On the Grizzle – Migration Season

After the Memphis Grizzlies overcame several months of much change and even more uncertainty to grind out the franchise’s best season ever, it appears yet further evolution is in store.

Shortly after the Grizzlies disappointing flameout against San Antonio, the team announced that Lionel Hollins – the best coach they’ve ever had, and one under which they improved every season of his tenure – would not be returning, fulfilling what both players and fans feared as his un-renewed contract loomed all season.

Hollins was by all accounts perturbed by the direction Robert Pera’s new ownership was taking the team; expecting them to chase a title while stripping its roster bare to dodge the luxury tax. He never quit on this team, but the lack of a renewal, coupled with Hollins’ increasingly-unimpressed comments following their midseason salary-slashing, made it evident this was probably coming.

There’s a revolution of change afoot in Memphis; in the first season it’s consumed the team’s coach, GM and leading scorer. With a roster that’s too shallow and offensively inept to seriously contend for a title, you can count on more moves to be made.

The hiring of assistant coach Dave Joerger as Hollins’ replacement makes sense on several levels. Not only is he familiar with the organization and comfortable with the players, but also oversaw Memphis’ defense from the bench the past three seasons, turning it into the powerhouse it is today. Hiring a first-time head coach is also a cheaper way for the team to fill the position, perhaps making management less hesitant to pull the trigger on the A-Word: the amnesty clause (more on that in a minute).

The Grizzlies can take plenty of good things away from this campaign, again the best in their hardly-illustrious history. Marc Gasol has solidified himself as the most complete center in the NBA; a multi-faceted threat who can change games in a multitude of ways. Mike Conley has outgrown the contract they were gawked at for giving him; he’s steadily improved every year, is currently something of a poor man’s Chris Paul, and judging from his playoffs might not have even hit his ceiling yet.

Furthermore, they withstood the house-cleaning and played some inspired ball in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Though Patrick Beverley may have helped their cause greatly, this team had every reason to roll over, and it took the Spurs playing their A-game to finally break them.??

All that said, there’s plenty about their run that has to be of concern, particularly the play of two guys who together will eat up almost half their payroll next year.

The Tayshaun Prince era in Memphis hasn’t begun gloriously. While Prince is still a long presence on D and a generally smart player, he was a horrid shooter for most of the playoffs, and his fading credibility as an offensive threat undermines his role on this team.

Zach Randolph put up an absolute abomination of a West Finals, dominated both physically and mentally by the Spurs. Turning 32 in a few weeks, Z-Bo’s ability to keep himself in prime condition and avoid breaking scales will be crucial to his central role on this team.

Memphis had several needs; glaring ones that stood out but are easily remedied. The issue is they have several pieces to put in place, but little room to do it with. Their payroll cuts have gotten them under the Luxury threshold, but only by $1 million vs. the projected cap. Barring trades, they have a mid-level exception and veteran’s minimum at their disposal to fill several gaping holes in their roster, with Tony Allen’s re-signing (a must as the best perimeter defender alive and the heartbeat of this team’s identity) strapping them financially and handicapping their market options. The problem with Allen is that his jumpshot is… well, hideous, to be polite, and any defense’s ability to sag off him severely hinders Memphis’ attack.

The Grizzlies need more scoring from the perimeter, preferably consistent shooters who can space the floor, prevent paint-packing, and make life easier for Gasol and Randolph; defenses have it easy enough when Allen’s on the floor, they can’t be allowed to cheat from both wings.

The Grizz had also previously needed a backup big; someone to protect the rim and clog the lane when Gasol sat, as Randolph and Arthur were woefully undersized as a defensive combo. This was addressed by shipping Arthur to Denver for Kosta Koufos on Draft night, adding size without necessarily giving up skill, and shrewdly saving cap space for other signings, as Ed Davis is more than ready to fill Arthur’s minutes.

The question thus becomes how to free up cap room to make further adjustments, and Zach Randolph’s name has to immediately come to mind. Owed almost $18 million next season, with a player option for another $16.5m to follow, Z-Bo’s being paid like the franchise guy, but just played his worst ball of the season at the most inopportune time.

While his name has surfaced as a possible trade target by media pundits, it would be a rash and unwise decision to break up the NBA’s best post tandem. Not only would Randolph be far more effective with the proper spacing preventing a defensive collapse on him, but trading him – which would be complicated given his contract, age, and the general trend towards small-ball – would likely result in them being ripped off.

Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince is hijacking $7m of cap space the next two years to play slightly-above-average defense and miss 3-pointers. The guy behind him on the bench is a hungry, athletic youngster making $2.25m to play better-than-slightly-above-average defense and shoot better from beyond the arc. Every indication is that Quincy Pondexter could be a more effective version of what Prince is looked upon to do in this system at a third of the cost, which makes Tayshaun one of the more obvious amnesty candidates in the League – if Memphis’ stingy owners can stomach paying a guy $14m to play for someone else. It might be a bitter pill for them to swallow, but it’s by far the simplest (and perhaps cheapest if you consider the value and flexibility lost in trading Randolph) way to get this team enough room to acquire another key piece this summer.

Memphis won’t be hurting for lack of selection. Kyle Korver, Francisco Garcia, Martell Wesbter and Dorrell Wright are all unrestricted free agents within their budget who will improve their floor spacing from the get. While none are exactly defensive studs, Prince wasn’t really either, and with Gasol/another decent clog in the lane behind, someone like Wright or Korver would likely excel in their system on one end without being of detriment to the other.

