The worst-case scenario in an already-nervy Grizzlies season reared its head on Tuesday, as it came to light that Marc Gasol would be sidelined indefinitely with a broken foot. An MRI revealed a mid-foot fracture, a dangerous ailment for any player of Gasol’s 7'1" stature and one that could keep Memphis’s leading scorer out for the rest of the season. And moreover, it’s the sort of midseason injury that threatens to shake up not just the short-term playoff picture, but potentially the arc of a franchise.
The Grizzlies are 30–22, good for fifth in the West with a four-game lead on the eight-seed Jazz entering Tuesday. After beginning the year in an extended rut, tinkering with small lineups and trying the once-talismanic Zach Randolph off the bench, Memphis entered the New Year at 18–17. The team is 12–5 since, but 2–2 against teams above .500, against whom they are just 10–18 on the season. And despite their recent success, the Grizzlies still hold the point differential (-1.3) and net efficiency rating (-1.2) of a team that should probably not be eight games over that break-even mark.
From the outset, as Memphis struggled on the defensive end, it was clear the on-court product had taken a step back, the core perhaps beginning to show its age. That said, doing more with less has been the franchise’s M.O. for much of this decade. Revolving hard-nosed specialists around Gasol, Randolph and Mike Conley, Memphis bludgeoned its way to five playoff berths and one trip to the Western Conference finals while winning nearly 63% of regular-season games. The apparent resurgence in mojo was not unprecedented for a group with that history, but with the league’s three strongest teams locked in at the top of the conference, the Grizzlies’ true playoff upside always looked a bit dubious.
Now, just getting there will take serious focus, particularly given the surging Jazz and Trail Blazers. They’ve built a cushion, but there’s an obvious hole in the frontcourt, with Gasol and fellow stalwart Zach Randolph the only nominal big men to regularly feature in Dave Joerger’s rotation. It means more minutes for Jeff Green and Matt Barnes at the four, potentially more three-guard looks, perhaps an extra helping of still-kicking Vince Carter. With undersized Randolph not the ideal defensive match for most centers, there will be extra minutes for Ryan Hollins and JaMychal Green. It’s far from ideal, and Gasol’s unique brand of punishing grace on the interior will be sorely missed, despite some slight statistical regression on his part from last year’s All-Star campaign. The Grizzlies’ focus must shift fully on the short-term now, with the odds up in the air that he even returns come playoff time.
The injury could have implications beyond the loss column as well. Gasol admitted he was playing hurt after Saturday’s overtime loss in Dallas, in which he scored 22 points in 37 minutes. Joerger trotted him back out anyway on Monday against Portland, the injury ending his night in the first quarter. That decision came just days before the week-long All-Star break, which could have offered some needed rest. Conceivably, it could come back to haunt a coach rumored to be on the hot seat earlier this season.
But the other potential elephant in the room is Conley’s impending free agency. The 28-year-old will be the best point guard on the open market. The Grizzlies can pitch him on an extra Bird year, continuity and the chance to spend his career in one place, but with Gasol on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a foot injury the sell could be much tougher. The team should have some cap room to tinker with its supporting cast. Gasol, in the first season of a five-year max contract, pledged the rest of his prime years to Memphis last summer. It will take a leap of faith to some degree for Conley to do the same.
The Grizzlies promised an update on Gasol’s status after the All-Star break, and whatever timetable they set could conceivably make a difference with the trade deadline on tap, as well. The break, literal and figurative, looms large.