The Raptors will soon find out if Marc Gasol’s rebuild was worth the weight

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In the lead-up to this strangest of NBA seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers unveiled a bronze statue outside their practice facility. It was an image of Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame forward, cocking back a trademark two-handed slam dunk. And if the pose was iconic, the silhouette was eye-catching. Barkley — known during his career as the Round Mound of Rebound — was, in the artist’s rendering, an impossibly svelte specimen.

As even Barkley quipped at the unveiling: “I don’t know if I’ve ever been that skinny.”

But skinny, if it was never Sir Charles’s natural state, has been the NBA trend for a while now. More than six years since LeBron James spent an off-season famously swearing off carbs in the lead-up to his prodigal return to Cleveland, it’s now not uncommon to see big-name players expend considerable effort whittling unwanted weight from their physiques. In an ever-faster league in which traditional heft seems to be becoming less and less useful, slimmer is being widely seen as superior. Witness one of the highest-profile fat-loss projects of the NBA’s pandemic-induced pause: Marc Gasol, the Raptors’ 35-year-old centre, spent his quarantine time shedding multiple spare tires from his midsection.

He looks great in pictures. And the transformation seems smart, at least in theory; lugging around less weight ought to reduce the load on Gasol’s well-used knees and oft-battered hamstrings. He’s hoping it’ll rejuvenate a post-championship season that saw him averaging a career low in points per game (7.6) while shooting a dismal 42 per cent from the field.

But Gasol’s weight loss has also raised a question that can’t yet be answered — certainly not based on the 10 minutes of playing time Gasol was granted in his Disney bubble debut during the Raptors’ Sunday scrimmage against Portland. What will Gasol’s sleeker frame do to his ability to hold his ground, never mind his championship parade-earned reputation for holding his liquor?

“Your ability to hold your ground and … bang in there, rebound, block out, those kinds of things. Does that get affected at all?” Raptors coach Nick Nurse was saying on Sunday. “He’s still pretty big, he’s still pretty strong, and there’s not a whole lot of guys that are going down in the post and backing you in and throwing you all around because you lost 10 or 15 pounds, I don’t think. That would be the thing. I’ll have to take a look at it.”

This is not Gasol’s first go-round with a dramatic shedding of bodily luggage. As a high schooler in Memphis, Tenn., where his family moved after his older brother Pau was drafted by the Grizzlies, Marc drew a reputation as a skilled but soft-middled centre. Back in those days, his go-to meal was a super-sized McDonald’s combo or three. He has joked that he was such a devoted patron to the golden arched fast-food outlet near his high school that he funded various renovations and upgrades to the place.

In the years since — in which he has risen from being the unheralded sibling to a star in his own right — he has tried eating vegan. He has tried eating pescatarian. He has gone paleo. Exactly what he’s eating more recently is anyone’s guess; Gasol has lately been loath to share such details, preferring to talk more about his team than about himself.

But he’s talked about such things before. Back in the summer of 2014, when he was a member of the Grizzlies who’d missed 23 games of the previous season to a sprained knee, he shed something in the neighbourhood of 50 pounds in the course of an off-season. What followed was the best statistical season of Gasol’s career as measured by player efficiency rating (PER), not to mention his only turn as an all-NBA first teamer. What also followed: the five-year deal worth about $113 million (U.S.) that expires as the end of this pandemic season, after which he’ll be a free agent. Which is to say, Gasol has tended to approach contract years with extreme dietary discipline.

“When you get older, you realize you’re not invincible,” Gasol said in 2014. “The knee injury showed me that I’m not an iron man. Not being able to do what you want to do on the court sucks.”

What led to his dramatic 2014 makeover? He started, he said, by mostly cutting out pop and candy from his routine.

“Even though it might say diet soda in front of it doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” he told the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. “My body is not like Mike Conley’s. He eats candy all of the time. I can’t eat candy. It’s the way my body is built. As you get older you just learn more about yourself.”

If we’ve learned anything about human nature, it’s that for many mere mortals the pandemic has brought with it the potential for diet-wise disaster. Nurse said the Raptors, with that in mind, spent their coronavirus-induced break holding twice-weekly weigh-ins for players “just to try to keep a pulse on it.” The accountability was key.

“Most everybody came back pretty good, pretty close to what they left at, playing-weight wise,” Nurse said Sunday. “Obviously there were a few guys under, a couple guys eight or 10 or 12 over, but they’ve cut that in half. We just tried to manage that to where we’ve still got a week or two probably before we’re trying to get to optimal playing weight. They’ll do that by playing games. That’s a big part of those guys maintaining their playing weight.”

Maintaining is one thing. Minimizing is another. And it’ll be worth watching to see if this iteration of Gasol’s contract-year slim-down bears anything close to the same fruit as the last one. He’s not the only NBA seven-footer to drop considerable poundage. Denver’s Nikola Jokic spent the pause dropping copious weight, too. And maybe both parings will prove performance enhancing.

But it’s worth remembering the cautionary tale of Kevin Love, another all-star big man. In the lead-up to joining the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, this after being the key piece of the trade that sent Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota, Love, in the quest to get quicker and run longer, dropped some 30 pounds from his frame. And the immediate results were not stellar. He would later complain of struggling in the post and in the paint.

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“I got too skinny,” he would later say.

Skinny may be the NBA trend, but perhaps moderation is also a key.

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