The backup PG role, while not as critical, has a number of viable candidates in the Grizzlies’ price range, should they dump Prince. While Memphis has never been a trendy free agent-magnet, the Grizz also don’t need to lure stars, just quality players that can fill very obvious gaps on this team, who are quickly turning the franchise’s losing culture on its head. They also have the advantage of priority; their needs are subtle and they can make aggressive pushes for these guys early, having no interest in the top free agents.

Though the black-and-white on-court solution to this team’s flaws may seem obvious, the Grizzlies’ front office has shown they aren’t afraid to both analyze the game on a deeper level, and make sudden, major decisions on the heels of it.

Even though Randolph has been the rock of this team’s offensive identity for the past three years, he could be moved anytime, with his age and contract climbing while his consistency a go-to guy slips, and Gasol and Conley emerge as stars. Again, it would be a bold move, but the Gay trade was bold itself, and although it hurt Memphis’ ability to keep defenses honest in the postseason, it didn’t completely sink them as first thought.

One thing’s for sure about the Memphis Grizzlies going forward; you can expect just about anything from this team as they continue their attempt to inventively re-define successful small-market teams in the NBA. It’s a Grind.

On the Grizzle: Defensive Team of the Year

Marc Gasol was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year award this week. Ironically, he was presented the trophy prior to a game in which his backcourt prevented Chris Paul from surgically dismembering the Grizzlies’ D as he had in Games 1 & 2, helping to save their playoff lives in the process.

In a season where Memphis ranked atop the League in most relevant defensive stat categories, Gasol was the token “backbone”; the paint-patrolling, rim-protecting communicator who served as his team’s eyes behind them and their last line against an attack. While Gasol is by all measures an excellent defender – an ace at position and awareness with quick hands, quicker feet, and length to challenge any shot and rebound in his realm – this award feels like it’s been handed out for the wrong reasons.

Memphis’ starting backcourt has been by far the best defensively in the NBA this season; Tony Allen is a beast on the perimeter who many will argue is the best on-the-ball defender alive, while Mike Conley could make the All-D 2nd Team innocuously. What Zach Randolph lacks in size and skill in the post on D, he makes up for with tireless effort and excellent rebounding, and the Grizzlies have steadily jettisoned any rotation players who didn’t take a similar approach to defending the net. Add Gasol’s brilliance in the middle, and it’s no wonder they were a league-leading defensive team, not only with the proper pieces, but an organizational culture fueled by a relentless effort to slow the game down and make opponents work for every basket, every cut, every loose ball, dribble and breath.

Calling him the best defender in the NBA however, is awarding Gasol for Memphis’ dominance as a team. Although he almost never made mistakes on D – and made life difficult for countless would-be scorers – Gasol experienced much less of the paint-patrolling, rim-protecting duties most centers endure, because the rest of his guys weren’t forcing it on him much with botched coverage and rotations. Playing behind Allen and Conley is like a day at the beach compared to what most centers deal with every night; this isn’t to slight Gasol’s ability at all, just to suggest that several other factors were also important to Memphis’ success, and that his impact may not have been the most significant in the League.

Stat analysis is trendier than ever before in sports right now, the NBA being no exception. Enough people watched MoneyBall and figured out Darryl Morey’s logic to realize there might be something behind these “numbers”. But as with most new trends, and unfamiliar things in general, a lot can get lost in translation and produce questionable results. Even the stat many have rested their vote on – the chasm in the Grizzlies’ point differential with Gasol on the bench vs. on the floor – is more indicative of their lack of size depth, and an opposing team’s eagerness to pound a paint area protected by Randolph and Darrell Arthur, than anything else. A lot of voters undoubtedly had “skilled, versatile defensive backbone” coincide with “league-leading team stats”, and saw the forest for the trees that Memphis is hoping to continue trapping the Clippers within.

So while a guy who might be the most effectively versatile defender in the history of basketball finishes second again this year, Marc Gasol will go down in the annals as the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. Memphis’ efforts on D this year were worthy of celebration, perhaps just not with this award.

On The Grizzle: Survival Instinct

A regular season that’s been up, down, all-around through various realms of expectation for Memphis has drawn to a close, leaving the Grizzlies – more or less – where they figured to be.

Slotted by many in October to be duking it out with the Nuggets and Clippers for the West’s 4-5 seeds, Memphis has settled in fifth; tied with the Pacific (and season-series)-winning Clip Show, and a single game behind Denver, capping a playoff-position race that couldn’t have been any closer.

While they’ve lost out on homecourt, Memphis is still considered by many to be a viable (if somewhat unlikely) threat to win the West that can still cause problems for all of the teams that outrank them. They’re a squad that can play above the sum of its parts against top opposition, but several things are going to have to go right for the Grizzlies to avoid sudden hibernation.

Among all the misguided, misinformed platitudes that Robert Pera heaped upon Grizzlies fans after the (suddenly brilliant-looking) Rudy Gay salary dump, he made the valid point that Memphis was still built to compete in the postseason as a gritty defensive squad that was only upgraded with Tayshaun Prince taking Gay’s place. Tony Allen is also fully healthy this spring – perhaps the NBA’s most fearsome obstacle on the perimeter – and Mike Conley remains one of the League’s best defensive PG’s, completing the West’s toughest wing unit, only to be fortified in the middle by Marc Gasol, who by most indications is only going to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Their intimidating, physical, straight-up stingy defensive presence will suit them well; the West is full of teams that like to play a reasonably fast-paced game that puts points on the board and forces opponents to keep up. The Grizzlies have proven they can take teams out of their element and force a slower, grittier game, but their chances of making a deep run rest on them not only doing this consistently but, more obviously, scoring.

