The traditional NBA center position is either dead or dying, and in its stead has emerged a variety of big-man archetypes befitting the quirks of the modern game. Low-usage bigs like Tyson Chandler serve as 7-foot totems of the virtues of help defense and pick-and-roll-driven spacing; midrange sharpshooters like Chris Bosh open up the floor to combat sophisticated defenses designed to jam the paint. As the function of the position has shifted and broadened, most centers have left the low post and moved toward a more versatile game.
Yet 7'1", 265-pound Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies stands as a unique specimen, one who bridges the old world and the new. Uniformly praised for his post touch and footwork, he also brings a contemporary sensibility to that familiar skill set, affording him both the low-block appeal of centers past and the added functionality of his positional peers. That combination makes Gasol the best center in the league this season—a tall claim for a player who didn't make the Western Conference All-Star team and was averaging just 14.3 points and 7.7 rebounds at week's end.
But that All-Star oversight is fairly emblematic of Gasol's unappreciated offerings. Fans are conditioned to pay attention to the beginning and the end of a possession—the initiation of the offense and the final result of a made basket or missed shot—without much regard for what lies between. Yet it's in that middle that Gasol does his most important work, as an offensive facilitator and a defensive repellent.
In the former role Gasol spends the majority of his time directing traffic from the left elbow, where he's the fulcrum of the Memphis offense. He has the room necessary there to survey the floor and thread timely passes to hard cutters and open shooters. (His 4.0 assists per game through Sunday were second on the team.) A quick dish or handoff provides an instant segue into a pick-and-roll—a sequence which Gasol works as effectively as any player in the league—or with a few steps toward the baseline he can quickly position on the block, where he puts to work his array of fakes and counters to further maximize his substantial size advantage. Any defender who backs off Gasol invites a midrange jumper (a shot he converts at a higher percentage than midrange banner bigs David West and Kevin Garnett), while his standout decision-making keeps the Grizz hunting for a better shot if a good look isn't immediately available.
At 28, Gasol doesn't just do it all, he does it all so exceedingly well, and in the process provides an ever-reliable failsafe for an offense that can sometimes struggle to get into its sets. Memphis tends to get gummed up by slow action and a general lack of dynamism, but Gasol offers a point from which a possession can be reset or rerouted without delay. To say that he's a helpful asset is a colossal understatement; Gasol is most of what stands between the Grizzlies' average attack (17th in the league in offensive rating) and an outright scoring disaster.
Gasol's credentials only grow when you consider his work at the other end of the floor: He has again anchored one of the most smothering team defenses in the league. It's uncanny how often he can be found in perfect position at exactly the right time—but understandable given his constant shuffling and bumping around the paint. Gasol never overcommits to a single threat but constantly recalibrates based on the movement of the offense and the shifting of the court's driving and passing lanes. We see 10 players weaving around the court, but Gasol sees all the strands connect, and then goes on to account for the stretching of that web as a play runs its course. His awareness is so intuitive, it borders on premonition. And when he is directly involved on a defensive possession, he allows just 0.77 points per play (according to Synergy Sports), which puts him in the 90th percentile of defenders.
Gasol may not be as productive as the low-post threats of old nor as revolutionary as many of today's outside-in bigs. But in his wide-net utility, Gasol has created a fascinating place for himself in a league already deep with remarkable talents.
He has been the best center this season, a tall claim for a player who wasn't even an All-Star.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED