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What Didn’t Suck: The Raptors are forced to start Marc Gasol

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With Serge Ibaka suspended the next three games after his fracas in Cleveland, the Raptors have no choice but to start their former All-Star centre Marc Gasol. Is that really a bad thing?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors are good as hell. Even when they lose the odd game here or there, it will be important to not lose sight of that. This is the most talented team ever assembled in Toronto, and it won’t last forever. So rather than getting hung up on the things the Raptors do poorly, this column is designed to appreciate the silver linings even when the score line doesn’t favour the good guys. There are only so many games in a season — why not enjoy all 82?

This is What Didn’t Suck about the Raptors’ 126-101 loss to the Cavaliers on Monday.

*****

To be clear, despite the headline, Marc Gasol also sucked in the Raptors’ game against Cleveland on Monday night. He posted a mere two points, with seven rebounds and four assists, in 21 minutes of action. This, despite the fact that Gasol actually got the start. This, also despite the fact that the Cavaliers are one of the worst teams in the league. It was the second night of a back-to-back for the Raptors, but it was still tough to watch them lose — especially with Gasol in the starting lineup.

So, no, we’re not actually going to pick out what was good about Gasol’s performance on Monday night. Nor are we going to dig through the footage to find something else noteworthy about the game against Cleveland. It was all bad. Let’s just dunk it in the trash and move on.

Now we can begin to talk about What Didn’t Suck (tm: Sean Woodley) for the Raptors come today: thanks to Serge Ibaka deciding to throw punches at Marquese Chriss, Toronto gets the chance to see Gasol start the next three games, full stop.

Since trading for the big Spaniard in what has turned out to be an eventful season for the Raptors, Gasol has found himself in and out of the starting lineup. He’s appeared in a total of 12 games for Toronto, opening five of them. During that stretch, the Raptors have gone 8-4, losing two of Gasol’s starts while maintaining their spot in second place in the East. (It’s worth mentioning though, that they have not gained any ground on the Bucks in first.)

In that time, Gasol has averaged 22.8 minutes per game, and put up just 8.9 points per contest, along with 6.2 rebounds and (critically) 3.6 assists. He’s shooting 45 percent from the field and 29 percent from three on just 1.2 attempts per game. When you compare this to his career numbers, or even just his stats from earlier this year, it doesn’t look so great. Before the trade as the fulcrum in Memphis, Gasol was putting up 15.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists, while shooting 44 percent from the field and (critically) 34 percent from three on 4.2 attempts. It’s also worth noting that he was averaging 33.7 minutes per game with the Grizz, who needed every second of him on the court.

Some of this statistical shrinkage here is attributable to the fact that Gasol has indeed been yanked around in the Raptors’ lineup, playing with different teammates on any given night. And of course having his minutes cut by almost a dozen doesn’t help matters either. The even more astute, however, will note that Gasol has been in decline all year, his overall numbers and shooting stats gradually decreasing as the season has worn on. It’s fair to ask: is Gasol, at 34, just a bit too past his prime? Or is his decline coming because of the way the Raptors are using him?

Toronto’s thinking behind the Gasol trade remains sound. While Jonas Valanciunas is the younger player, his skill-set for the Raptors was always going to be limited. JV may be “20 and 10 sleepwalking” in Memphis, but playing behind Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry meant he’d always have to find other ways to contribute. The Raptors turned him into an explosive off-the-bench scorer this season, but it’s clear they thought that wouldn’t work when it came time to face off against some of the do-it-all threats in the playoffs. The Raptors’ offense had to be even more high-powered and unpredictable to succeed at that level. It needed more play-making, and more overall basketball IQ. In short, the Raptors needed more guys like Kyle Lowry, a player with a dynamite skill-set who also elevates the play of the rest of the team. To that end, enter Gasol.

The case against Gasol starting is two-fold. The first contains a lot of statistical noise due to the relatively small sample we have with him in the Raptors’ starting lineup. Right now Gasol’s net rating when on the court for Toronto is a paltry 0.5. And off it? The Raptors are 5.3 points better. On the surface of that assessment, it makes it difficult to suggest that the solution is more minutes for Gasol. On top of that, there’s some thinking that suggests Gasol may be better facilitating the bench groups as the primary play-maker at the top of the key. We’ve seen contests where, for example, Norman Powell has gone off for a few buckets simply because Gasol set him up with solid screens and passes. Then again, this may not matter as much in the playoffs, when it seems likely the Raptors won’t gamble with bench-heavy lineups featuring all of Jeremy Lin, Powell, Patrick McCaw, and OG Anunoby. There could be a place for some of those guys in the post-season, but Gasol won’t be stranded with them all trying to generate points. I realize I’ve only addressed half of the two-fold issue here, which is what makes these next three games so interesting.

Meanwhile, what about Serge Ibaka? In the few games where he’s come off the bench, he’s been bad. I won’t even dig into the numbers here, it’s just bad news all around. The bottom line is that Ibaka can’t float it with the bench players either — he needs Lowry to direct him around the court, and Kawhi and Pascal Siakam on hand to carry the bulk of the scoring load. So putting Ibaka on the bench doesn’t necessarily solve the Raptors’ bench situation, because Gasol may be able to get more out of that group than he can.

The important thing to note here again is that with Ibaka on the bench Lowry can theoretically recreate both the “Lowry plus Bench” lineup and the Serge-Lowry combo. With Gasol in the starting lineup, he can maximize the pick-and-roll potency he has with Kawhi (and Lowry, when timing allows). For the most part, it has made sense to keep Ibaka in the starting lineup and ease Gasol in slowly. But at a certain point it just makes sense to play all the best players together and see what happens. And, thanks to Ibaka’s temper, he’ll miss three games and we can see what’s what.

The game to circle here is Sunday’s showdown with the Pistons. The Raps need the win, and they need to know how Gasol can grapple with Andre Drummond and some of the more annoying aspects of the Pistons sudden rise as of late. They don’t necessarily want to give away the entire playbook to Dwane Casey here, but Gasol gives them a look he never had while in charge of the Raptors. It’s just one of three games, and one of 82 in a long season, but it’ll be something to see.