixth and 14th. They owe the Denver Nuggets a first-round pick, which only is protected if it falls from one to five and 15-30.
It’s the kind of numbing news that can hit like a surprise snowstorm or a buzzer-beating shot to lose a game. It takes some time to get over, but eventually the reality comes that the Grizzlies must play games without their anchor on defense.
“He is everything man,” Tony Allen said. “He is Memphis. There’s no way around that. What he brings to the table can’t no one man on this team do. He’s definitely a huge part of my success. I’m always in the pick-and-roll with him. He’s always handed me out the ball, getting me my points. So his value to the team is definitely a dent in our offense and we’re definitely going to miss him. We’re just praying for him to get a speedy recovery, a minor setback for a major comeback.”
Reality came in some form Wednesday when the Grizzlies visited Brooklyn and walked into the All-Star break with a 109-90 victory. It was a slow first half with 12 lead changes before Memphis took a five-point lead at the break.
It was halftime when the Grizzlies heard a message of disappointment from coach Dave Joerger. Sure Joerger was content with a lead, but it was how the pace was going.
While Joerger is unsure of how the offense will look without Gasol until he gets some practice time next week, it seemed he wanted an increase in the pace, the type fueled by defense and transition three-pointers and points.
“Without Marc on both ends, we knew we had to play different,” Mike Conley said. “We had to play a little bit quicker. Guys have to be confident in taking shots, maybe a little earlier in the shot clock. As long as the ball is moving, I thought we did well on the defensive end to where we got out on transition for some easy layups, easy buckets. If we play that way and continue to get better at it, we’ll have a chance.”
39 points later, the Grizzlies had provided a quicker pace fueled by defense. Seven three-pointers, including three in a span of 54 seconds by Jeff Green helped get a 26-point lead through three and ensured the first night without Gasol would be mostly stress free.
Still, it won’t always be like that way for Memphis since it won’t always be playing the Nets. Assuming Gasol is lost for the season, his absence will mean the Grizzlies will play 14 games against current playoff teams without him, including a season-ending gauntlet of four games against Dallas, the Clippers and Warriors.
Pushing the pace isn’t something commonly associated with the Grizzlies, who ranked 25th in points per game, 22nd in offensive rating and 27th in pace through Tuesday. It might be something they have to figure out to do more after losing a player, whose 34.4 minutes per game leads all centers in the NBA.
Since Gasol joined the team in 2008-09 after having his draft rights acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal for his brother, Memphis has finished in the bottom 10 in points in four previous seasons, ranked last in pace in twice and have ranged from 13th to 28th in offensive rating.
Even with talk about about on-the-fly changes in pace and offense, the Grizzlies are a strong possibility to be in the playoffs.
However, if the Grizzlies fall short and Gasol doesn’t play again this season, it could be the franchise-altering injury. Memphis won’t know how much it alters the franchise’s trajectory until Conley’s name is on a contract after July 1. Conley will be an unrestricted free agent when the league will be flush with cap space to possibly give him a max deal worth well over $20 million a year.
Conley said winning is the factor going into this, but he’s said recently all options are on the table. And if he’s unsure of how Gasol recovers from a devastating foot injury or if the Grizzlies are reluctant to give him the deal, what happened Tuesday could have long-ranging ramifications for a group that’s been among the more stable teams in the league.