After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the San Antonio Spurs came out of the 2016 Free Agent period with a player who many considered a Top 15 free agent in the class, Pau Gasol.
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Excluding players who clearly weren’t going to leave (e.g. Lebron), he was probably Top 10.
If this was 2008, then the Spurs would instantly be strong contenders for the NBA title, perhaps even favorites despite Durant joining the Warriors (we forget how good Pau was at his peak). But how does the 2016 version of Gasol, at age 36, affect the Spurs chances of contending for a spot in the conference championship (because the finals are realistically out of reach)?
The data and the tape paint a mixed bag, particularly when you consider that Gasol will functionally be replacing Tim Duncan in the Spurs lineup, even if Pau claims that isn’t his goal.
Before I launch into this analysis, the one caveat I have is that the Spurs system tends to make players look better than they truly are on both offense and defense. Based on that, it’s likely that the data that I present below will overstate the drop-off on defense between Pau and Tim and understate the likely upgrade that Pau produces on the offensive side of the ball.
Authors Note: I will use advanced statistics in my posts wherever I feel like they’re necessary. For a primer on some of the most common advanced statistics and what they meet, check out FanSided sister site Nylon Calculus. If you aren’t a fan of advanced statistics, I definitely respect that. I myself tend to favor a combination of advanced statistics and the eye test (though I am certainly a novice at both), and even believe that conventional statistics are a tad underrated (they are a primary motivating factor for players who certainly don’t think in terms of analytics on the court). But I think advanced stats add a lot of important context to the game, and so I’ll be using them a lot. If you have any questions about a stat that I use in this post, feel free to ask about it in the comments and I’ll happily do my best to explain.
Pau On Offense
The 2015-16 version of Pau was still an excellent offensive player averaging 16.5 points and 4.1 assists per game while chipping in 2.2 offensive rebounds a night. His shooting percentages did dip a bit relative to his career averages, as Gasol shot a near-career low 46.9 percent from the field, 34.8 from 3-point, and 79.2 percent from the free throw line (no Hack-a-Pau is forthcoming).
Gasol did take more three pointers than he did in previous years (nearly one a game or triple his 2014-15 rate), and this kept his effective field goal percentage from dropping too far off the cliff at 48.1versus 50.0 percent the previous year.
Thanks to a newfound focus on ball movement in the offense of new Chicago Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg, Gasol saw his assist rate jump to a ridiculous 21.7 percent, the best mark for any high-minute big man in the league save Draymond Green at an otherworldly 29.0 percent.
Gasolmore or less took care of the ball, with a good (though not great) turnover rate of 12.8%. All of this added up to an excellent PER of 21.7 and an offensive rating of 107, which puts Pau firmly in the upper echelon of the NBA, though he isn’t an elite scorer anymore. As a point of comparison, peak Gasol (2007-09) put up an offensive rating of 127 and a PER of 23. The aggregate offensive stats say that Gasol is still very very good.
Conversely, neither the top line (8.6 ppg/2.7 apg/1.9 orpg, shooting splits of .488/.000/.702) nor the advanced (16.9 PER, 48.8% eFG, 15.3% assist rate, 15.3% turnover rate, 107 RTG) statistics loved Tim’s contributions on offense. Moreover, Duncan was less efficient than Pau despite having a usage rate 7 percentage points lower at17.6% versus 24.6% for Gasol*.
*Efficiency tends to decrease as usage rate increases (though the best players in the NBA are both high usage and very efficient).
As a scorer, Gasol is a multi-faceted threat in a way that Tim Duncan, as much we loved him, simply wasn’t in 2015-16. Probably the biggest difference is Gasols’ range. While Duncan had a couple of years (particularly 12-13) later in his career where he was reliable from 12-18 feet, the last couple of years Duncan almost appeared scared to take that shot.
This sapped his effectiveness in the high post (where he was the best as a passer) and often forced him down onto the low block, crowding out Aldridge whenever the Spurs played its Rev 2.0 Twin Towers lineup.
Conversely, the 10-20 foot area is his bread and butter as he was far better than league average from both 10-15 and 16-22 feet, shooting an identical 45.2 percent in both areas of the court.
That’s actually a tick better than noted long two aficionado (and new Spurs teammate) Lamarcus Aldridge, who shot 42.7 and 42.6 percent in those zones respectively.
