The Kawhi Leonard trade gave the Raptors their championship ceiling. The Marc Gasol trade ensured the Raptors could reach it.
A tug-of-war had dominated the Raptors’ on-court product all season long in the lead up to the February 7th trade deadline. Kawhi Leonard would do his ISO thing for a possession or two, then Kyle Lowry would push the pace, looking to recapture the Culture Reset™ magic that powered the Raptors to 59 wins in 2017-18. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Toronto’s offense was still among the league’s most potent, and wins weren’t exactly hard to come by, but something felt a little off. Toronto was 40-16, but it didn’t feel like a healthy 40-16. Jonas Valanciunas’ long-term absence with an amputated thumb had sapped the Raptors of big man depth and Serge Ibaka of a the early season pep he’d shown. The Lowry-Danny Green-Leonard-Pascal Siakam-Ibaka starting five had started to slip into the negatives, and the team’s three-point shooting troubles threatened to become something beyond small sample weirdness. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster had to address the mix. A binding agent to tie all the promising-yet-disparate parts of the team together was desperately needed.
Enter Big Spain.
It hurt on a spiritual level to ship out former Bench Mobbers Delon Wright and C.J. Miles; it seemed borderline cruel to deal JV on the day he was slated to return from injury. But the Marc Gasol Effect was undeniable. From the very first day of the Gasol experiment, it was clear that his brand of play was exactly what the Raptors lacked. All of a sudden, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell were catching passes in the shooters pocket; in that first game against the Knicks they looked almost confused upon receiving them. “Our bigs don’t do this,” they probably said over a post-game beer. Gasol’s mastery from the elbows, and his actually threatening three-point stroke (sorry Jonas), injected space and a heightened intelligence into the offense.
On defense, Gasol’s order-barking was audible from the upper reaches of Scotiabank Arena. His IQ allowed the Raptors to ditch the concept of playing a base defense, instead freeing Gasol and the rest of Toronto’s defensive savants to adapt their coverages on the fly. Toronto’s identity was that it didn’t really have an identity, that it could hoop in the exact style the moment called for. Gasol unlocked the Raptors’ unlimited bend.
In 26 regular season games to close the year, Gasol averaged only 9.1 points, 6.6 boards and 3.9 assists with around a steal and a block a game. Underwhelming on the surface considering the scoring burden he once successfully carried in Memphis. But he was the Buckley’s to what ailed the Raptors pre-deadline. Valanciunas’ return to the lineup may have fixed some of Toronto’s nagging problems. It would not have turned the team’s statistical profile on its head the way Gasol’s arrival did.
While the regular season congealing process went smoothly, the postseason was where the reasons for the Gasol deal became deeply apparent. Contrary to the norms of the NBA in 2019, the Eastern Conference boasted a pair of centres that anchored their squads. Toronto played both of them, and Gasol took and consumed both of their lunches.
Nikola Vucevic averaged 21-12-4 on a strong 57.3 True Shooting percentage during his first All-Star worthy season. His mix of post-up brilliance and soft touch from mid and long range made him a tricky guard for most big men. Gasol swallowed him up like that poor helpless bottle of rosé on parade day. Vooch finished the first round averaging a piddly 11-8-3, with an even more piddly True Shooting mark of 43.6 percent, nearly all due to Gasol’s brick-shithousery in the post.
Round two saw Gasol confront the exact player the Raptors had in mind when they made the trade. Very few players in the league have solved Joel Embiid. At his best, Embiid plays like Shaq with a degree in modern dance. Historically, though, Gasol had made him look like a guy with two left feet. That carried over to the seven-game Raptors-Sixers blood war.
As the series progressed, Nick Nurse leaned more and more heavily on Gasol to match Embiid minute-for-minute. Outside of an explosive Game 3, Gasol put the clamps on him. Embiid posted just 14 points a night on an ugly 34.4 percent clip from the floor over the seven games.
