The Lead: Even when the Grizzlies were a three-time playoff team, you rarely got the sense that the team had won a game through sheer talent disparity. But that was the case tonight. Even without Zach Randolph and on the night after a draining road victory against the Dallas Mavericks, the Grizzlies simply overwhelmed the Minnesota Timberwolves to start this game. With clear talent advantage at four of five positions (Kevin Love/Darrell Arthur the exception), the Grizzlies jumped out to a 25-5 lead eight minutes into the game, every point coming from the paint, the free-throw line, or beyond the arc.
The downside was that the team, never really feeling threatened, seemed to grow complacent whenever the lead would grow close to 20. After that 25-5 start, the Wolves went on a 7-0 run to cut it to 13, rookie Nikola Pekovic doing most of the damage. The lead seesawed between 10 and 17 most the rest of the way. The Grizzlies didn't get up to +20 again until midway through the fourth quarter, when they finally put the game away. A byproduct of allowing the Wolves a sliver of hope most of the game and still — especially with Arthur in the starting lineup — searching for consistent help off the bench was that the starters played an awful lot of minutes for a home "blowout" over a bad team: Gay played 44 minutes (after playing 44 against Dallas the previous night), Mayo 40, Conley 38. And after playing only 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Gasol played 21 straight in the second half.
A statistical indicator that the team probably got a little too comfortable tonight: The Grizzlies had more three-point attempts (20, although they did make 8 of them) than free-throw attempts (18). Did that ever happen last season?
I'll try not to make these as long in the future, but, hey, it's opening night!
The Lead: Well, the Grizzlies lost their opener tonight by double digits. But before people over-react to this, let's establish some context. For starters, the team was missing Marc Gasol from the start with a sprained ankle and only got 15 unproductive minutes from Zach Randolph, who hit the floor hard in the first quarter, suffering a lower back contusion, tried to come back but was clearly struggling physically, and had to sit out the entire second half. We all knew that this team — built so much around its power game — would struggle if missing one of its starting bigs. But both? (And, yes, I blame myself for putting a Flyer cover jinx on them.)
And finally, the Grizzlies have a long history of deflating home openers, even in good seasons. Last season, the Grizzlies lost by 22 in the home opener to a mediocre Detroit Pistons squad but still got into the playoff race and finished with 40 wins. In 2005, the Grizzlies lost by 19 to the Miami Heat in the home opener and went on to 49 wins and a playoff appearance. In 2004, they lost the home opener by 12 to a severely undermanned Washington Wizards squad and ended up with 45 wins and made the playoffs. In other words, if you've been around the team awhile, then you've seen this play before. Though it is frustrating to see the team give a desultory performance in front of a large crowd, many of which may not see another game in person all season.
So, why did I actually find this game encouraging? Heading into this season what we thought we knew about the Grizzlies was this: The team's starters were good, with the caveat of Mike Conley being inconsistent and a historically poor starter. And the bench was an enormous problem. Coming out of this game, there's no reason to have lost any confidence in the starting lineup, with the added bonus of seeing Mike Conley begin a season with one of his better games. And with Darrell Arthur and Sam Young following up their strong preseasons with productive games tonight, the team shows signs of having two reliable bench options once the starting lineup is back intact. And that's two more than the team had a year ago. So, provided Gasol and Randolph don't miss much time — and right now their respective injuries appear minor — the Grizzlies look like they’re going to be fine. There are some rotation adjustments I might suggest, but I probably need to give it a couple more games before wading into that.
As usual, I ran out of time to do all the season-preview posts I'd hoped to do. (Damn you, Indie Memphis!) As a result, I had several mental or recorded notes that I never got into any posts or my print-edition preview. So, with a few hours until the Grizzlies regular season begins, I'm emptying the notebook here:
The Importance of Gasol: If you want to find one common denominator for team success or failure for the Grizzlies last season it was this: They were a good team with Marc Gasol on the floor and a bad team without him. Gasol was the one player on the floor who seemed to have a positive impact on both ends of the floor and the player who seemed to have the most tangible impact on his teammates. This was all a factor of both how well Gasol played and how poor the team's center situation was behind him. With Hasheem Thabeet not looking much, I'm not sure if things will change much this season. (Though perhaps an improved Darrell Arthur will allow the team to play more effective small-ball lineups.) Which means Griz fans should hope that Gasol's current ankle injury doesn't linger and there aren't many more health problems ahead for him.
The Thabeet/Gasol Combo: My first season preview piece looked at five-man lineups from last season, illustrating the big gulf between how the team played with all five starters on the floor and how they played with any other lineup:
Full Starter Lineup: +7.3
All Other Lineups: -6.7
An interesting exception to that trend? Lineups that paired Gasol and Thabeet together:
Gasol/Thabeet Lineups: +5.0
Opening night! I'll be on hand for tonight's opener, tweeting during the game and filing a post-game blog at some point after the action. Until then, here are a few thoughts in advance of tonight's game:
But what happens if Gasol, as expected, misses tonight's opener due to his recently sprained ankle? Obviously, this hurts the Grizzlies, as Gasol was arguably the team's most important player a year ago. But, more specifically, how does this impact the match-ups?
