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Pau Gasol is transforming into a modern-day stretch five

The big man is coming off the bench and spending more time on the perimeter than ever, while the Spurs place an increased focus on the three ball.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ biggest mid-season shakeup has been future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol’s move to the bench, with Dewayne Dedmon taking his place in the starting unit. While Dedmon continues to settle into the first gig as a starter and the team looks to build more chemistry with its new rotations, the most interesting takeaway thus far is how Gasol’s game has changed to that of a modern-day stretch five.

Gasol was already familiar with the three-point shot last season as a Bull, averaging one attempt per game for the first time in his career. That didn’t change much upon arriving in San Antonio, as he put up 1.1 attempts per game as a starter. The fact that he was hitting those at a 46.5% clip suggested a greater volume wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but the Spurs’ starting lineup has a lot of mouths to feed and that unit wasn’t having any trouble scoring.

Moving away from the elbows

Here’s a look at Pau’s shooting chart as a starter:

Those percentages are solid, with Gasol proving that, even at 36, his offensive game was ageing nicely. It also fit well with the team’s ethos at the time — Devastating Opponents: one long two at a time. More of his shots were coming from the 15-19 feet range than anywhere else.

Then in January, the seven-footer broke a bone in his left hand during a pre-game shootaround in Denver, which allowed Gregg Popovich to experiment with Dedmon as the starting center. As expected there was a trade-off, with the Spurs beginning to forge an identity as the league’s top-rated defense, at the expense of some offensive punch.

That may have been reason enough for Pop to keep rolling with it when Gasol returned post-All-Star break. As is usually the case with the organization, there were no rumblings of discontent from the veteran center, who had chosen the Spurs last summer over a number of other suitors, and the team went on to win its next seven games.

Greater three-point volume, even better efficiency

Gasol has been excellent since coming back. He’s playing less minutes per game (23.1, down from 26.4), but most of his numbers have remained steady or improved. His scoring has improved from 11.7 to 13.7 points per game, while he’s attempted roughly the same amount of shots per game (9.4 as a starter; 9.3 now).

The reason for the improved scoring? Since his return, Gasol is averaging 2.5 three-point attempts per game. His three-point rate over that stretch is 26.4%, well above his brother Marc’s (23.1), another center who’s notably taken his game a step behind the arc this season.

And that up-tick in volume hasn’t come at the cost of efficiency -- Gasol has shot a crazy 59.4% from three in the last month. Only the Thunder’s Victor Oladipo has shot a better percentage over the last month (min. 1.5 attempts per game).

How Pau’s getting them

Here’s Gasol’s shot chart since the move to the bench — note the absence of shots at the elbows, where he spent a lot of his time as a starter, and the increase of three-point attempts above the break.

Gasol is still a threat from the corners, especially on the strong side when Kawhi Leonard is handling the ball.

Where he’s gotten more of a green light is at the top of the arc, often as the guy trailing a play. Whether he’s sharing the floor with LaMarcus Aldridge or David Lee, that second big is usually running the floor, looking to establish position and sucking in the opposing team’s big men. That allows Gasol to follow behind and step into an open look.

Barring that, he’s also getting more looks off the pick and roll, as his defender sags off to help on the ball-handler. This can happen with Pau as the sole screener or as part of a staggered screen and roll.

Improved spacing

Gasol’s not just taking more attempts from beyond the arc; he’s spending more of his time there, period. Keep an eye on the number of possessions where he doesn’t even e think to step in the lane. The following play doesn’t start out great, but it finishes with the big man swishing a three after retreating behind the line and getting the ball back from Patty Mills.

Having Gasol at the three-point line allows someone like David Lee, one of the few Spurs who doesn’t shoot threes, to roam more freely and do work around the basket. Since the All-Star break, Lee’s somehow improved his field-goal percentage from 59.7% to 67.6%. It also means the 36-year-old isn’t huffing and puffing his way back from the other basket at the end of the offensive possession, which can only help the Spurs’ transition defense.

The Spurs are collectively shooting more threes

It’s not just Pau shooting more threes — the Spurs are bombing away more as a team. Before the All-Star break, they were 27th in the league with 22.5 attempts per game, despite being first in three-point percentage. Since then, they’re taking 26.6 per game, which is good for 14th in the league over that span (while knocking down 37.6% of them). Part of that has come with Patty Mills getting more minutes with Tony Parker out, but the team has also taken 28 attempts in each of its last two games with the Wee Frenchman back, suggesting the trend could continue.

Pau’s evolving offensive game is a snapshot of the Spurs’ continuous attempts to improve as the season rolls on. Pop’s still figuring things out in some areas, but this appears to be one adjustment that’s spot on.