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.