June 29, 2020, 7:24 pm
In this series, we’ll be looking back on the fantasy season to see how and why over- and under-performers managed to juke out fantasy GMs during draft season. Player rankings fluctuate every season, but the batch of players we’ll be looking at bucked convention and gave us plenty to think about.
Marc Gasol’s 2018-19 fantasy season was one to be tolerated. The big man finished 46th/50th in terms of per-game value for 8- and 9-cat leagues. Gasol was the 31st/32nd ranked player in fantasy through the first 53 games of the season and plummeted to 90th/96th over his final 26 games following a trade to Toronto. It wasn’t the great ending that fantasy GMs hoped for from an early-round pick and perennial stud, but Gasol got a pass for the waves of change that crashed down upon him in early February.
Even as Gasol’s fantasy game suffered, it was clear that his skills made the Raptors a far more deadly team on either end of the floor. During Toronto’s run to the title, Gasol still flashed the wide variety of abilities that made him a renowned fantasy asset and vital on-court contributor. Though he averaged just 30.2 minutes per contest in the postseason, down from the 33.7 he received in Memphis, Gasol kept the money stats flowing by averaging 0.9 steals and 1.1 blocks while hitting a cool 38.2% of his 3-pointers. Although Big Spain was adjusting to playing a supporting role on a deep and talented roster, the building blocks of his fantasy value remained.
If nothing else, it was a reminder that Gasol was a necessary part of the equation for Toronto. He played just 24.9 minutes per game in 26 regular season games with the Raptors, and it was reassuring to see that Gasol’s game hadn’t eroded – only his minutes fell as the team worked to fit him into their system.
With some more time to jell in Toronto and Kawhi Leonard’s departure reshuffling the pecking order, the opportunity was there for Gasol to return to early-round fantasy heights this season. It just hasn’t happened.
Though Gasol has been limited to 35 games because of some hamstring troubles, his statistical output hasn’t rebounded, even with an increase in minutes over last year’s regular season run with the Raptors. Here are some of Gasol’s key fantasy numbers over the last two seasons, split into relevant time buckets:
The most obvious area of decline is scoring, which is directly tied to Gasol’s dips in usage and field goal attempts. This season, Gasol ranks 15th out of 18 Raptors in usage, and Leonard’s vacated 30.3 usage has simply been soaked up by the rest of the team – OG Anunoby is the only regular whose usage has also shrunk from last season, while Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have had big jumps.
His shooting percentage is also terrible for a center, though he’s been below .500 every season since 2011-12 and under .450 in three out of four campaigns since introducing the three ball to his repertoire. That should be the expectation going forward given his shot profile, but at this point the volume of shots is low enough that subpar efficiency isn’t the main factor here.
It would be easy to say that Gasol came into the year on low battery after both the Raptors and the Spanish national team took home gold. Those minutes and accompanying parade festivities, essentially back-to-back, will take a toll on a 35-year-old. But Gasol hasn’t looked winded – he just no longer looks like the Gasol that the fantasy community has grown accustomed to.
Ultimately, a lot of his slide down the fantasy rankings can be explained by his role. The expected return to offensive prominence sans Kawhi simply hasn’t happened despite the additional opportunity. Gasol averages more assists than 2-point attempts.
As for the reason why Gasol isn’t taking advantage of those extra shots, as strange as it is to say, the Raptors simply don’t need him to do anything differently than he is right now. It’s said that a rising tide floats all boats, and Gasol is the tide that lifts Toronto to its greatest heights.
When Gasol is on the floor, the Raptors have a collective net rating of plus-10.4. When he’s off, it sinks to plus-4.1. That differential is second amongst rotation regulars, trailing only Pascal Siakam. When Gasol shares the floor with Toronto’s other four usual starters (Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet and Anunoby), the team boasts a plus-11.7 net rating. That is the team’s most common five-man lineup, and with good reason. Their second-most frequently used lineup features those same four, only with Serge Ibaka in place of Gasol. That group’s net rating is minus-5.5. Number after number points to Gasol’s importance to his teammates; nearly everyone performs better with him than without him, across a wide variety metrics.
More broadly, Gasol has emerged as a truly unique fantasy player. Every draft season, GMs are advised to focus on the real money stats and avoid the siren song of gaudy scoring numbers that amount to empty fantasy calories. In this case, we have the opposite, where Gasol’s output of steals, blocks and 3-pointers has remained consistently helpful while his points have tanked.
Gasol has managed to thread the needle in becoming a team pillar who also requires zero attention. His fingerprints are all over the game but no action is ever forced. His influence on the Raptors is outsized, but also the rare sort where statistical production isn’t guaranteed. His vision and smarts do the heavy lifting, opening everything up for his teammates.
Should Gasol sign elsewhere this offseason, he’ll make for a tough evaluation in fantasy circles. Those primary scoring tricks might still be in the bag, but at this point in his career it may be widely accepted that the best version of Gasol is the one we’ve seen in Toronto; a player who exerts his will defensively and makes the right play to generate open shots on the other end even if it doesn’t register in the box score. Whether a new team would ask him to become a main option again remains to be seen, but the rest of Gasol’s game remains steady enough that the right setting could send him rocketing back up towards the top-50. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Gasol remains a worthwhile fantasy asset, but it appears that he’s no longer the player that he was once drafted to be. He has assumed a job description that keeps him in the statistical background despite his irreplaceable play.
After emerging as the ultimate role player on a championship run, perhaps it was premature to expect Nick Nurse to fix something that wasn’t ever broken. This may be what Gasol looks like on competitive teams from now on, and while fantasy players know he’s capable of more, it’s the sort of work that will help Gasol continue to age gracefully as his fantastic career winds down. In the end, maybe it’s not that anything in particular went wrong with Gasol’s season, but rather that fantasy GMs miscalculated the type of player Gasol would be going forward.