“I think Gasol’s helping the ball move, right?”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse asked this rhetorically in front of reporters after the team’s 127-125 home win over the Nets on Monday, as though he was processing his own perplexity, as though he hadn’t just coached Gasol’s second game with the team. “I think it’s just kind of catchy, a little bit.”
Only hours earlier, it was Gasol who was frozen in bewilderment. Standing at the end of the line of Kyle Lowry’s now notorious player-introduction routine, he watched as teammates left and right dropped low to the ground, miming abdominal exercises in a strange, disjointed harmony—all in anticipation of Lowry’s “K-Low” five. All Gasol got was a simple palm-to-palm dap; it was all he was ready for. Players told The Athletic’s Eric Koreen they aren’t sure exactly how the improvisational routine started, only that it did. Sometimes building culture takes time. Sometimes, all it takes is a big-ass catalyst.
The Lowry-era Raptors certainly seem capable of a certain mind meld, but even on their best nights over the past five seasons, they’ve rarely kept up with the new standards set by the Warriors and Spurs, two teams that champion ball movement as basketball’s platonic ideal. Since 2013-14, the Raptors have the third-fewest assists in the league, accounting for merely 54.6 percent of their field goals. Chalk it up to convention: For years, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were the two primary hubs of offense in traditional lineups akin to the nuclear family model of the 1950s. Last season’s bench mob was often so successful because it broke up the monotony, empowering Toronto’s bigs to get in on the playmaking schemes. This season, the shocking emergence of Pascal Siakam as a point forward has further changed the responsibilities and role distribution of the team. But the offense still doesn’t always look beautiful, which, again, is a reflection of the primary star. Kawhi Leonard, for as steadying a presence as he can be, doesn’t always demand much from his teammates; if plays aren’t developing, he can hunt for his own openings and create his own space. With Leonard on the court, the Raptors’ assist rate hovers just above that paltry 54.6 percent encapsulating the past six seasons.
So when Nurse laughs almost giddily during postgame about Gasol’s integration into the team dynamic, it’s less about the here and now, and more about what the team might look like 10 or 15 games from now. It’s been only two so far, but the Raptors are already seeing results. Gasol’s influence is almost ambient—his identity is slowly permeating the rest of the team. Over the past two games, the Raptors are assisting on 71.1 percent of their field goals; Kawhi matched his season high in assists against the Knicks in Gasol’s first game and then set a new one against the Nets. “And I just think that’s kind of him, what [Gasol] brings,” Nurse said. “He’s not out of rhythm with us like you’d think he would be. … He makes a quick-hit [pass] and that guy moves it on, and sometimes there’s three quick passes after his one quick pass.”
Gasol’s arrival has ushered in the kind of synaptic, read-and-react basketball that had long eluded the team. This season, the Spanish center has the ball in his hands for an average of 1.7 seconds per touch; only centers Chris Boucher (1.47 seconds, though he has played only 16 games) and center Serge Ibaka (1.63 seconds) make quicker decisions with the ball for the Raptors. But there is only one expectation for either Boucher or Ibaka: finish a play. Gasol, on the other hand, is initiating them. Maybe the best pass Gasol made on Monday was on an almost instantaneous read off a hard misdirection cut from Patrick McCaw on the left side of Gasol that freed Siakam for an easy cutting layup on the right:
”He probably brings to this team something which they never had,” Toronto assistant coach and Spanish national team head coach Sergio Scariolo told CBS Sports’ James Herbert. “A type of player who never was in this team. He basically is a great passer, somebody who sees the next play a split-second before most of the opponents. And most of the teammates as well. Most of the coaches, sometimes.”
Two games in, and it’s clear Gasol is the best passing big man in franchise history, and one would have to go back nearly two decades to find no. 2—a grizzled, 35-year-old Charles Oakley. In Gasol, the Raptors have a proto-Jokic, a player who can seamlessly transition from banging down low and dropping sweeping hooks over young centers who have no recollection of the ’90s to inverting the court by serving as a facilitator out on the perimeter. Gasol has never been particularly fleet of foot, but his quickfire instincts make him dangerous as a second-level playmaker out of the pick-and-roll.
Eras and attitudes have shifted in the intervening years since the start of Grit and Grind basketball in Memphis a decade ago, but Gasol’s hard-won workmanship has always been a simple pleasure. The easiest way for a center to make an early impact in a game is by setting hard screens, and in the play below, Gasol essentially plays bumper cars with the Nets, trying to make contact with four different players on the court. He literally makes his presence felt, but, ironically, in tagging so many defenders on the same possession, he makes himself invisible by scrambling the Nets’ internal tracking units:
Playing with Gasol adds a different kind of pressure on the rest of the team. Gasol’s teammates learn quickly that the best way to take advantage of his abilities is to cut incisively, whether he has the ball in his hands or not—because you never know when he will get the ball in his hands, but you do know that it won’t stay there for long. That connection requires a different kind of muscle memory than what had developed playing with Jonas Valanciunas, who, at 26, was only just starting to develop the court awareness to make plays out of the post. Given how quickly Gasol has acclimated to the talented Raptors roster, however, the onus turns on Nurse to properly implement him—and figure out what exactly that entails. Nurse, who wears his dad-rock, mad-scientist vibe proudly, is already well into the experiment. In two games, Gasol has been a part of 25 different lineup combinations.
There will be frustrating moments in the interim. Learning how to play with a pass-first center is a unique adjustment, especially more than halfway through a season, and especially when there is no precedent in team history. Gasol isn’t blameless in that regard, either; in wanting to make his teammates comfortable, he’ll occasionally place them in unsavory locations:
But that’s the cost of figuring it all out. There will be questions down the line: Can he hold up in different pick-and-roll coverages? Can he stay on the floor against the elite, matchup-hunting teams in both the East and West? How much will his age become a factor in a potentially extended postseason run? But the Raptors are still in the honeymoon phase, and Gasol, for his part, laid out all the reasons it could work in a self-assessment for the SportsNet broadcast prior to Monday’s game. “Luckily I have a lot of tools in my toolbox,” he said. “And depending on what the challenge in front of me presents, I can read the defense and be a playmaker, I can play in the post, I can shoot also from the outside. Defensively, you always have to communicate and be in the right spot and give trust to the guy in front of you. … And especially how guard-oriented the league is, you need to be real physical on the ball, and you have to give that trust and that communication about where you’re going to be for that next guy. Unselfish on both ends of the floor. And a competitor. I like to compete. I like to win. That’s what it comes down to.”
Trust comes up a lot with him. In recent years, with the Grizzlies slipping by the wayside of the NBA, with Gasol himself having to adjust his game and extend his range just to stay relevant, the Spaniard has developed a mantra: put trust in your teammates. The Raptors are 42-16, only a game behind the Bucks for the top record in the East; the Grizzlies have won 45 games total over the past year and a half. It’ll be a whole lot easier for Gasol to stick to the script now.