The early evidence – while still inconclusive – points to Rudy Gay having been a streaky shooter who hurt Memphis’ offense as much or more than he helped it. While they’ve been producing more efficiently in his absence, there’s still plenty to wonder about how well Memphis can compensate against better teams over seven games, in the type of environment that’s less conducive to Jerryd Bayless heroics. And while Bayless and Conley have kicked their offensive games up a notch, Zach Randolph’s play of late – particularly in the clutch – is hardly reminiscent of his 2011 run.

The Grizzlies rely heavily on an inside-out attack that smarter defenses will pick apart if Randolph isn’t keeping them honest. Gasol’s passing from the post – excellent as it is – isn’t enough to space this team without the attention Randolph can demand. The Grizzlies are essentially aiming to emulate their run from two years ago with an improved Conley, but Bayless and Quincy Pondexter instead of OJ Mayo and Shane Battier; they’re going to need Randolph at his best.

Their first-round matchup is deja-vu: a shot at revenge against the Clippers team that took the full seven to bounce them in last year’s opener, after stealing the first game with an equally-harrowing and historic 4th-quarter comeback.
While the Clippers are a better – and certainly deeper – team on paper, there’s plenty Memphis can do to tilt the scales. Most noticeably will be Chris Paul’s impact vs. a healthy Allen and a more confident Conley on D. Paul is this team’s heartbeat, and he was able to carve up the Grizzlies last spring, which should prove less difficult this year, even for CP3.

Paul’s ability to get DeAndre Jordan involved should also have a significant impact on Blake Griffin’s ability to operate. Jordan has no offensive game to speak of unless there’s a shot in the air or a direct pass from Cliff’s brother, and allowing the most defensively aware big man in the NBA to ignore him and clog the high post doesn’t bode well for Griffin’s halfcourt scoring.

Memphis’ higher-efficiency offense also plays against the Clippers’ strengths; fewer misses and turnovers (especially Rudy Gay-style long rebounds) directly translate to fewer fast-breaks, where teams like L.A. who thrive in transition can blow close games open.

And while the Clippers have depth on Memphis for days, the Grizzlies (as noted) play that slow-paced, physical “Grindhouse” style that easily can take deep, high-energy teams like Lob City out of their rhythm and force them into an unfamiliar tempo. They need to do this consistently to survive, because if this series becomes a shootout, the Clips are unloading, and have the drop on every draw. Fortunately for the Grizz, their defensive execution is their most valuable asset, and their tenacity can torment the best of teams, which is why they’re still a threat.

Randolph’s ability to keep Memphis’ attack intact is vital, but Conley might be the most pivotal Grizzly in this series. Not only will he face the bulk of perimeter attention on D as the primary ball-handler and scorer, but he seems like the most likely candidate to consistently fill the void left by Gay that allows opponents to sag off the Grizzlies’ perimeter, knowing they’re mostly pounding the post. His ability to keep Paul keyed-in, exploit Jamal Crawford, and generally make the Clippers stay honest will be most crucial to his team’s offensive execution, which could very likely decide what promises to be a close series.

This Clippers team is better than they were a year ago when these two faced off, but Memphis is a more cohesive, stronger defensive unit; one that has spent more time in their roles, looks more focused this year, and is infinitely less likely to blow a 27-point lead. Unlike last year, they aren’t going to be squandered by Rudy Gay’s pseudo-swag after a season without Zach Randolph, and while their bench isn’t as deep, the man standing over is vastly better at managing it – not to mention the guys on the floor – than his counterpart.

Whether the Grizzlies can pull off what really can’t be called an “upset” might come down to their “survival instinct”; that trademark, #GNG-style basketball played with a level of precision, intensity and passion that few teams possess. It sounds corny as hell to make that the deciding factor in a series I’ve changed my mind about no fewer than five times through this piece, but in a matchup this close, the team who wants it more must just get it. ?

Grizzlies in Seven.

On The Grizzle – Reasonable Doubt

When the long-speculated Rudy Gay trade finally became a reality for the Memphis Grizzlies, there was a large rift in the reactions of the NBA community.

Some praised the move as an effective salary-slash that didn’t cut too close to Memphis’ core as to hurt their playoff chances significantly. Others – and I’ll openly admit I fell squarely into this group – believed new ownership had overtaken a small market team, seen themselves with too large of a payroll, and punted a good season to put themselves in a better spot down the road.

At first, things looked as such: The Grizzlies first couple of games were reminiscent of Vancouver; despondent losses that made some wonder if this team had suddenly given up. There were rumblings of malcontent from Lionel Hollins, and Robert Pera – in his first media appearance as owner – made some vague, uneducated remarks that reinforced his reluctance to front as a basketball strategist, and did little to quell the skepticism behind his motives.

But then suddenly something pretty unexpected happened: Memphis started rolling out W after W, to the tune of eight in a row. Their ever-solid defense still crippling teams, they were actually scoring more efficiently and winning 100+ point games. When the streak finally ended, it took four full quarters of effort at home from a Miami team that was a single loss and a Harlem Shake video away from a perfect February.

