It’s a word mostly unfamiliar to the Memphis Grizzlies, as the postseason once was. A word that implies promises unfulfilled and further yearning. A word that bears a sudden meaning to the thousands of faithful supporters that pack FedEx Forum – sorry, The Grindhouse – to sacrifice their vocal cords and towel—waving elbows for this band of NBA misfits, castaways, and also-rans, who were supposed to make noise in the playoffs for once.
The words “supposed to” hung ominously over the Grizzlies’ offseason, because of course, year-long discourse of Western Dark Horse status gave way to a stunning and historic collapse in their 2012 playoff debut, which eventually crashed and burned in the first round’s seventh game, at the unlikely hands of Vinny Del Negro (well, more so Chris Paul, but I digress…).
Back to that word “redemption” though, because it’s something the Grizzlies are poised for. It may seem difficult in a Conference where the Lakers just turned Andrew Bynum into Antawn Jamison, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard (while the Grizzlies’ most noted offseason addition was a 5’11” athletically-challenged former Mickey Mouse Club star with a suspect jumper and little playmaking ability) but 2012-13 offers significant promise for Memphis.
First off, the Grizzlies get to put last season behind them. Not only did they face a wealth of expectation for the first time ever after their heroic run in the ’11 playoffs, but had to contort the team’s entire gameplan to accommodate the returning Rudy Gay. The injury bug didn’t do them any more favors; first Darrell Arthur went down for the season, then Zach Randolph joined him for most of it. By the time Z-Bo returned, their flow had shifted away from the low-post phalanx and transition pressure that had won the previous year, and they failed to re-adjust in time. Game Over. Thanks for playing. At least Gilbert Arenas didn’t pull a gun on anyone.
While many people (including me) thought Gay was a goner, the Grizzlies underwent their offseason hibernation much more subtly. The uncontested departure of OJ Mayo was inevitable; the team had been trying to deal the mercurial combo guard for years after inconsistent play, gambling-related brawls with teammates, and disconnects with the coaching staff. His immediate replacement, Jerryd Bayless, has provided energetic – though sometimes shaky – doses of scoring/playmaking for several teams in his brief career. Along with upside, he brings the ability to handle diverse offensive duties in the backcourt, and potentially be that floor-spacing deadly shooter the Grizzlies could really use (42% beyond the arc last season).
The Grizz bolstered their guard depth by snaring Washington’s Tony Wroten with the Draft’s 25th pick. An athletic two-guard who can pass and score, he’s slotted as somewhat of a project but fits their needs nicely. While Wroten develops, Lionel Hollins has a potential Ace in the Hole on his bench. Josh Selby, who spent last season straddling the D-League and the Grizzlies’ practice squad, absolutely destroyed Summer League, averaging 24.2 points (on .557/.643!!!!/.889), playing lockdown D, and winning co-MVP honors. While this certainly doesn’t mean Selby’s ready to Jeremy Lin us this season, it’s a promising sign in the wake of Mayo’s departure.
Yet more encouragement comes via the returns of Darrell Arthur and Marreese Speights; the former having missed all of last season after being a crucial part of Memphis’ deep playoff run, the latter being his athletic and steadily-improving replacement, and probably the only Free Agent who wasn’t moronically overpaid this summer. The Grizz also retained fan-favorite Hamed Haddadi, ensuring their frontcourt bench – rounded out by the man with the best name in the NBA: Quincy Pondexter – will be armed by a squad of capable, affordable, and upside-laden bigs. Arthur and Speights are both good rebounders who run the floor and shoot well, and if Arthur can regain his pre-injury momentum, he’ll be a huge addition. ??It wasn’t all gravy this offseason however; Arthur’s return made sudden odd-man-out Dante Cunningham into a somewhat-appealing trade chip; one that Chris “Not B.I.G” Wallace could have spent on a long-range threat, but instead shrewdly used to commandeer…Wayne Ellington, who in three seasons with the opportunity-generous T-Wolves failed to establish himself as a consistent shooter or defender. So there can’t be a ton of expectation for him to do it in Memphis. Or for this trade to be looked upon as anything but a waste.
Contrasting Memphis’ relatively quiet offseason, a dramatic overhaul took place in Los Angeles; one that quickly put the entire league on Laker Watch. Not only did LA’s blockbuster summer shift the NBA’s balance of power swiftly yet again, but also may have quelled the apparent trend towards athleticism-over-size small-ball inspired by the Heat’s title run with – by definition – a small and power forward seeing the bulk of their minutes at center. With most front offices now less attached to the “Beat the Heat” mentality, the Grizz should find themselves at a generally more comfortable pace this season; they’re certainly a size-based halfcourt team with Randolph and Gasol on the floor, and their “run ‘n gun” finishers are few at best.
Memphis is also better-equipped to defend against the Lakers than any Western team outside of Oklahoma City. They start two big-bodied elite rebounders in their post, and have plenty of tough athleticism to unnerve Pau Gasol, while Tony Allen is capable of giving both Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant headaches on the perimeter. The Lakers’ apparent resurrection was generally bad news for most teams, but –maybe Jerry West is still pulling strings – it seems like every time LA drastically improves, they inadvertently do Memphis a big favor (like handing them Marc Gasol, which led to the Zach Randolph Pau replacement, and Memphis not being awful anymore. Remember how much that trade got blasted at the time?).
So how does all this add up? On paper, the Grizzlies figure to be in a dogfight with the Clippers, and possibly Nuggets for the final homecourt slot in the West playoff bracket (unless they’re counting on the Spurs to fall off, which at this point seems like banking on a title run from the Bobcats). They’ll have more continuity on their roster than both those teams, and (at least in the Clippers’ case) won’t have their coach’s job being undermined the entire season. There’s no reason they can’t re-assume their role as probable playoff party-spoiler after having their own postseason dreams shattered; they batted .621 last year with their best player on the shelf for most of it, and have come back certainly deeper, if not a bit better.
There’s no reason to expect Randolph and Gasol won’t continue to be brilliant, only now they’ll feel less pressure night-in and night-out with more dynamic and ever-improving troops behind them. Mike Conley’s steadily grown into his once-ridiculous contract, and has proven himself as a solid-at-worst two-way point. Rudy Gay’s role on this team will only come into clearer focus after spending an entire season sharing the offensive load with Z-Bo, and his game still shows signs of growth, while Tony Allen has just simply never been such a great basketball player. Moreover, Bayless should lead a less erratic bench (while not providing OJ Mayo’s savvy knack for pissing off the entire organization), one that’s deeper, far from its ceiling, and primed for redemption.
It’s going to be a long NBA season; back to the 82-game grind. But there’s a reason Allen dubbed FedEx Forum the Grindhouse: the Grizzlies are a tough team, they’re built for this. Their entire existence is marked by survival; not only had their franchise been a decrepit symbol of NBA gone-wrongs for years, their whole roster was a Frankenstein-cobbled platoon of basketball outcasts, who somehow came together and made it work.
Last season couldn’t have gone much worse for Memphis. But “redemption” should hardly feel like a ten-letter word this year.