Gasol doesn’t achieve these figures on a small number of open shots. A full 56.3 percent of his field goals attempted came from 10 feet or longer, and he’s got a deft shooters touch from distance.
Now a lot of his longer shots come from uncontested looks generated from a pick and roll, or in the case of the Bulls very occasionally good ball movement.
But he also has the ability to hit contested jumpers, though he’s perhaps not quite at the same level as Aldridge.
And he’s no slouch on the low block despite his age (cue fans of USA basketball shuddering at the memory of 2008 and 2012). He can still beat Tier II NBA bigs with guile and a quickness that belies his years.
Nor have his traditional, back-to-the basket low post skills eroded, especially when he’s matched up against one of the smaller bigs that have become pervasive in today’s NBA.
The caveat to all of this is that he does have a scorers mentality on the block, and will sometimes get drawn into taking a contested turnaround jumper. Here’s betting that Popovich gets Gasol to stop doing as much of that.
Passing and Ball Movement
As Spurs fans we’ve been spoiled by Tim Duncan and his remarkable passing ability for a big man over the last two decades. Something like 194.3%* of Spurs fast breaks during his career were prompted by one of Tim’s magnificent outlet passes after a rebound or steal, and it was no accident that the Spurs offense was usually triggered by Tim at the top of the key once the ball came down the court.
Gasol is better.
In his best season ever for this statistic (the MVP year of 02-03), Tim managed an assist rate of 19.5%. And that team was good on offense while the 15-16 Bulls were mediocre (15th in offensive efficiency). Pau last year was a more effective passer than peak Duncan (at least according to the stats. More to the point, Pau is a remarkably gifted passer with incredible vision and a flair for the dramatic matched on the current Spurs only by Manu Ginobili.
He also developed really good chemistry with Jimmy Butler on the alley-oop that we can only hope carries over when playing with Kawhi Leonard.
Now some passers are very good at throwing passes with panache (Russell Westbrook at certain points in his career comes to mind), but Pau also excels at the more fundamental tenets of passing.
Here he is throwing a backdoor that would make Duncan proud.
He also does a really good job of facilitating side-to-side ball movement, and can be used to initiate the offense from the top of the key in the same way that Duncan did. Popovich must be salivating at the thought of all the high-low plays he’s going to run with Gasol and Aldridge this year.
He also brings a credible skill set passing in the low post, both to other big men in the paint…
…and to shooters on the outside. Duncan too could pass well out of the post, but didn’t pose anywhere near the same threat to score on the low block. Pau should generate some open threes for our shooters (Danny Green, Patty Mills, Kawhi Leonard, and … [crickets]) this year.Overall Impact and Intangibles
The one area where Gasol probably isn’t an upgrade over Duncan is in terms of leadership and intangibles. Duncan was the heart and soul of the Spurs for the last 19 years, and it’s very, very hard for a new player to replicate that intangible impact in one year.
But by all accounts, Gasol has a high-IQ, he is an unselfish basketball player who will be a good cultural fit in San Antonio. This is very much Leonard’s team now, and Gasol I think will be a net positive in terms of chemistry.
On offense, he raises the Spurs’ ceiling from 3rd in the NBA to, well, probably 2nd or 3rd in the NBA depending on whether Cleveland cares enough to try in the regular season. But, the shooting that he provides should do wonders for a Spurs offense that struggled to get penetration from anyone not named Kawhi against elite defenses.
If the reports of Aldridge taking more 3-pointers this year have any merit, then the Spurs might be able to run out a lineup with credible 3 point shooting at all five positions, which is an incredible asset in the modern NBA.
If Gasol can pull opposing centers away from the basket, it will open things up for plays ranging from the Tony-LaMarcus PNR, to (hopefully) the Kawhi – LaMarcus PNR or a Kawhi iso. Either Aldridge or Leonard would also be free to bully smaller defenders in the post, which last year was limited by help from Duncan’s defender.
Pau could also trigger more of a return to the Beautiful Game Spurs of 2012-2014 thanks to his passing abilities. Last year’s team went iso-heavy due to the strengths of Aldridge and Leonard, though the ball movement was still very good.
Gasol’s addition should tilt the needle back towards ball movement and scoring off assists. All in all, the Spurs in 16-17 have the potential to boost an already strong offensive efficiency into the stratosphere (the Warriors are somewhere near Saturn by comparison) with the addition of Pau.