While the Grizzlies’ recent success certainly isn’t indicative of a return to their early-season form, it lends credence to the idea that they could still be a threat in the West. Memphis may have lost their best pure scorer in Gay, but they also lost a ball-dominator who didn’t quite fit the scheme of their ideal attack (that being their low-post oriented grind with a dash of suffocating transition D from the ’11 Playoffs; the one they never really got a chance to fit Gay into last year, and seemed to be doing well with this season pre-rumors).

While Rudy’s now blossoming on a team that needed a go-to scorer and happily gave him the green light, what remains to be seen is if the void left by his absence can be consistently filled by his teammates against top opposition; when a team like Miami ramps up the D to #GNG levels in the 4th of a close game, will Memphis be too reliant on their low-post tandem? It was my main concern when Gay was traded, and it remains, despite the recent success, and Tayshaun Prince’s mild resurrection.

Yes, Gay was a largely inefficient offensive player; he was dribble-heavy, shot a lot of long-range two pointers and for his volume didn’t hit them at a great clip. What he did do was impose a looming threat on opposing defenses; one that was capable of getting hot at any time and beginning to burn them from pretty much anywhere on the floor, constant insurance against them jamming the post on Z-Bo and Gasol the Greater.

Memphis is aiming to make up for that through ball movement and shot selection, and while it’s worked in a small sample against largely subpar opposition, it will be a weapon of inferior caliber in the Playoffs. They’ll be pitted not only against better teams, but more familiar foes that will have game after game to become more familiar with their predictable offensive rotations and preferences, constantly eroding what edge the Grizz may have. And when the game’s on the line, and they need a bucket, every coach, announcer, and fan in the NBA will generally know where the ball’s going.

It worked without Gay in 2011, but that was then. Shane Battier was still a Grizzly, OJ Mayo hadn’t fully begun his descent into the organization’s doghouse, and Greivis Vasquez was providing inspiring play as a rookie backup point guard. This current roster lacks the perimeter snipers that allowed their attack to flourish, and despite the huge progress made by Mike Conley it’s yet to be seen if he can mandate the perimeter-checking he might have to for Memphis to be anything more than a Dark Horse wannabe.

The Grizzlies’ recent winning streak was celebrated, but from a realistic point of view, they beat the teams they’re better than, and didn’t find ways to beat the one that they’re not, something they seemed all too capable of doing in November. This team obviously hasn’t given up, and still has the ability to make a run deep into the postseason, but the jury should be out on the Gay trade until we see how that run plays out, and just what this team’s capable of.

On the Grizzle – Business Unusual

As Robert Pera stepped to the mic yesterday for the first time since his Nov. 2 Home-Opener Address, he faced plenty of questions about the current state and direction of his team. After all, these Grizzlies were a different lot than the ones he’d taken over, the ones he’d watched jump out to the NBA’s best record before approving their overhaul since his last public appearance.

While the questions have flown, Pera has not seemed entirely consistent (or educated) in his stance, leaving even more uncertainty about his intentions going forward. This outlines the obvious massive chasm between the technology industry – where Pera, obviously a brilliant businessman, has made billions – and the NBA.

Delegate his dealings to Jason Levien and John Hollinger as he may, the man truly at the helm of this organization claims to be motivated by wins and not the “bottom line”, a mystifying position given its direct contradiction to the trades made so far. Both on paper and on the court, the current Grizzlies are a shell of the team that had the whole League on alert in November, but have swept countless millions in salaries and luxury tax off their books (while Pera noted “ownership…is still shoring up sponsorship agreements”).

His motives for the Cleveland deal seem nebulous; Pera insists it was part of “leverage” for the Gay trade (itself much scrutinized). Most NBA analysts saw the move as a potential waste of the 1st-round pick they dealt. Most Grizz fans saw it put their team under this year’s salary cap without significantly hurting their core. Ultimately, many feel the “value” that was “leveraged” from the Gay deal wasn’t the best offer to be had.

Unfortunately, this isn’t where the lack of clarity ends.

Any attempt to disguise last month’s trades as anything other than a salary dump (as Pera is venturing to do) is pure dishonesty, something that probably won’t endear too well to Memphis’ blue-collar fanbase. Last week, in an online chat with season ticket holders, Pera went so far as to call the Grizzlies ‘a far more dangerous playoff team’, citing a loose understanding of the defense-favoring pace playoff basketball takes on, and the recent Spurs and Pistons as historical proof of teams winning without “dominant superstars”.

In doing this, Pera is demonstrating not only a lack of historical basketball perspective, but insulting the intelligence of anyone he expects to believe him. His refusal to acknowledge Tim Duncan as a “dominant superstar” is absurd, and speaks to a low NBA IQ . The Pistons team he refers to was not only a perfect storm of defense and chemistry (the latter of which he’s bludgeoned since his arrival), but the only team to win a title without Duncan, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Moses Malone or Magic Johnson in the last 34 years. “Historical proof” that Pera doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Further proof lies right in front of us: the team that Pera is trying to masquerade as a contender to placate a justifiably angry mob of fans. While this team has likely improved marginally on defense with Tayshaun Prince in Gay’s place, they were already elite on D, and sacrificed too much offense to stay afloat, subtracting the leading scorer (and best perimeter-oriented threat on a post-heavy team) from an attack that already ranked in the NBA’s bottom five. “Defense wins Championships”, but it doesn’t do it alone. Any impartial observer can look at this team; compare it to the one that was skunking most of the League’s elite three months ago, and conclude that Pera is deceiving – in confident ignorance – either himself, or his new customers.

