Even hard-core fans didn't know much about Marc Gasol when his name popped up as part of what looked like a laughably lopsided trade in which the Lakers acquired his superstar older brother. Marc Gasol was just the pudgy teenage tagalong who went back to Spain for professional ball, and fell off the map.
Now he's a star -- the best player on a perennial playoff team, with a defensive player of the year award and first-team All-NBA honor on his résumé. Fans have grown to love Gasol for the stylistic flourishes he brings to the drudgery of playing center in the NBA.
Hours before tipping off against his brother Pau in Chicago, Marc Gasol sat down for a chat about his career, the weird state of the Grizzlies and some of the beautiful quirks of his game.
So, after July 1, you just kind of disappeared. All these signings were announced fast and furious, and there was not a word about you. People from other teams started wondering if something was up.
Were you just chilling in Spain, drinking wine?
Yeah. I didn't think it was a big deal. Once I told Robert [Pera, the Grizzlies' owner] I was on board, I didn't see the point of making an announcement. Once I commit to something, I commit to it.
Did you know during last season you were coming back?
No, no. Just because I didn't put that much time into it. You have to look at things from afar and get perspective on things. That's when you know. So that's what we did. We flew back, we went away from basketball for a little bit, and it just kind of happened.
How did you find out Zach Randolph would be coming off the bench?
Just like he did. When we got to Miami, we went to practice and coach [Dave Joerger] just told us, "Zach and Tony [Allen] are coming off the bench." The starting lineup is going to be [Courtney] Lee and Matt [Barnes] now, and we move on.
What was your reaction? It must be weird, given how long you and Zach have played side by side.
After six-and-a-half seasons playing down there, it's obviously a big change. The whole league is going through the same direction. It's going to take some time to adjust. We know we are still going to play together.
Yeah, I saw you played 15 minutes together the other night.
We are still going to play a lot minutes together, but the start of the games, it's just not gonna be like that anymore.
Do you feel the extra space out there? Do you like the change?
It's not so much for me. I'm used to playing with him. I can adapt. I can play high or low, depending on the situation. I think it's about giving more space for the guards to cut and penetrate. It's gonna open up the floor.
You guys are 14-12 [now 14-13], but you've been blown out a bunch of times, and people are acting like the sky is falling. What's wrong? Is it something more than just not having enough shooting?
The things we demand from ourselves, we have not been consistently achieving them. That is frustrating for us. We see that we are missing that click, that, you know, everyone calls it grit and grind. I'm not sure it's grit and grind. It's commitment and discipline every day to do the things you're supposed to do and the things you're told you've got to do. The things the coaching staff demands from you and the team needs from you. We need that every night, every shootaround.
How is your defense right now compared to your peak?
I don't know. I don't know.
Because I know what peak Marc Gasol defense looks like, and I'm not sure I've seen it yet. Is that unfair?
It depends. What I do -- I read what's in front of me. If I cannot read what's in front me or what's going to happen -- I'm not the most athletic guy in the league. It's gonna take me an extra half-second to get there. And there are a lot wider lanes nowadays, with shooters all around. With that extra half-second, I'm going to give up more. The margin for error is smaller.
Hopefully we can be more consistent from the ball down, and I can be more consistent behind them. And I can communicate better, and give more trust to the guys guarding the ball.
You mentioned little issues and small things you guys aren't doing. What's an example?
Small things. If we're going to "blue" on the side against the pick-and-roll, and you cannot "blue" and the guy gets over to the middle, you're supposed to go under the screen.
[Editor's note: "Blue" is code for forcing a ball handler on a side pick-and-roll toward the baseline/sideline area and away from the middle. Here's a snapshot of Mike Conley executing it on a Derrick Rose/Pau Gasol pick-and-roll by directing Rose away from the pick]:
If you go over, that makes me help, and everything opens up. We have to be more disciplined with everything. That's just one example.
If I need to show in every pick-and-roll, then I need to do it. I'll put me in an example. I don't want to kill the guys.
You once said something I liked: that passing is beautiful, but not necessarily fancy passing. That just making "the right pass" can be beautiful. What did you mean?
People think that a good passer is a flashy passer. But that's not a good pass. It's just a flashy pass. A good passer is someone who's gonna hit the guy right on the hands, and the timing is correct. You pass late, and it's not a good pass. You pass too early, it's not a good pass, either. If it's off-target, it's not a good pass.
To me, that's a good passer, not the guy who's going to throw one behind the back. That's great, but it might not be a good pass.
You are not opposed to throwing a no-look pass now and then.
Sometimes I overdo it. It can be the right play if I can freeze the defender, see what he does, and then pass.
When you pull something fancy off -- like a no-look pass or your baseline spin move -- you run back with kind of an understated, happy look on your face. You don't celebrate, but you can tell you enjoyed yourself.
Now and then. Now and then. I know when I make a good play and when I really get a defender.
It's almost like you are faking being in shock.
It's more that I finally got something I wanted to get. Or that a defender is taking something away, and I finally burned him. And then the next play you've got them thinking, "Uh oh, what's he gonna do?" That's a good feeling to have.
You love passing. Who is your favorite team to watch. You can't say the Warriors.
Oh, San Antonio.
That was the other one.
The thing that people don't count sometimes is how many passes per possession there are. I don't know if there is a stat for that.
That stat exists now!
It's a good stat. I know when we have 22 or 23 assists, we have a good game. It means we are sharing the ball, we're moving, we're screening, we're running up and down. That helps our offense.
