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Are Marc Gasol, Grizzlies Facing the End of an Era?

For the first time in Marc Gasol’s career, the big man and the Memphis Grizzlies are entering the unknown. For the first time in Gasol’s career, the grit-and-grind will come off the court this summer as he weighs his future as an unrestricted free agent. And for the first time—for Gasol, the Grizzlies and the Memphis front office—this team will be forced to make some difficult decisions about how to shape its roster in a changing NBA landscape.

For a team and its star—who has a bond with Memphis that runs deeper than basketball ever could—this won’t be a normal walk down Beale Street. Gasol, the 48th overall pick (Los Angeles Lakers) of the 2007 NBA Draft, was a part of Memphis long before he was ever traded to the franchise. Because brother Pau Gasol spent the first six and a half seasons of his NBA career with the Grizzlies, Marc knew Memphis—and Memphis knew Marc—as a person before he was introduced to the city as a basketball player.

From Howard Beck’s excellent Bleacher Report feature on Big Spain:

“Marc won’t tell you, but he’s from Memphis,” said the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley, one of Gasol’s closest friends. “We say that all the time, man. He embodies everything this city is about—the toughness, the blue-collar work ethic, all those things that this city’s about, is how Marc carries himself. He’s a low-key kind of guy, not a guy that wants to be all up in the spotlight and things like that.”

“He’s a Memphian,” said Jon Van Hoozer, the former assistant coach at Lausanne Collegiate School, who grew close to Gasol in those early years. “He’s not going to take any s–t from anybody. … Now, he’s got the sweet passes and all the fancy trimmings, but he’s dirty, man. He’s rebounding, he’s playing great defense. He’s not going to fill up a stat sheet with points, which he certainly could. He’s a team guy. He just wants to win. And Memphians respect that.”

It’s visual. Gasol is a part of the Grizzlies’ brand, and the Grizzlies’ brand has been built on Gasol.

All across town, billboards, bus placards and digital signs promote the Grizzlies with punchy, two-word phrases that evoke the city’s grit: “Stronger Memphis” (Zach Randolph), “Tenacious Memphis” (Tony Allen), “Relentless Memphis” (Vince Carter), “Bolder Memphis” (Mike Conley).

Only one player is identified as “Authentic Memphis.” And it’s no accident that the billboard closest to the arena is the one featuring the former Lausanne star. Around here, they adore Randolph, revere Conley and deify Allen, the embodiment of the Grizzlies’ “grit-n-grind” motto. But Gasol stands apart—a pillar of strength, a personification of selflessness, a son of Memphis.

Gasol’s decision won’t be one that comes with an obvious answer. Even if Memphis finds a grit-and-grind method to unseat the favored Golden State Warriors and advance into the Western Conference Finals, it’s hard to see this team as an NBA title contender as currently constructed. We’re too loose with that term, and the Grizzlies don’t fit the description no matter how badly some want to make you believe. After five consecutive trips to the postseason without getting over the hump and reaching the final stage, tough decisions, both on personal (Gasol) and organizational (Memphis) levels, have to be made.

Can Gasol lead this team to a higher ceiling? Can the Grizzlies build a winner in today’s NBA with a bruising frontline that’s more reminiscent of “old-school” basketball than the new university? And the biggest one of all: What could Gasol’s free-agent market look like outside of Memphis?

That’s where things get a lot more interesting in determining Gasol’s next move. His market value isn’t in question now that he’s an established max contract center, so it shouldn’t be hard finding potential landing spots for his services.

The New York Knicks? They’re out before they were ever in. The Knicks are a rebuilding project with no clear path outside of knowing they’re moving forward with Carmelo Anthony. There are more holes on that roster than Gasol could have filled when he was 100 lbs. heavier than he is currently. The Los Angeles Lakers? See above for the Knicks and replace Carmelo’s name with Kobe Bryant, who’s entering his 20th (and final?) NBA season, while coming off his third straight season-ending injury. His most talented teammate is rookie Julius Randle, who played less than 20 minutes in his debut season before being lost to a broken leg. And how about those Philadelphia 76ers? OK, just checking to see if you were still paying attention.

There’s one team other than Memphis that poses an intriguing option, and that’s being liberal with the term when describing the San Antonio Spurs. This is a club that has to deal with Tim Duncan’s potential return, Kawhi Leonard’s restricted free agency and key role players such as Manu Ginobili and Danny Green not being under contract for the 2015-16 season. If the Spurs want to make it work, it’s going to take a lot of maneuvering to make it happen. That’s putting it lightly.

Gasol isn’t leaving Memphis for a rebuilding project. He’s not going to go to some team, be its star, roll out a new line of commercials and devolve into something he’s not. That’s not who he is.

And that’s what makes him so perfect as the center of the Memphis Grizzlies. The blueprint will change, but the vision should remain the same. The roster will change, but Gasol’s presence should be a constant.

And while a new era could be on the horizon for Memphis, the Grizzlies and their brand of basketball, one thing will remain the same: Gasol will be the stabilizing force behind the push to success.

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