If Pera had simply maintained the position of a new small-market owner saddled with a Top-5 payroll and completely different approach to NBA ownership than his predecessor, this whole situation would be easier to swallow. If his intentions were clearly to save money now to improve the team’s flexibility in the near future, then waxing Gay was a painful, but reasonable decision. But shifting stances to cloak the move in rhetoric that even a slightly-knowledgeable fan can see straight through – as though he seriously built this team to contend this year – sets a dangerous precedent for his tenure in Memphis.

On The Grizzle: Layoffs > Playoffs

You hear it all the time; “The NBA is a business”. An obvious statement in and of itself, the sentiment it echoes is often a sideshow distraction behind the competitive drama professional basketball inspires.

Yet on days like today, its meaning is all too visceral for the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans, who are now officially seeing Peyton Manning, Justin Timberlake, and whoever else is calling the shots up there begin bushwhacking a Top-4 Western Conference force.

Last week’s deal with the Cavaliers was a shrewd adjustment; allowing the Grizzlies to hibernate under the luxury tax this season while shedding some expendable players, but apparently the need to save more money bore greater importance than a deep run in the Playoffs, as Rudy Gay’s departure has signaled.

There’s a lot to digest here, not the least of which is the fact that this is happening to begin with. The Grizzlies got off to the best start in the NBA, apparently reaching the apex of a team that had steadily improved each season its core spent together. They hit a few standard rough patches once the hype caught up with them, but didn’t really start playing their worst until management began publicly dangling Gay and casting this whole tightly-knit team’s outlook into doubt.

What they get in return for their best wing scorer (what little compensation they had for the lack of shooters to keep defenses from collapsing on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and fan-favorite/bench-prop Hamed Haddadi is a serious mixed bag.

Ed Davis is an athletic stud with a rapidly developing skill set who was buried beneath questionable signings in Toronto’s rotation and never got the chance to consistently show out. At a fraction of Gay’s contract, he could wind up being the best player in this trade, but his role in Memphis’ frontcourt is somewhat nebulous. Davis figures to be in a battle for minutes with the well-established Darrell Arthur, and while he can see minutes at the 5-spot against smaller lineups, it will be hard for him to grow into his potential with Randolph and Gasol being so focal. All told, he’s a very intriguing prospect but it’s difficult to see how he helps the Grizzlies much this season.

Memphis also netted Jose Calderon; a great fit for them at backup point as a distributor on a team who can mask his defensive horridness, and playing with a long-time Spanish teammate. As though that didn’t make enough sense, his $10 million salary also came off the books in the offseason, lessening that financial strain the Grizzlies’ top brass found so burdensome.

So of course, Calderon was immediately flipped to the Pistons for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, two completely redundant swingmen (one who’s almost over the hill, the other never really climbed it to begin with) who may provide a slight net defensive gain over Gay, but are downright offensive liabilities on a team that’s basically bringing knives to gunfights on a nightly basis, and only surviving because of heavy Kevlar.

Put more blatantly, the Grizzlies have a lot of trouble scoring at a steady enough clip. Everyone raves about their defense – and rightfully so – but their per-game scoring sits in the NBA’s catacombs along with the Pacers, Bulls (both of whom are missing their leading scorer) and Wizards (who nobody wants to be associated with).

Now that their best perimeter scorer has been significantly downgraded, it’s hard to see the situation improving much. None of the new arrivals are high-volume scorers, or consistent long-range threats to stretch defenses, so regardless of Davis’ contributions down the road, Memphis has taken a step back this season.

At the end of the day, from a business point of view, this was a justifiable long-term decision that sticks Memphis with a safer small-market budget, but its timing is all off. Not only is breaking up the core of an arguable Western contender somewhat dubious, but these new owners (every time I write that I’m envisioning JT with an increasingly sadistic look on his face) already accomplished their salary-slashing agenda; they got under the cap for this season. If they didn’t want to pay Gay next year, he wouldn’t have been any less tradeable in July after Memphis made an indeterminably deep playoffs run, and didn’t move to alienate their fan base.

But alas, the NBA is a business, and the most successful businesses are those that are built on growth; solid foundations and steady returns built upon not losing sight of the long-term for short gains.

What the Grizzlies have done with this trade however is ignore the solid foundation they already had, and the steady returns it yielded. They lost sight of the short-term for long savings, and it might cost them a shot at the game’s ultimate goal.

On the Grizzle – Bearing the Truth

While the 2012-13 season couldn’t have started any better for the Memphis Grizzlies, the past few weeks have been a somewhat sobering wake-up call amid the early success.

Easily winnable games have been blundered, the Grizz have fallen from first to fourth in the West, and obscure-turned-mainstream ESPN statistician/columnist John Hollinger was hired as VP of Basketball Operations, the first sign that the team’s new ownership was taking things in another direction.

That direction became more apparent today, with Yahoo! Sports reporting that the Grizzlies are knee-deep in trade talks with the Phoenix Suns, centering around the evacuation of Rudy Gay and the $37 million he’ll be owed over the next two seasons.  Granted, a steep price for an All Star-esque second scoring option who selectively commits himself on defense, but Memphis has to consider their current situation, and whether they’d be giving up too much equity in a playoff run to salary-dump Gay.

Though their new owners clearly have doubts about this team’s ability to chase a title on paper, there’s much evidence to support the contrary: though they lack the superstar standards of Miami and OKC, they boast one of the League’s most talented starting 5’s, with a bench that’s rounding into form and still very plausibly improvable (a Speights or Arthur/Selby/pick package could net less redundant returns).