I don't know if the Spurs lead the league in passes per possession, but I had someone dig this up for me: When Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills are all on the floor, they lead the league by a mile.
They make you turn your ahead a lot. It's hard to scout, when you pass the ball like that. Everything is read and react. And you cannot read somebody else's mind, or at least you cannot read five minds at the same time.
Sometimes you throw underhanded passes, almost like you're bowling. It looks funny. I'm not sure a lot of guys do that. How did you come up with it?
I guess it's just a reaction -- if the guy comes at you with his arms high, trying to get a deflection. As a tall guy, you always think the over-the-top pass is the easiest way out. But sometimes you can fake that, and throw it under their arms.
So you just, kind of, did it.
It comes naturally. It just seems like the right thing to do sometimes.
One of my favorite stories about you is that you refused to come to the U.S. for pre-draft workouts.
Oh, no. No, no, no.
It was, "Come to Spain, and watch me."
It wasn't just like that.
Yeah, you've said it was about the fact that to appreciate your game, you have to watch you play 5-on-5 -- real basketball. That maybe you wouldn't have done so well in one-on-one workouts.
Exactly. I almost wasn't drafted by doing that, but I think if I had come to work out, I wouldn't have been drafted. I fell asleep during the draft, actually. I woke up, and I was picked No. 48. I didn't even know what number I was picked.
It almost reminds me of the way Andre Iguodala talks about the game -- how he's always saying that he does all these little things that people don't appreciate, or don't show up in traditional stats. Like, the way you might bump a cutter or shift into a passing lane at just the right moment. Little things that sometimes go unnoticed.
You have to do them, anyway, even if no one notices. That's what the team needs you to do. If you don't bump the cutter, it's gonna open something up for someone else; that's what the plays are designed for. But if you bump him, you're disrupting the whole timing. We talk about timing, and passing, and all those things. Just by bumping a guy, you take away their whole possession.
Was it gratifying to see a player like Iguodala win the Finals MVP?
Well, he made a lot shots, man. And we took some of that. If you look at the film of Golden State, you're like, "OK, if you're gonna leave someone on their team open, who is it going to be?" You pick your poison. So we did with him, and he made them. He burned us. You prepare for those games, and all of a sudden, he comes out and makes all these shots. And now we're arguing a little bit, because we prepare so much, and he's making shots, so what do we do?
They're 25-1. You're scuffling. Do you look at them and think, "Man, it's hopeless." Or do you think if you get them in a best-of-seven series, you can give them a fight again?
We feel that way with everybody. But that's so far away, even though it's only four months or so until the playoffs. It just feels so far. We're not even halfway through the season. We just changed our lineup. There's not much practice time for that. The games are like practice right now, for getting used to playing with one another.
The dynamics of our team are shifting. We have to adjust. Everyone has to do their job. Everyone has to be committed to what we are doing for this to work. We are not one of those flashy, super-talented teams that are gonna outscore you 125-118. If we get to 105, we had a great game.
So your mind isn't on that kind of thing yet.
I'm still just mad they beat us by 50 at their place. Especially because in the first quarter, we were up. To lose in three quarters by 50, or even more than 50, that shows inconsistency. Every time we are taking hits, we are going down. That's just not good. We have to get better about that.
Last season, you started running fast breaks. Some big guys like to do that, but they do it kind of clumsily -- on the verge of disaster. But you run real fast breaks. Did you go to the coaches and tell them you were gonna start doing that?
I don't know if I make the coaches nervous or not, but sometimes, if I see a gap, and Mike is denied, and you see guys open -- I want to hit it ahead, or maybe even take a couple of dribbles and then give it up.
But you move fast. This isn't a lineman running for a touchdown.
I'm fast for me.
It's full speed!
I'm at my full speed, which is definitely not fast for an average NBA player. But I am at full speed for me.
What is the craziest thing you've ever seen Tony Allen do on the bench?
He tried to block a shot with a towel.
Holy cow, I forgot about that one. Who was that against, again?
Oh, yeah. We got a tech in the playoffs against Derek Fisher and the Thunder. He threw the towel up as he was shooting. That was probably the craziest thing.
Are you ever worried he's just going to walk onto the court during the game and maybe trip someone?
I know how he feels and what kind of emotional highs he has. He is so into the game. Sometimes he might just step onto the court without even knowing it. He's a unique and special character.
You have a set shot, basically. Did you always shoot that way?
It depends on where I am. If I'm inside the paint, I try to jump a little more. I have a little more momentum, so I try to gather it and then aim. If I'm more outside, I'll take my set shot. I don't jump much anyway.
You know, the way you hold the ball up near your head and just kind of flick into your shooting motion -- it almost looks like you're going to pass the ball. Did you ever fake a pass right over your guy's head, get your guy to turn around and kind of embarrass them? Did you see Boban Marjanovic do that to Jahlil Okafor?
No, he did it?
He got him good.
I've never done that. I have done the thing where I put the ball behind their back a couple of times, but I'm not as tall as Boban to just do that over someone's head.
You can shoot 3s. Do you want to shoot 3s?
I can. But it's not my job. If I were demanded to do that and I was asked, I'd work on it for a while and see how I feel. If it feels normal and the team has confidence in the shot -- that's the key for everything, It has to feel good for the team.
When people write about your career, do you ever wish they would stop using the stock fat Marc Gasol photo from when you were in high school?
No! I have worse ones, believe me. That one is not even that bad. I have worse ones, but I'm taking them with me to the grave. It's been a great ride. It shows how far I've come.