The Spurs adding future Hall-of-Famer Pau Gasol was supposed to be a momentous occasion, but his arrival was overshadowed by the looming retirement of Tim Duncan and the signing of Kevin Durant with the Warriors. The questions about fit only took away from the excitement, as well. Pau simply didn't patch any of the holes the Spurs had and he was costly addition, so it was fair to express some concern.
Yet while he might not be the perfect replacement for Duncan on defense, we are still talking about one of the most talented big men of his generation. He's very likely going to be a significant upgrade on offense not only in terms of individual skills but also in the potential impact he could have at the team level. That's where he's value will come and it should give a Spurs' attack that ranked third in efficiency last season another dimension, one they lost when Duncan declined as a scorer.
Let's take a look at what Gasol should be able to do well as a member of the Spurs.
Pau makes it impossible for opponents to hide a big on defense
Tim Duncan was still good in the post last season but he rarely called for the ball. He accepted a small role in which he only took shots within the flow of the offense and even then, he sometimes passed up good looks to keep the ball moving. His decision to do that allowed Pop to give Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge more touches but it also gave opposing teams the opportunity to either hide a poor defensive player on him or have his man parked close to the paint to contest shots.
With Pau around, there's nowhere to hide. If a team puts his lesser defender on him, Gasol can take advantage by posting him up or getting an open look as the pick and roll screener. Pau was not particularly good in either setting last season (44 percentile on post ups, 47 percentile as a dive man, per Synergy Sports) but he was a featured option with the Bulls. Now that LaMarcus Aldridge is there to command the attention of the defense, he will draw lesser defenders, so his efficiency should improve.
Very few teams start two good individual defenders. There are those who have an offensively-inclined big in the starting lineup -- think Dirk Nowtizki or Kevin Love -- and those who have good team defenders who can get taken advantage of in the post, like Hassan Whiteside and Bismack Biyombo. Most opponents will have to deal with the fact that the Spurs have a matchup to exploit inside as long as Aldridge and Gasol start.
Pau can punish teams from mid-range
One of the most annoying comments the anti-stats crowd make is that analytically-inclined people hate every mid-range jumper. The reality is that while ideally an offense would get only the most efficient shots available -- unguarded three-pointers and point-blank shots -- everyone who has watched a basketball game knows that's impossible. Sometimes a mid-range look is the best you can get in a given possession.
The Spurs were one of the teams who took the most shots from that in between area last season and still had a top three offense, in no small part because they had guys who could actually hit those looks that most defenses concede. In Gasol, they have added someone who can also do that at an elite level while hitting the occasional three-pointer when he's open.
The mid-range shot is going to be a big weapon for the Spurs, since both Aldridge and Gasol can hit it. Gasol even has experience coming off pin downs similar to the ones San Antonio used to set for Duncan.
Because both bigs can shoot, not only will Pop have more options but also the offense will always have a bailout option in pick and pop opportunities and drive and kicks to a big open at the elbow or the baseline.
The offense can't create efficient looks every trip down the court, so having players who can hit ones that aren't is very valuable.
Gasol's passing could get easy buckets for his teammates
The Spurs' offense changed last season. The ball simply stopped moving as much as it used to. Both pace and passes made per game took a dip but the Spurs still ranked among the teams with most assists and had a top three offense, so the adjustment worked. It was in the postseason where the methodical, predictable approach came back to haunt them, as Leonard and Aldridge took on an even bigger role on offense but couldn't find their teammates when they were open.
The offense won't likely change back to what it used to be in the past but it has added a high usage player who can pass in Pau. Tim Duncan was really good at finding the open man but he didn't really command much attention anymore and he wasn't a featured player, averaging almost 20 fewer frontcourt touches per game than Pau did in Chicago. Gasol used those touches to score but he also assisted on over 20 percent of his teammates' buckets while on the court, a monster mark that led all big men and would have ranked third on the Spurs among rotation players, trailing only Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Better yet, he did so in ways that should translate to the Spurs' offense well.
The Spurs have some good cutters and have shooters who know how to move off the ball. That means that when Parker, Ginobili or Gasol have the rock, everyone should be a threat to score. The offense will still run through Leonard and Aldridge but now there will be a second playmaker in the starting lineup who can create for others from the high and low post. That alone should provide more variety to an offense that occasionally got stale.
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It's hard to see the Spurs climbing up the rankings in offensive efficiency. While one of the teams ahead of them last season -- the Thunder -- should get worse, a healthy Clippers team could be better and the Rockets under Mike D'Antoni should be an offensive juggernaut. It actually wouldn't be surprising to see San Antonio drop a spot or two but still remain in the top five.
What the addition of Gasol does is give the Spurs an extra weapon for the postseason that replicated a lot of what Duncan used to do on the offensive end before last season's decline. It's unclear how useful he might be against the Warrors but Pau should help San Antonio navigate the Western conference playoffs better by easing Leonard's and Aldridge's burden while creating for others.
If he can do that, he should be able to offset the drop-off his presence might cause in the defensive end and help the Spurs transition into this new era.