You can be forgiven if you just glossed over Marc Gasol’s impact for the Toronto Raptors last season.
There was nothing sexy about the big Spaniard’s stat line last year. Rarely do players averaging 7.5 points, 3.3 assists, and 6.3 rebounds make headlines. Consider this, only seven players in the entire league averaged fewer than eight points while playing as many minutes in as many games as Gasol did last season. And yet, now that he’s playing in Los Angeles his impact on the Raptors has become abundantly clear.
While Gasol’s box score numbers weren’t eye-popping, his intangibles were. His high-level basketball IQ made an immense impact on Toronto’s defence allowing the Raptors to rotate with ease and recover without giving up easy points. It’s why Toronto’s defence was 7.7 points better per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court than without him. According to Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 95th percentile in Defensive Rating, just behind LeBron James, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo among others.
Now that he’s gone, the Raptors have had to work in a new centre rotation and things haven’t quite been the same. Last year Toronto boasted this second-best defence in the NBA from a Defensive Rating perspective. This year it’s fallen all the way to 19th.
“A lot of things have changed. It’s a different process. You’ve got different guys, different sizes, different movements, different understandings of where to go, where to be, and how to do it,” Kyle Lowry said. “That’s something that always takes time.”
Instead of having Gasol as the last line of defence calling out screens and communicating at an elite level, the Raptors are still trying to get Aron Baynes accustomed to their defensive schemes while working Chirs Boucher up to speed in his new extended minutes. Instead of holding teams to just 57.9% shooting at the rim, the league’s third-best rate last season, Toronto’s interior defence has plummeted to 16th in the NBA this year with teams shooting 60.7% within five feet of the hoop.
Until those bigs can start producing on the defensive end the way Toronto’s bigs have in the past, the Raptors are going to be in tough this season, relying on a surprisingly talented albeit inconsistent offence to win them games.