That said, Embiid still owned the series, or at least had a share of the deed with Leonard. His defense on Pascal Siakam lopped off one of Toronto’s two scoring heads, and the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 90 points with Embiid on the floor over the course of the series. Toronto loses the series without Gasol out there to limit the damage. Game 7 of the second round saw Embiid play 45 minutes and 12 seconds. Gasol matched him second-for-second. Philly won those minutes by 10 — an accomplishment for the Raptors within the context of that series. Toronto cleaned up in the remaining 2:48, winning those minutes by 12, and taking the game 92-90 after some guy hit a cool shot. The stage is not set for the four-bouncer without Gasol’s exhaustive dirty work against Embiid. You can judge the trade a win for the Raptors based on that series alone.
Milwaukee was a weird opponent for Gasol. There was no hulking, posting giant for him to lineup across from on the Bucks. Brook Lopez used to be that, but spent his first season in Milwaukee almost entirely above the break waiting for Giannis Antetokounmpo to feed him looks from deep. Toronto’s starting centre spent the first two games lost, looking for a purpose, popping up to throw an errant off-backboard pass from time to time. He was more or less benched in the second half of Toronto’s Game 2 blowout loss. Gasol’s place in the series became so unclear that some folks called for Nick Nurse to swap him out for Ibaka in the starting five, citing Ibaka’s early-season punkings of the Bucks, and his proven ability to sorta kinda hang with Giannis. Nurse didn’t budge. And the Raptors are champions as a result.
Toronto goes down 3-0 in the East Finals if not for Gasol’s efforts in Game 3. He played 45 minutes, pouring in 16 points to pair with 12 boards and seven assists. He took the threes the Bucks’ all-out approach to guarding Leonard created; 4-of-8 was something close to the ideal Gasol line from deep in the postseason. The crowning achievement for Gasol, both in the 118-112 double OT win and his Raptors tenure as a whole, came over the course of the final 15 minutes of regulation. Kyle Lowry fouled out about a minute before Gasol picked up his fifth personal. For the rest of the night, he danced on the line of disqualification to perfection, holding up at the back line of a defense that was the difference in the game. One misstep, one ill-timed reach in, and he’s off the to bench, the season in the hands of Serge Ibaka, whose effectiveness to that point of the post-season was whack-a-mole-ish at best. Game 3 stands as Gasol’s best game as a Raptor; the 17-5-7 masterpiece he posted in Game 4 stands as a close second, and he was damn good in the Finals-opening win the Raptors pulled off at home, too.
Gasol put a bow on the Raptors’ healthy complement of talent. He was the connective tissue that brought Leonard and Lowry together during the stretch run. He deserved every second of the glory he soaked up on that seven hour bus ride he took through the streets of Toronto. There’s a good chance it doesn’t happen without him.
With the now old news that Gasol has opted in to the final year of his deal, Raptors fans are in line to watch a different version of Gasol. Kawhi is gone, and Gasol suddenly finds himself the clear third option in the Raptors’ projected starting lineup. Will he get buckets as smoothly or prolifically as he did in his Grit ‘n Grind heyday? Probably not. He’ll turn 35 in January, and probably doesn’t top out as All-Star material anymore.
He will, however, bring a charisma and charm that will fit splendidly into what the ethos of next year’s team projects to be. He’s got his ring, and the departure of Leonard and Danny Green leaves the Raptors without much chance of repeating. Pressure is not a thing that will exist in Toronto for at least a year. Gasol is set to nobly defend the Raptors’ title next to Lowry and Ibaka and the youths, free to get all sorts of creative with his deep repertoire of dope ass passes. Without its ISO-heavy superstar, the 2019-20 Raptors don’t seem at risk of the same two-tracks identity issues the championship team had; Gasol won’t need to merely be a coagulate that ties the Raptors together. Next season, he’ll get a chance to showcase to Raptors fans that he can still be something more. Once he wakes up from his parade hangover, that is.