Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Pau Gasol will suit up for his fourth team when the season starts, taking the spot of one of the greatest players to ever step on a court, Tim Duncan. And in many ways, he’s a perfect replacement. Like Duncan, he’s a cerebral, stable star whose leadership style is more supportive than the “in your face” style of some other Hall of Famers.
Gasol will be tasked with carrying on one of the greatest legacies in the history of modern sports: the San Antonio Spurs’ run of 17 consecutive 50-win seasons. Is he up to the task?
Gasol won’t build on last year’s number, if he does at all. Behind Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s likely only the third scoring option. However, as third options go, you can do a lot worse than the Spaniard, who is on the cusp of becoming just the 18th player in NBA history to amass 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He needs just 791 more points to join that club. Everyone who is in it is also in the Hall of Fame.
Gasol still has things he can do, and things he can’t do. A coach like Gregg Popovich will know how to get the most out of the former while limiting the latter.
There is risk of decline as the big man ages. And in the Spurs’ way of thinking, as you get older, minutes become scarcer. And by older, I mean once you turn 20. Without as much playing time, or as many touches when he’s on the court, there is also a decent chance Gasol sees a steep drop-off in production this year. But probably not too steep.
Gasol is very dangerous in the pick-and-roll because he can light you up either rolling to the rim or staying outside by the free throw stripe and popping. He even added a little bit of a three-point shot to his game last season.
According to the Synergy data provided at NBA.com, he was seventh in the NBA in total points as a roll man with 271. On spot-ups he was 41st with 260. And off screens, he was 18th with 214. That made him just one of four players to top 200 in each of the three categories:
When you factor in his passing, that makes him a pretty attractive player for Pop to use. The nice thing about that kind of versatility is that the Spurs can work Gasol into what they’re doing; they don’t have to redesign their offense around him. His high basketball IQ and skill level means he can do whatever they want him to.
Defensively, Gasol’s numbers are a lot better than his true value. His 3.07 Defensive Real Plus-Minus is borderline hyperbolic. If you look at his rim-protection numbers at Nylon Calculus, only three players saved more points per game than Gasol at the rim. And according to his defensive dashboard, opponents shot 4.2 percentage points below their season averages when he was the closest defender on the play and 11.3 points when they were within six feet of the rim.
So, one would infer from those numbers he’s a beast. And in a sense, it’s fair to say he is close to the rim. But you could cryogenically freeze the average point guard and put him in cement shoes, and Gasol still wouldn’t get out to him in time. When it comes to defending pick-and-pops or switching, saying that Gasol is too slow gives him the benefit of the doubt in that it implies there is actually visible movement. While that’s somewhat visible in the fact that opponents shot three percent better from 15 feet out, it doesn’t show when he’s too slow to even be the closest defender and have someone else blamed by the tracking data for the shot.
On the bright side for the Spurs, with elite wing defenders in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, that won’t be as much of a concern. Gasol doesn’t have the defensive anticipation that Duncan did to overcome his slow feet, but he will be a better rim protector. While the Spurs will see a decline in defense, it won’t be as severe as you might think beccause of the defensive skills Gasol does have and the very good mind of Popovich.