They’ve made a deep playoff run before (albeit without Gay, but with OJ Mayo still around to cushion the scoring), playing a suffocating style of team defense that made even finely-tuned offensive machines like the Spurs and Thunder look like nervous crack-fiends with the rock, and from a statistical perspective, it’s only gotten better. This defensive edge is only compounded in the postseason, when action slows and teams become more familiar, and it bodes extremely well for Memphis that their squad’s core has spent several years together.

This season, they’ve played their best ball in the biggest games, rarely losing to top competition in close battles and (early-season factor noted) frequently handing them a sound beatdown. Bricks against inferior teams like Phoenix, Indiana, Portland and Philadelphia are what has cost Memphis, and even amidst what seemed like a slump, they’re still holding homecourt in the first round, and strike admitted fear into any higher-seeded team they’d yield it to.

So yes, Gay is likely overpaid, and the safe long-term play is probably to get him off the books, but there’s a fair bit of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic occurring here.

The obvious converse to this point is that not only did Memphis perform better without Gay in the playoffs, but that the NBA, like any other business, depends on getting the best from your investment, and that a small-market team has to be creative to compete with the likes of the Lakers (at least in terms of payroll), which would certainly not describe giving $19mil to someone who’s never made an All-Star, let alone All-NBA team. Those numbers don’t add up.

The statistical “what would we lose versus what could we make up for” calculations are precisely what Memphis hired Hollinger for, but stats can only go so far into explaining success. It comes from synergies between teammates; that whole “chemistry” thing, the familiarities from playing with each other night in and night out, bonds forged from chasing a common goal together, celebrating the wins, suffering through the losses, knowing what each other needs and when. That’s the type of team mentality the Grizzlies have bred; it’s what allowed them to perform above the sum of their parts when they’ve needed to, and it’s what’s endeared them to their fans.

The Hollinger hiring – and immediate subsequent suggestion that trading Gay for Jared Dudley somehow makes this a better basketball team –signals that Memphis’ new owners may not fully grasp this concept. This may seem highly hypocritical since I was calling for Gay to be traded in this very column last summer, but this season their improved offensive flow has made them a much more legitimate threat; rather than Gay and Randolph confusedly juggling the offensive load, they’re taking turns jabbing and hooking as the defense dictates, with Conley distributing the attack more confidently.

The bottom line is that Gay’s value to this team is probably more than it is on the trade market, regardless if he’s overpaid. Not many teams want him at his price, and those that do likely don’t have a hell of a lot to offer (hence why Memphis is in talks with Phoenix about Jared Dudley). The Grizzlies’ new ownership might feel they’re saving a few (million) dollars by shedding him, and even if they were lowballed, they’d be right. But again, consider the situation and what they’d be giving up.

If Memphis’ front office thinks there’s no way they can contend for a title this year, they’re wrong. And if they think they have to trade Rudy Gay to make things better, they’re mistaken.

On The Grizzle: Mercury Rising

A lot can be said of the Memphis Grizzlies so far this season; most of which is good. After all, their 13-3 record over a month into the season still stands as the NBA’s best, which has included not-so-dramatic wins over a number of elite teams, and a narrow loss to the Spurs, who essentially paid $250,000 to have a shot at beating them.

Zach Randolph has just been a complete monster this year, answering media queries like “will he ever bounce back?” by suddenly holding court in the early MVP debate. He’s leaner, hungier, nastier, and is the perfect leader for this team of once-wayward overachievers.

Mike Conley has steadily grown into his contract, and is playing more confidently than ever this year, flowing more seamlessly between attacker and distributor roles, while having the presence to take – and make – big shots in the clutch. He’s shooting career bests across the board, and especially his sudden long-range threat has kept defenses from collapsing on the Grizz interior as freely.

Marc Gasol’s wizardry as a passer is suddenly coming to light amidst this Memphis success; he leads all non-guards who don’t wear #6 for the Miami Heat in assists so far and provides an excellent second playmaker in the Grizzlies’ pass-heavy inside-out offense. He’s a beastly defensive presence, plays hard every night whether he gets touches or not, and would rip the face off of anyone who told him to put his “big boy pants” on.

The bench has been brilliant; headlined by Quincy Pondexter coming out of absolutely nowhere as a dark horse Sixth Man candidate, and bolstered by Darrell Arthur’s recent return, what was once a weak unit that betrayed the team’s talented starters is turning into one of their points of advantage, playing with seldom-seen intensity and cohesiveness.

Lionel Hollins – he of the Western Coach of the Month – has this team playing above the sum of their parts relatively consistently, adjusting lineups well, keeping his players motivated and fighting back from deficits numerous times:

Their Tuesday night win over Phoenix can be added to a list of come-from-behind wins over the Jazz, Rockets, Cavs and Raptors where Memphis has come out playing visibly below their potential as a team before getting it together, taking control down the stretch, and snaring the W.

This is where the bad – slight as it is for the Grizz thus far – comes into play.

The mercurial tendency the Grizzlies have developed – playing their best against top opposition while randomly approaching lesser teams like Sunday morning YMCA runs – came to a head vs. Phoenix, as Memphis fell behind well into the double-digits against a reeling and rebuilding Suns squad in front of the GrindHouse crowd.

