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.