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MikeCheck: Gasol embraces latest coach’s challenge – this time Bickerstaff’s charge to rekindle 2013 D.P.O.Y impact

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Coming off what easily was the most demoralizing season of his NBA career, Grizzlies’ center Marc Gasol entered training camp hardly short on motivation.

But coach J.B. Bickerstaff added another dose, just for good measure. He wants Gasol, 33, to essentially turn back the clock. During two trips to Spain over the summer to visit Gasol in his native country, Bickerstaff explained that for the Grizzlies to move forward from last season’s 22-60 finish and get back into playoff contention, Gasol must reclaim his status as one of the NBA’s top defensive anchors.

Apparently, it didn’t take much convincing.

“I’m excited and I’m working on it,” Gasol said as the Grizzlies prepared for Friday’s training camp session. “And I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

Now entering his 11th season, Gasol is still regarded as one of the most versatile and effective big men in the league on both ends of the court. But it’s been five years since the three-time All-Star was named 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the season Gasol helped lead the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals. That accolade came during the height of the franchise’s ‘Grit’N’Grind’ era, when Gasol quarterbacked the defense from the paint alongside bruising power forward Zach Randolph, All-NBA defender Tony Allen on the wing and Mike Conley as the pick-pocketing point guard catalyst.

Only Gasol and Conley remain from the core of those teams that made eight straight trips to the postseason. Injuries, a mid-season coaching change and an underperforming roster brought that playoff run to a halt last season. But Bickerstaff’s message to Gasol as both tried to decompress during the summer was that this season’s mission is to bring back those defensive glory days.

The supporting cast has changed, but Gasol is again tasked with being the physical and feisty focal point.

Stunning Stat

300/100/100

In what was largely a throwaway 2017-18 season, Marc Gasol still became only the third player in NBA history to register at least 300 assists, 100 threes and 100 blocks in a single regular season.

“We’ve had conversations about what this is going to look like,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s excited about where we’re headed, and my message to him was he needs to lead us on the defensive end of the floor. He’s proven to be a high level, elite defender and defensive player of the year type player. And that’s our expectation for him this year. We want him to be the anchor, putting everybody in the right place and doing a great job protecting that paint.”

Gasol’s 8.1 rebounds a game last season were his most since 2011-12, and his 1.4 blocks represented his highest average in four years. By also scoring 17.2 points a game, Gasol joined Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only players in the league last season to lead their teams in points, rebounds, assists and blocks. In addition, Gasol became the third player in NBA history – joining Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Draymond Green – with at least 300 assists, 100 three-pointers and 100 blocks.

For Gasol, those stats equated to an empty season. And at this stage of his career, with the option to become a free agent next summer, he doesn’t have many years left to waste. That’s why Gasol was already locked in and eager to hit the reset button when the Grizzlies overhauled the roster this summer.

Bickerstaff’s first visit to Spain was just days before the June draft, when the Grizzlies used the fourth overall lottery pick on 6-11 defensive stalwart Jaren Jackson Jr. and their second-round pick on point guard Jevon Carter, who was the Naismith NCAA Defensive Player of the Year.

Bickerstaff returned to Spain in July to attend the Gasol Foundation charity basketball game in Barcelona. The defensive retrofit continued in free agency that month when the Grizzlies added versatile forward Kyle Anderson from the Spurs and traded for veteran swingman Garrett Temple.

The pieces were coming together, and Gasol worked with Conley to arrange voluntary conditioning and workout sessions with several of their teammates in August. The Grizzlies entered camp this week with some familiarity. But there’s no way to fast track the trust and chemistry that were foundational components to the Grizzlies’ defensive dominance the season Gasol won the award.

Five years ago, the Grizzlies boasted the stingiest defense in the league by holding opponents to a league-low 89.3 points in the regular season. Individually, Gasol averaged 1.74 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Collectively, the Grizzlies ranked sixth in forced turnovers, third in defensive field goal percentage, second in three-point percentage allowed and first in rebounds allowed.

The greatest measure of Gasol’s impact then was seen in the team’s differential when he played and when he rested. The Grizzlies outscored opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor, and were outscored by 3.9 points when he was off the floor.

Rekindling that production requires forming specific habits in training camp. And all this week, an overwhelming majority of the focus has been on transition and halfcourt defensive concepts.

“It is a work in progress, and it’s not something you can do or build over a week or so,” Gasol said. “It’s something you continue to build on and fix and talk about and correct. As a group, the things you don’t do so well, you try to do a little bit better. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of work, a lot of dedication and a lot of discipline from everyone.”

Gasol holds himself and everyone around him to the highest standard. That level of intensity can sometimes cause friction, which led to some abrasive moments over stretches last season. Second-year swingman Dillon Brooks, the lone Memphis player to see action in all 82 games last season, also went to Spain in July to play in Gasol’s charity game and to build a better rapport between them.

“Whatever I did wrong last season, he was on my stuff about it,” Brooks said of Gasol. “Me going there, it opened up the respect even more. Marc is a fiery guy. It takes one hell of a player to withstand that and listen. But it’s about trying to listen, not to how loud he’s saying it, but to what he’s actually saying. Being there in Spain, having a friendship and communicating, that kind of opened us up. We can now joke about it (tougher times). I’m learning and he’s finding different ways to be a great leader.”

Gasol has grown into his leadership role.

That process has involved tweaking his game and adjusting to five different head coaches since his NBA All-Rookie team season in 2008-09. Five years later, Gasol beat out LeBron James and Serge Ibaka in the Defensive Player of the Year voting while playing for Lionel Hollins. Gasol then took on more of an offensive load and increased his scoring each of the next three seasons with Dave Joerger as coach.

David Fizdale took over two seasons ago and demanded Gasol to consistently shoot more threes. The cerebral 7-footer responded by knocking down 213 over the past two seasons after making a total of just 12 from beyond the arc through his first eight seasons combined. Each time the bar has been raised by his coach, Gasol has attacked and cleared the mark.

This time, the task is no different.

“It’s to play and be more aggressive, more physical, more vocal, a whole lot of stuff to lead the group defensively,” Gasol said of his approach to the season. “I never understood the defensive player of the year (award), because it takes a team to do that. And maybe somebody’s highlighted from that. It’s never been a one player thing, but somebody has to lead it. I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

New season, new mission.

Same motivated Marc.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Grind City Media are solely its own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. Its sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and it has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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