We’re mere days shy of being a full month into the NBA season; the cobwebs have come off, the last touches of rust are being polished away, and with all teams comfortably having 10+ games under their belts, an accurate picture of how they look to shape up is finally developing.
Sitting at 9-2; the League’s best mark percentage-wise, against most odds, are the Memphis Grizzlies. They came into this season in a relative flux, under new ownership, facing tons of questions and a rough early schedule, but put those queries to bed as easily as they did the Lakers last week; the latest in a string of boisterous wins that have loudly declared the Grizz as Western Conference contenders.
The talented but-suddenly-wide-open Western Conference is a minefield of vastly-contrasting lineups. What was once thought to be a prizefight between the Lakers and Thunder suddenly could be a battle royale of up to six teams, none of whom would be particularly anxious to see these Grizzlies in a seven-game series. Memphis has shown a propensity to rise to the occasion this year, and with the exception of the complete dud they put up against Denver last week, look to be (probably) the hungriest team and likely to continue playing at a high level.
But just how high can it take them? It seems almost surreal talking about the GRIZZLIES as legitimate Western threats; hell the words “Dark Horse” seemed foreign enough that only with this group of gritty competitors and underdogs did anybody take them seriously.
But the “Grindhouse” culture that Memphis – not just the team, but the poverty-stricken, hard-working and basketball-loving city that houses it – fosters has truly permeated this entire roster; it’s far from just a gimmick. They play a relentless, unselfish, punishing brand of basketball that thrives on team synergy. It’s unique because their players, much like the franchise itself, have been outcasts and underdogs. Even Zach Randolph (he of the recent Grantland feature, an amazing must-read for any basketball fan) – by any account their most accomplished player – has been a career question mark who skillfully straddled the line between All-Star talent and delinquent cautionary tale. He’s leads this team like a band of Lost Boys who look out for each other to the peril of their foes and are playing better than anyone thinks they’re supposed to; better than any team in the NBA right now.
Obviously forecasting Memphis as West champs based on the season’s first month is naïve and premature; countless variables will shift the field between now and May, but early indications point to someone having to cross the Mississippi to battle for the crown.
The West title chase got thrown into flux the second Oklahoma City traded James Harden, and got thicker than Z-Bo did with Knicks when the Lakers came out looking, well… like Z-Bo did with the Knicks. There was a sudden hierarchical shift that Memphis took full advantage of by pummeling the Lakers, Thunder AND defending champs out of the gate. What remains to be seen is if a team that’s so used to the underdog status can thrive with a target on its back, but the casual, disconnected nature of their lone Home L to Denver this year looks like an aberration for the highly-motivated Grizzlies.
If this motivation persists, the on-court logistics should look after themselves. The Grizzlies are a fearsome defensive unit that boasts length, athleticism, competence and plays above the sum of its parts. They also match up particularly well with the teams they look to be pitted against:
Against the Lakers, even in D’Antoni’s feared offense, Memphis has two lockdown defenders in Allen and Conley on their best perimeter threats, with a big body to bang on Dwight (who defends the high pick and roll extremely well and knows Pau’s game inside-out) and plenty of athletic, energetic bench players (don’t forget about Darrell Arthur) to exacerbate the Lakers’ depth issues.
Against the Thunder, they have luxury of sticking Tony Allen on Westbrook, while Rudy Gay’s length and speed on the perimeter is as decent a counter to Kevin Durant as most could hope for. Memphis’ real edge vs. OKC comes with their bigs, who have the size to contest Ibaka and Perkins’ presence in the post while mostly ignoring Perk offensively, and forcing him away from the hoop (and seriously out of his element) if he hopes to defend Gasol. The obvious alternative of sticking Ibaka on Gasol brings him away from the hoop for help-side D, neutralizing OKC’s most imposing defensive threat. OKC could go zone against Memphis, but as inexperienced as they are in that scheme, it would be a gamble.
And San Antonio, although a better, healthier team than the one Memphis dispatched in the ‘11 first round, just matches up horribly against the Grizzlies. As spry as Tim Duncan looks this year, Gasol and Randolph tossed him around like a rag doll very recently, and the other legs of their Big 3 don’t stand up very well either; Tony Parker gets a quick defender in Conley who’s much stronger than him, and Manu Ginobili has to face perhaps the most feared perimeter defender in the NBA, who plays with a kamikaze style every bit as tenacious.
Offensively, the Grizz have always had the weapons, it was just a matter of how they came together. Their talented offense lacked an identity, and their bench was at the inconsistent whim of OJ Mayo. This year, not only have they clearly established a flow with an inside-outward offense that exploits most teams’ inability to effectively switch between the post and perimeter, but several players – Conley, Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, and “Wayne Wonder” Ellington – have stepped up as the floor-spacing perimeter threats that prevent teams from collapsing too much on Gay, Gasol and Z-Bo, making them truly dangerous in the context of elite offensive teams. When shots are falling from distance for Memphis, they’ve looked unbeatable against the best teams in the NBA this year, and it’s stemmed from a “pick-your-poison” type balance on offense that highlights this team’s gritty, unselfish mentality.
The players that comprise the Memphis Grizzlies haven’t so much seen a silver spoon as been fed from one: they’ve had to grind hard for every bit of success that’s come their way, and in the end the mentality that struggle has fostered could be what sets them apart. If all those sayings about how one responds to crisis defining them are true, or even half them, then this squad – who had a season of instability surround their once-promising roster with questions – has made a very frightening statement to the rest of the NBA.