The best defensive player in the NBA is not in the top 10 in total blocked shots or blocks per game, grabs fewer than eight rebounds a contest and finished 37th in an analysis by Harvard professor Kirk Goldsberry on the percentage his opponents shoot when he is contesting a shot at the rim.
To understand why Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol is the league's best defensive player, you need to watch him very closely. Spend a game ignoring the ball and just focus on what he does on the defensive end of the court. Do that enough times, and you too will see why he's a basketball savant.
I spent my time watching Gasol during the Grizzlies' 96-85 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, a pivotal win that gave Memphis a leg up in the race for the all-important No. 3 seed in the West. It was one of those odd Gasol games where the stat sheet actually told a large part of the story. Gasol scored 21 points to lead Memphis' offense and was credited with five steals, a rarity for him. But there were so many defensive possessions where Gasol's positioning, anticipation and on-court intelligence forced misses without him getting any credit in the stat sheet. These are just a few of those possessions.
First, it should be noted that Gasol has excellent natural quickness. Look at him stay with Chris Paul on this switch.
But in today's game, lots of centers can stay with quick point guards for one possession when needed. What sets Gasol apart? He combines that natural ability with superior positioning and fantastic play recognition.
On this play, watch how he drifts off his man to snuff out the Paul/Blake Griffin high pick and roll.
That recognition alone is an impressive skill, but it doesn't stop there. Notice the technical proficiency Gasol displays as we roll the tape forward. He keeps his arms up to cut off Griffin's vision to make any sort of pass, then uses his length to beautifully contest Griffin's fadeaway once all other options are cut off.
But even these two plays only capture a fraction of Gasol's overall defensive brilliance. There are a few players around the league that can call out another team's play by just reading their alignment. Most coaches can do this pretty easily from the bench, but it's rarer to see players do it. Gasol is one of those rare players, and he's able to carry out his duties while also directing his teammates.
Here's an example from early in the third quarter. Gasol immediately notices the Clippers pulling their big men away from the basket, a sign that they are going to try to run a circle cut for Paul that opens up a backdoor pass and eventually turns into a side pick and roll if the first option is cut off. Rather than follow his man, DeAndre Jordan, Gasol hangs in the lane and waits for Paul to come charging around the first backscreen.
This is especially important because Mike Conley has recognized this set much slower and is well behind Paul when he starts his cut. The presence of Gasol in the lane, though, prevents the backdoor play.
Keep in mind: if Gasol was just hanging in the lane with no regard for the Clippers' play, it'd be an obvious defensive three seconds call. But he knows Paul will be coming into his area within three seconds, so he is unconcerned. That's how well he knows the Clippers' plays.
As the play rolls forward, watch how Gasol barks instructions to Conley to properly recover to Paul. Gasol has noticed a gap between the two Clippers' screeners, so he tells Conley to shoot through it.
Why does Gasol do this? Because he is positioning Conley to lock and trail Paul. This is a perfect coverage because Gasol immediately follows by stepping up in the lane to meet Paul coming around the corner.
This ultimately boxes Paul in, cutting off all his passing lanes. In the end, his only play is to pull up for a floater over Gasol that misses.
Gasol got credit for no stats on that play, but his presence alone forced a missed shot.
Finally, I want to highlight this marathon possession late in the third quarter. The Clippers eventually scored on a tough shot on this play, but it's amazing to see just how much Gasol did to prevent a miss as best as he could. The Clippers are going to try to run their patented Paul/Griffin high pick and roll three times, and Gasol's help consistently prevented the play from working as anticipated.
On this first play, Gasol hangs right at the hoop instead of following his man, Lamar Odom, to the perimeter.
Notice how Gasol is solely focused on the play that's about to happen, not the play that already did. He also sees his wings pinching in a bit, so he only steps up far enough to be a big target around the rim.
This forces Griffin to kick the ball out to the corner, but rather than hang in the lane, Gasol -- a seven-foot center, mind you -- closes out beautifully on Odom.
Odom is forced to hand the ball off to Crawford and try a side pick and roll to free him for a jumper. Guess who steps out and prevents that from happening.
Rather than stay with Odom, Gasol has once again drifted to cut off the most dangerous spot on the floor. But he still doesn't stop moving. Once Crawford's man, Tony Allen, recovers, Gasol drifts towards the basket to rebound.
Despite Gasol's efforts, the Clippers bat the ball out and get a new shot clock. They try the high pick and roll again, but there's Gasol again cutting off Griffin's lane to the hoop before the play even begins.
That puts him in perfect position to smother Griffin once Paul does pass him the ball.
So the Clippers must try again. They bring it out and run the same exact play. Once again, Gasol is shading to the middle before Paul even moves.
Gasol's positioning is especially important because the Grizzlies' two primary defenders allow Paul to split the pick-and-roll coverage, a major no-no. Since Gasol has already shaded off the lane, though, Paul can't get all the way to the hoop.
Paul's only play is a kickout to Barnes in the corner. Barnes maneuvers around Tayshaun Prince, who has sunk too far into the lane, and looks to have a lane to the basket along the baseline. Instead, guess who cuts that off and forces Barnes to shoot a floater.
Barnes hits that shot, but it's one he won't make very often.
To review: in the span of one very long possession, Gasol:
- Abandons his man to be the last line of defense on a high pick and roll.
- Along with two pinching wing teammates, forces Griffin to kick out instead of rolling to the rim for a dunk.
- Closes out from the edge of the basket to the three-point line on his own man.
- Drifts off his own man to shut off Crawford's potentially-open mid-range jumper.
- Goes in to rebound, only to see the ball get batted out.
- Keeps a foot in the lane before the second high pick and roll begins to provide extra help.
- Beats Griffin to the spot on the second roll and forces the Clippers to reset.
- Keeps a foot in the lane before the third high pick and roll.
- Beats Paul to the spot even though Paul split the double team and forces him to kick it out to the corner.
- Steps up along the baseline to shut off Barnes' drive past Prince and force him to take a floater.