The 32-year-old center already leads the Grizzlies in scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking. He’s tied for the team lead in assists per game, too, and continues to operate as the back-line captain of a Memphis defense that entered Sunday ranked just outside the NBA’s top 10 in points allowed per possession. Even so, a Grizzlies team light on top-end talent and getting by in the early going thanks in part to larger-than-life contributions from a reserve corps led by the resurgent Tyreke Evans figured to desperately need its lone remaining All-Star to carry even more of an offensive load in the absence of its longtime conductor.
It came as some surprise, then, that Gasol wound up watching the entire fourth quarter of Memphis’ Sunday loss to the Brooklyn Nets from a seat on the Grizzlies bench.
No, he hadn’t been any particularly great shakes during the first three quarters, needing 17 shots to score 18 points and committing four turnovers against just one assist. Kenny Atkinson’s Nets outscored the Grizzlies by 17 points in Gasol’s nine minutes of third-quarter work, taking control of the game with sharp ball and player movement to build a 19-point lead against a lacking Memphis defense. And yes, a reserve-heavy lineup featuring the likes of Ben McLemore, James Ennis and Deyonta Davis had chopped that 19-point lead down to just five points with eight minutes to go in regulation before the Nets put the hammer down.
Still, parking Gasol — and fellow starters Dillon Brooks and Mario Chalmers — on the pine for the full fourth quarter seemed like an awfully dicey move for Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale to make. After the game, Fizdale said simply that he’d decided to ride a hot lineup to see “if that group could keep the momentum going” and allow the Grizz to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat to snap a seven-game losing streak, according to Clay Bailey of The Associated Press.
“Sometimes when you take a risk, you may [upset] a player or two,” said Fizdale, whose team has now dropped eight in a row, Memphis’ longest losing streak in eight years, to fall to 7-12, in 12th place in the 15-team Western Conference. “That’s part of this position. I can own the decision and I have my reasons why. Winning is my only priority.”
Gasol, however, said a lot more than that:
Gasol after being benched in the 4th: "I'm as competitive as anybody. I hate not playing, that's what I value most. If I'm not on the floor, that means I'm not valued. I'm sure they knew that would hurt me the most..I'm sure they wouldn't do it to Mike."https://t.co/ONgfU4D374
— Yup. Yup. (@perkinsfor3) November 27, 2017
“I don’t like it one bit,” Gasol said. “I’m more [angry] than I can show, and frustrated. But for the benefit of the team, I’ve got to show good leadership and continue to do my job.”
Gasol spoke calmly for about 15 minutes in the locker room after the game. The Grizzlies’ media relations director attempted to end the interview twice. The 7-footer kept inviting questions. His remarks were measured and pointed.
“If I start venting, that would be counterproductive,” Gasol said. “But at the end of the day, I’m as competitive as anybody. I hate not playing. That’s what I value most. If I’m not out there, I’m not valued. I’m sure they knew that would hurt me the most.” […]
“I mean, anyone wouldn’t like it, right? You don’t put Mike [Conley] back in? I’m sure they wouldn’t do it to Mike. I don’t know. It’s just the way it is. You have to deal with it.”
Gasol on how he felt once he realized he was not going back into the game: “Obviously, you get frustrated. And I did get frustrated and mad and start wondering. At the same time, I see my teammates, and my friends, the guys that I work with out there, trying to get a win. I’d rather try and focus on the positive of that.”
Gasol on where he’ll go from here: “You adapt. You obviously try to prove them wrong, first of all, that I should be playing in the fourth quarter. I thought that I proved that a couple times. And keep doing it. If you think I’m just going to lay down, I’m not just going to accept not playing in the fourth quarter and just, you know, be happy with it. That’s not my character since I’ve been here.”
As Gasol reckons with Fizdale’s decision and tries to balance the need to support his teammates with the belief that he doesn’t deserve to be getting message-sending benchings, it’s all but impossible not to look at the future here.
In the short term, the Grizzlies are staring down a home-and-home with the San Antonio Spurs, a visit to LeBron James’ resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers on the second end of a back-to-back, and games against the high-scoring Minnesota Timberwolves, the perhaps halfway decent New York Knicks, the better-than-that Toronto Raptors and the talented if tortured Oklahoma City Thunder by the end of December’s second week. They’ll likely face all of that without Conley, about whom Fizdale said Sunday, “He won’t be back anytime soon.”
If Gasol’s not working defenders in the post and orchestrating from the elbows, and Evans isn’t beating a steady one-man march to the rim, the Grizzlies have precious few other options for generating offense. If Gasol can’t get a mismatched collection of reclamation project veterans (Evans, post-Achilles surgery Chalmers, former lottery pick Ben McLemore) and crapshoot youngsters (second-rounders Brooks, Deyonta Davis and Andrew Harrison, offense-first 2015 draftee Jarell Martin) to more consistently defend on a string, then the Grizzlies could find themselves falling way out of the playoff chase by Christmas.
And then, there’s the longer term.
Gasol has this season, one more guaranteed year and a 2019-20 player option remaining on the five-year maximum-salaried contract he signed to stay in Memphis back in the summer of 2015. He is a 32-year-old center with a surgically repaired right foot who makes much more sense on a team with designs on persistent postseason contention than one set to sink to the bottom of the league.
If Conley’s return isn’t coming anytime soon, and Parsons (despite looking much better in the early going this season than he did at any point last year, before exiting early with a hamstring injury on Sunday) still isn’t looking like the high-priced hired gun Memphis imported him to be two summers ago, then south is probably the direction the Grizzlies are heading. So do owner Robert Pera and general manager Chris Wallace decide now’s the time to bite the bullet, take their medicine, jettison a third beloved franchise icon in a year and see what they can get for Gasol on the trade market?
On that score, I’m with SB Nation’s Tom Ziller. I am firmly against trading your franchise-defining superstars in a spiritual sense, especially when you’re not in the kind of market where you feel confident you’d keep fan interest through a lengthy bottoming-out following a sustained period of success. I don’t think you trade Gasol until you get a godfather offer and unless you know Conley’s essentially going to be a ghost of himself for the remainder of the season, because we have seven years of evidence to suggest that when the Grizzlies have a healthy Mike Conley and a healthy Marc Gasol, they’re pretty good — maybe not championship-ready, but playoff-worthy, and watchable, and vital in a city that does not yet seem to be done loving these guys they’ve watched grow up in Grizzlies uniforms.
Assuming Pera and Wallace feel similarly, then it’s incumbent on Fizdale and Gasol to get on the same page. If the coach is trying to send a message to his star player — and make no mistake, Marc Gasol is a star — that goes beyond “You didn’t have it tonight,” then he needs to make sure the star gets it, and that the star gets it in a way that makes him want to spread that gospel to the rest of the locker room.
There’s a lot going wrong in Memphis right now, and it’s going to take all hands on deck to get it going right again. Fizdale ensured Sunday that he’s got Gasol’s attention. Now, he’s got to get back his trust, his buy-in and his faith. Because if he doesn’t — if the star gets disgruntled and disillusioned, and nobody else in the locker room seems to know what to expect — then a bad situation can get much worse in a hurry.
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