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Pau Gasol’s Passing Could Give Portland a New Look

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The veteran forward isn’t expected to bring raw stats, but his court vision could pay dividends for teammates.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Though his career is waning and his contributions will no doubt be limited, Pau Gasol carries bigger name value than any other Portland Trail Blazers summer acquisition. When Gasol entered the league in 2001, Nassir Little was four months from celebrating his second birthday.

Last season, Gasol’s play dipped to its lowest level since entering the league. For the first time in his decorated career, he averaged fewer than 10 points, seven rebounds and one block per game. Playing just 12 minutes per game, he posted 3.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. Another year older, Gasol likely won’t eclipse his previously guaranteed stat line of 10-7-1, even with extra minutes in an empty front court rotation for the Blazers.

Even so, some aspects have aged well and will provide Portland with a different look at the forward or center position.

Pau Gasol’s efficiency for his most featured play types last year and the year prior in comparison with the Portland Trail Blazers’ efficiency in each.

Although on low volume, Gasol is a respectable three-point shooter. Between 2014 and last season, he shot at least 34.8% on one or more attempts from deep per game. Defenders still come out to defend him along the perimeter, something they don’t do for Hassan Whiteside or Zach Collins.

Gasol’s outside shooting also creates a potential pick-and-pop duo with Anfernee Simons, who figures to be a primary ball handler in the second unit. Gasol’s scoring numbers as the roll man in pick and rolls last season weren’t great, however: He scored 0.97 points per possession (PPP) on 46.2% shooting from the field. (Comparatively, Nurkic scored 1.13 PPP on 55.2% shooting as the roll man.)

Gasol’s final primary form of scoring, the now-archaic post up, used to be lethal during his Grizzlies and Lakers days. But in 2018-19, it generated an inadequate 0.78 PPP, which ranked in the 21st percentile league-wide.

Gasol’s best opportunities came without much effort. He shot 47.5% after zero dribbles, 61.5% after one dribble, then 28.6% and 23.1% after two and three or more dribbles, respectively.

The 39-year-old Spaniard can benefit Portland’s offense without personally putting the ball through the net. He is one of the elite big men passers of the past two decades, a skill that doesn’t deteriorate with age.

Last year, Gasol averaged 5.2 assists per 36 minutes and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.67 (albeit in limited games and minutes). Nurkic, who impressively progressed as a distributor last season, recorded 4.2 assists per 36 minutes and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.36.

His proficiency as a passer, coupled with a willingness to prioritize finding open teammates, will keep him on the floor for the Blazers. During his most recent season, Gasol displayed three patterns in his passes within the San Antonio Spurs’ offense.

This video demonstrates Gasol’s proficiency with the handoff screen.

Until Jusuf Nurkic returns, Gasol has the best screening body on Portland’s roster. Gasol’s handoff and ensuing screen creates enough space for one of Portland’s scoring guards to catch and shoot midrange or at the arc.

Last year, CJ McCollum scored 1.09 points per possession off a screen, which ranked in the 82nd percentile. Simons didn’t get any such attempts as a rookie but made 50% of his midrange attempts (12) and demonstrated catch-and-shoot skill in Summer League.

Here’s an example of Gasol finding the cutter.

With Gasol holding the ball at the elbow, three-point line or in the post, he can use his height and finesse to spot slashers for easy layups. Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore, McCollum and Simons are all quick enough to beat their man on a cut to the hoop. The first three all ranked above the 80th percentile in PPP on cuts. (Simons didn’t have any data, but everyone knows he has the athleticism to do anything.) A big man capable of hitting them on the cut makes for easy baskets at the rim.

Finally, here’s Gasol with the high-low post feed.

Neil Olshey stated that Gasol would occasionally share the floor with another big man. Zach Collins and Anthony Tolliver don’t operate much in the post, so the high-low pass will only emerge if Whiteside joins Gasol in a big lineup (until Nurkic returns).

Whiteside has the height and verticality to outleap opposing big men, especially if the opposing center is defending Gasol instead. If the pass gets to Whiteside under the rim with the defender at his back, that’s essentially a guaranteed two points.

If Portland wants to get fancy with this pass, Gasol can toss some lobs to Whiteside on the post entry. Very few centers farther from the hoop than Whiteside can reach high enough to swat away an accurately-thrown lob.

One extra type of pass that Gasol has proven capable of but didn’t demonstrate often with San Antonio is a kick out to the corner when rolling on a pick and roll.

Nurkic developed his court vision last season and reliably found teammates along the perimeter when Damian Lillard shuffled a pass to him on the run. Now, with significantly better shooters loitering in the corners, Gasol needs to have the wherewithal to locate them if the wing defender slides over.

Gasol’s willingness to pass first will generate open opportunities for a multitude of shooters on Portland’s second team. It also gifts Whiteside with easy buckets at the rim.

Ultimately, the veteran big man can wind up a net positive for Portland by continuing to prioritize the scoring of his younger, more dynamic teammates in these four ways.