They were missing defensive switches like clockwork, turning the ball over at very inopportune times and bricking everything outside of eight feet when they actually got a shot off.

They needed overtime and a near-career night from Z-Bo to escape with a victory; the type of description you’d rather hear about a Western Finals slugfest than an early-December game against a bonafide lottery team, but if the Grizzlies don’t shake these slow starts, they won’t survive into late May.

These aren’t particularly good teams that Memphis is fighting back against; these are the ones they’re supposed to be beating. They stumbled out of gate against the Nuggets at home a couple weeks back, and Denver disrupted Memphis’ rhythm enough to hold off numerous runs. It can only be expected that given similar opportunities, other Western playoff teams – especially a familiar foe during a seven-game series – would pounce and be much less willing to relent.

Memphis has looked very dangerous against the top of its schedule, but these scattered near-losses bring slight concern to an otherwise outstanding start. Phoenix was not winning that game on Tuesday night; Memphis was losing it, as was much the case against Denver before them. The better the team, the more pressure the situation, the harder it is to flip the switch and suddenly take a game back over. It may seem nit-picky, but – like it or not – Memphis’ start has put them in realm of the NBA’s elite, so this stuff matters. They’ll have to be playing their best ball consistently to beat a team like the Thunder (who’ve shaken off their early post-Harden jitters and are looking very legit), and maybe the Grizzlies will learn first-hand this year what overachieving can do to expectations. Or they could just ask Jeremy Lin.

The Grizzlies, resilient as they are, have shown that they won’t lie down without a fight, which has to be encouraging for their fans. But as they continue to defend the West’s top spot, the margins for these types of lapses will have to shrink instead of grow if they hope to follow up on what the first month has promised.

Hopefully for Memphis, Tuesday night was the sign of a turning point; another good thing to say about a season where the bad has been hard to find.

On The Grizzle – How The West Was Won

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.

On The Grizzle: Memphis Z-Bounds

As I write this, the Memphis Grizzlies have just put the finishing touches on a rather convincing 104-86 victory over the defending champion Miami Heat. “All I Do Is Win” blares from the speakers, confetti rains down, Wayne Ellington gives a post-game mic check (more on that in a second), and thousands of Memphis fans will no doubt soon be spilling into the bars lining Beale Street, raving about how this is “the Grizz’s year”.

And regardless of how many beers they’ll no doubt have consumed, they may just be right.

The Grizz have started the season on a 5-1 rampage, winning by an average of 12.6 points all against fringe-to-certain playoff teams. Their lone whiff came in an opening-night playoff grudge match against the Clippers, who are quite possibly the only team in the West playing better than Memphis right now.

Several keys have ignited this burst out of the gate, and it starts with Zach Randolph. Last season was far from ideal for Z-Bo, who spent most of the lockout putting on weight, tore his MCL a week into last season, spent two more months putting on weight, then was rushed back for the disaster that was Memphis’ 2012 First Round. Not only does Randolph look 25-30 pounds lighter, but is playing with an unseen hunger; he’s more energetic on defense, atop the NBA in rebounding, and putting this team on his back when it was wondered all offseason who would step up and lead.

Z-Bo’s focus on defense highlights another lethal Grizzlies’ asset: their tenacity when protecting the hoop. Tony Allen leads a frenetic crusade that pressures ballhandlers, squeezes passing lanes, and rarely leaves a shot uncontested, especially in the paint.

Memphis is particularly long on defense with Marc Gasol in the high post, and can force very uncomfortable shots in a lot of sets. The defensive chemistry on this team has improved greatly, not only in on-court cohesion, but in consistent effort from the entire squad.

Quincy Pondexter and Mareese Speights are providing massive contributions off the bench, stifling opposing second units while scoring capably and making Grizz fans forget about Darrell Arthur’s latest injury.

This fluid roster composition being totally attributed to OJ Mayo’s absence is a stretch, but there’s no denying that Memphis’ bench looks – and has been producing – much steadier without the combustible who-guard (as in not a two-guard, but can you call him a point?) alternating between brilliance and horror while disengaging the rest of the team. Jerryd Bayless finally appears to have found shoes that fit in the NBA (those of a backup point guard on a good team he can learn from), emceeing a balanced bench attack that even once-written-off Wayne Ellington is suddenly flourishing in.

Sure it’s only one game, but in raining 25 on the defending champs off of 7-11 from long range, Ellington showed glimpses of being the lethal 3-point threat the Grizzlies covet; one that can keep defenses honest in transition, space the floor in the halfcourt and punish teams who try to double their big men.

But until that threat develops consistently, the Grizz have done a solid job of balancing their inside/outside game; capitalizing on Rudy Gay’s perimeter threat, while not disrupting the rhythm of their post presence that had brought success during his injury.

There’s been a balanced, unselfish scoring effort put forth by Gay, Randolph, and particularly Gasol – in this sense, a distant strain from his brother – who is content banging in the post and drawing coverage to make an extra pass, and gives his all whether he gets 13 shots (like he did on opening night against LA) or 6 (like he did vs. Miami, but dished out as many dimes). His willingness and ability to make plays for others from the pivot speaks much more than the raw quantification of over 5 assists/game, good for first among NBA centers by a wide margin. Gasol’s far from an isolated example however; the entire team looks on point, clicking together with an air of swagger unseen last year.

