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Toronto Raptors

Coach's Clipboard: How Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse can get the most out of Marc Gasol

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Nick Nurse [NBA.com Illustrations]

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse achieved something only eight other head coaches have done in NBA history - win a title in their first season at the helm.

In Year 2, Nurse will face a completely different type of challenge.

Superstar forward and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is no longer on the team after choosing to sign with the LA Clippers this offseason. Toronto also lost shooting guard Danny Green, who elected to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers following Kawhi's decision.

That's a combined 36.9 points and 26.7 field goal attempts per game that Nurse will have to figure out how to distribute amongst this year's roster. On top of that, the bulk of the offence ran through Leonard - something that will have to change as well this upcoming season.

MORE: How Kyle Lowry can adapt for a new Raptors era

Nurse mentioned to ESPN's Jackie MacMullen that he told Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet that there are now "20-plus shots up for grabs," but what about how the offence is run?

That's where the Raptors head coach could turn to veteran centre Marc Gasol, who picked up his $25.6 million player option this offseason to stay in Toronto for at least one more season.

It's no secret that Gasol is a tremendous passing big man. In the short amount of time he's spent with the Raptors, he's been able to showcase his knack for finding the open guy and carve out passing lanes that don't appear to be available.

With the focal point of the team's offence gone, Nurse could utilize Gasol's passing ability even more.

According to NBA.com's tracking data, Gasol has led the league in elbow touches every season since 2013-14 when the NBA began tracking the stat. While that didn't change last season, it could have if Gasol spent the full season with Toronto.

Gasol had 616 elbow touches last year - 57 more than crafty All-Star Nikola Jokic, who finished second in the category. But those numbers can be deceiving. Whereas Gasol averaged 8.7 elbow touches over 53 games with the Memphis Grizzlies, he averaged only 6.0 elbow touches per game after being traded to the Raptors.

His assists per game averages followed suit - he averaged 4.7 assists per game with the Grizzlies and 3.9 per game with the Raptors.

Gasol's usage rate also dropped with the Raptors, going from 22.3% in Memphis to 16.3% in Toronto.

The playmaking centre has proved that teams can be successful when playing through him - the Grizzlies did it for years during their "Grit and Grind" era. So how can Nurse get the most out of the 34-year-old?

More high-post and elbow touches are a good start. Take a look at this sequence from a game with Memphis last season:

It's off of an inbounds play, but it's still something that the Raptors could run in the flow of the game to get the most of Gasol's decision-making. The idea is to get him the ball near the elbow and run a back screen at the opposite elbow. In this instance, Garrett Temple sets the screen for Jaren Jackson Jr.

For the Raptors, let's think of them as Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam.

You can see Gasol let the play develop as he finds Jackson Jr. coming off the screen for an easy dunk. Should he have waited for another half second, he could have had Temple open for a 3-pointer, too.

This is something the Grizzlies ran out of a halfcourt set as well, as you can see here:

Jackson Jr. wasn't available off of the back screen this time around, so Gasol hands the ball off to Justin Holiday for a pick-and-roll. Holiday immediately gives the ball back to Gasol, who is now in the driver's seat again. When the backside defender comes to help, Gasol finds Mike Conley Jr. in the corner for a wide-open 3-ball.

This same set run in two different situations highlights how Memphis would use Gasol as a quarterback to create the best possible look for his teammates. More often than not, he makes the right decision because of his patience and court vision.

The Raptors ran similar plays for Gasol last season, just not at the same frequency as the Grizzlies did. Here is an example from the Eastern Conference Finals:

This is an action that often popped up when watching Gasol's assists with Toronto.

He gets the ball at the top of the key as Leonard and Kyle Lowry run off of each other on the wing. Gasol then has the option to feed Leonard if the defender gets caught on the screen or, as you see here, wait for either a defensive miscue or slow switch and find Lowry open for a 3-pointer.

The Raptors experimented with Lowry and Siakam being the ones exchanging screens, which we're sure to see plenty of this upcoming season.

Either way, the point remains the same - put the ball in the big man's hands and let players cut around him until he finds the open player.

Take this high-post elbow touch from a game with the Grizzlies as another example:

Gasol gets the ball on the elbow and Temple cuts off of him a tad too early. He's not open, so Gasol waits for Conley to cut off of him. With the handoff not being there, he then faces up against reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and threads the needle to a cutting Conley for an easy layup.

Gasol found Lowry in similar fashion in the first quarter of his Raptors debut:

Fred VanVleet gives the ball to Gasol at the extended elbow as Lowry goes to set a flare screen on VanVleet's defender to try and open him up for a 3-pointer. Gasol holds the ball, patiently waiting for an open player when Lowry quickly bails on the screen to cut to the rim. He then finds Lowry with ease for an open layup.

These are a few examples of ideas that Nurse could use to get Gasol more touches where he works best - the elbow and high-post. With guards like Lowry and VanVleet in addition to slashers like Powell and Siakam, Gasol should have a field day picking apart defences to create easy looks for his teammates.

His elbow touches may have decreased while he was filling a role en route to his first NBA title, but with Leonard gone, expect those numbers to go back up as the Raptors run much more offence through their playmaking big.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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