It seems like a trite sports cliché, but the Memphis Grizzlies are just playing like they want it right now. They’re running the kind of passionate, unselfish, relentless game we’re used to seeing from the best teams in April and May. Seems weird since we’re barely a week into the season, but maybe this is the kind of motivation that can only be spawned from blowing a 27-point lead in the 4th quarter of a playoff game in front of your own fans; from harvesting the disappointment from that historic collapse all summer, and being determined to rebound and never let it happen again.

The Miami victory was an affirming one for Memphis; after they clawed back against Utah and handed the Bucks their first loss of the season by the 2nd quarter, the Grizzlies had a chance to hunt some fearsome prey, and made an efficient kill. They won’t have much time to enjoy the spoils, as OKC, Denver, the suddenly-really-good Knicks, and who-knows-what-they’ll-be-by-next-Friday Lakers await, the back stretch of a tough opening schedule.

But these Grizzlies are a tough bunch. Every early indication points to last season being behind them, and with Zach Randolph epitomizing their renewed hunger, the NBA should be on Grizzly Watch.

On The Grizzle: Redemption

Redemption.

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.

Grizzlies: Requiem For A Season

It really wasn’t supposed to end this way. This early.

I know how strange that sounds. I mean, we’re talking about the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that waywardly wandered away from Vancouver and seemed as out of place in the NBA as a Grizzly bear in the city of Memphis , but this season was supposed to be different.
Yet here we are – mere weeks removed from the “Western Dark Horse” and “Think About How Dangerous They’ll be With Rudy Gay” talk – and the Grizz are cleaning out their lockers prematurely, again, with plenty of question marks and a 27-point cumulus cloud hanging over their offseason.

Where did it all go wrong? Unfortunately for Memphis’ intensely passionate fans, there’s no obvious scapegoat; no clear target for index fingers, other than the one no team can avoid: fate.

It was obvious that the Grizz were going to have to make some adjustments in welcoming back a dynamic talent like Rudy Gay back to a system that propelled them past the Spurs and to within a game of the Western Conference Finals last spring. But the full-on identity crisis Memphis was set up for when Darrell Arthur, and then worse yet Zach Randolph, went down for large stretches, would ultimately condemn their season.

Like any self-respecting, competitive team, they didn’t roll over; they adjusted, adapted, but hardly evolved. Despite Marreese Speights’ solid efforts to fill the rebounding and scoring voids left in the frontcourt, the team was thinner, weaker; forced to stray from the post-oriented offense and punishing transition game that defined their success.

They were winning games; staying above water for Randolph’s return, but they were also getting comfortable outside their own skin. Grizzlies in sheep’s clothing. Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo were scoring most of their points; Marc Gasol was shouldering more of a load on the glass, facing more attention on defense than he ever had, and fighting off even more bodies for rebounds (and still made the All-Star team); Mike Conley got more comfortable looking for his shot than looking for a man on the block; and the vaunted energy of their bench looked suddenly languid.

In what was already a season of many adjustments for every NBA player and team, the Grizzlies had to re-create themselves yet again when Randolph returned – this time to share the scoring load with Gay – just in time for the playoffs.

That the postseason began with a completely anomalous, unlikely, historic, and utterly soul-crushing collapse (one that was cued by Chris Paul forcing Vinny Del Negro to put him back in the game during the 4th  quarter, to be fuelled by series of three-point bombs from Nick Young and gritty hustle from Reggie Evans, two noted playoff assassins) didn’t help matters.

Starting a series with such an epic swing of momentum surely took the wind out of their lungs, but the Grizzlies weren’t ever truly out of it, only they waited until their backs were against the wall, down 3-1, to move their attack closer to the hoop and truly abuse their edge. They managed to force Game 7, but couldn’t close the deal; it wasn’t too little, just too late.

The obvious dilemma going forward will be Rudy Gay’s role and presence on this team. As recently as 18 months ago, he was given a generous contract and pegged as their franchise guy; there’s no denying Gay’s talent. You also can’t deny this truth; the Grizzlies – with largely the same lineup – went a fair bit deeper in the playoffs, against tougher competition, without him last year. And in the games that saved Memphis’ season, Gasol and Randolph carried the bulk of the load.

Logic would certainly point to moving Gay; he’s versatile, he’s athletic, he performed well last season and probably hasn’t hit his cieling yet; but he’s like Memphis used to seem in the NBA: just out of place. His trade value might never be higher again, there’s a ton of money tied up in him, and when you consider what he could bring back: a more functional upgrade at the point, bench scoring that isn’t OJ Mayo (who the Grizz seemingly can’t wait to get rid of), a legit post presence to shore Randolph and Gasol (hell, bring Mayo/Conley into the fold and Chris Wallace could probably get all of the above) it’s hard to ignore.

It would be a dramatic move, but “dramatic” could also describe the 27-point meltdown that arguably could’ve cost Memphis a trip to the Second Round. To quote a sage old man (Jaffar from Aladdin, don’t sleep): “Desperate time calls for desperate measures”. The Thunder aren’t getting much older anytime soon.

So the offseason looms, with much at stake. The return of Darrell Arthur will only help bolster Memphis’ questionable bench and restore the swagger that once took the NBA by storm, but if the Grizzlies want to stop swimming upstream, he shouldn’t be the only thing to change about this roster. Maybe trading Rudy Gay isn’t the way the franchise wants to go; I called Wallace crazy when he gave Pau Gasol away, but that seemed to work out, so who knows what he has up his sleeve.

One thing’s for sure: After a season of adjustments that moved them backwards, it’s time to adjust again, and hopefully continue to move forward.