The obvious response would seem to be moving Hasheem Thabeet into the starting lineup. But, given how Thabeet is unlikely to be able to exploit his size advantage over Horford on the offensive end, it might be better for the Grizzlies to go small, shifting Randolph to center and starting Darrell Arthur — who is coming off a strong preseason — at forward opposite Smith, who is perhaps the most athletic power forward in the league. And it might make sense for the Grizzlies to go even smaller at times, with Arthur at center and/or Rudy Gay (or even DeMarre Carroll) checking Smith.
Excerpts from this interview appear in the print edition of this week's Flyer. Note: This interview was conducted last Thursday, before Marc Gasol suffered a sprained ankle on Sunday.
Lionel Hollins: I would say that. That's where we hung our hat last year and where we made our improvement. We were 30th in rebounding the year before Zach came and last year we were fourth. We were first in offensive rebounding and first in points in the paint and first in second-chance points. So I think that's definitely our identity. We want to play hard-nosed defense, rebound the ball, and run. But get it inside to our post people in our halfcourt offense, and even in early offense.
Obviously that frontcourt duo is surrounded by some talented and high-profile perimeter players. Do you think they've bought into the notion that emphasizing the inside game is what this team needs to do to win?
Well, obviously they did [last year]. But we posted Rudy a lot and other guys have the opportunity to do their thing. That's the balance we have. If we have to slow it down, we go inside. But if we have the opportunity, we'll run — and I hope we have more opportunities to run this year because we'll be a better defensive team.
At long last, the NBA regular season tips off tonight. Time to go on the record with some league-wide predictions for the season.
1. Miami Heat
2. Orlando Magic
3. Boston Celtics
4. Chicago Bulls
5. Atlanta Hawks
6. New York Knicks
7. Milwaukee Bucks
8. New Jersey Nets
9. Washington Wizards
10. Indiana Pacers
11. Charlotte Bobcats
12. Philadelphia 76ers
13. Cleveland Cavaliers
14. Detroit Pistons
15. Toronto Raptors
Western Conference Standings:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Dallas Mavericks
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Houston Rockets
6. Portland Trailblazers
7. Utah Jazz
8. Memphis Grizzlies
9. Phoenix Suns
10. New Orleans Hornets
11. Denver Nuggets
12. Los Angeles Clippers
13. Sacramento Kings
14. Golden State Warriors
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
As I wrote about here, the Grizzlies bench last season dragged down a playoff-caliber starting lineup. With the same starting lineup returning, the team's hopes of improving may rest in large part on how much the bench can improve. So here's a quick position-by-position look at this season's prospective reserves compared to last season's bench, using projections and observations from John Hollinger and Basketball Prospectus for a neutral take, as well as my own observations.
Marcus Williams: 62 games, 14.1 minutes, 38% shooting, 10.6 PER
Jamaal Tinsley: 38 games, 15.5 minutes, 37% shooting, 7.9 PER
This Season:Acie Law is expected to be the primary back-up point guard, though I won't be surprised if Tony Allen and/or O.J. Mayo end up getting a lot of time there as the season wears on. Hollinger doesn't project stats for Law because of his limited playing time last season, but sees him as a useful NBA player this season, which is more than you can say for last year's back-up points. BP sees Law as a score-first guard who can get to the rim and hold his own defensively.
Verdict: Upgrade. Based on that and what we've seen in the preseason, Law looks to be a more versatile and solid option than any of the journeymen who've manned this spot for the Grizzlies since Kyle Lowry was traded. He should be at least a minor upgrade. But if the team lets Allen and/or Mayo soak up these minutes, then this should be a major upgrade, even though neither is a pure point guard. Rookie Greivis Vasquez is currently buried, but if he were to work his way into the mix it would only be by playing well, not as a desperation option.
Sam Young: 80 games, 16.5 minutes, 7.4 points, 45% shooting, 13.0 PER
This Season: With the addition of free agent Tony Allen and rookie Xavier Henry, look for Young's minutes to shift heavily to the small forward slot and for Allen and Henry to share minutes behind O.J. Mayo at the two. Allen, obviously, is a proven veteran bench contributor who is among the league's best defensive stoppers and is right in his prime. Hollinger projects a 13.64 PER and 49% shooting. BP says he'll be a "godsend" for the team's defense. As for Henry, he started shaky but was productive in the final couple of preseason games. He's a smart kid with a developed body and a great track record as a shooter. As he gets more used to the NBA three-point line and the speed of the game, he seems like a good bet to be a decent rookie contributor, probably more effective overall than Young was as a rookie. But the good news is that the Grizzlies have enough options that they won't have to force Henry into the lineup like they did with last year's rookies.
Verdict: Big Upgrade. Allen's proven ability as a defender and energy guy alone makes this an upgrade. The potential of Henry to offer the team an outside shooting option in this role makes it a big one.
As I gear up for the final stretch of season-preview material — both here and in next week's print edition of the Flyer — let's pause to toss out a few recent notes and links of potential interest to Grizzlies fans:
For starters, if you missed it, we're giving away a couple of pairs of tickets — choice seats! — to Wednesday's home opener. Check that out here.
The Grizzlies waived free agent roster invites Damien Wilkins and Josh Davis yesterday. The Davis move is disappointing. The team had one open roster spot and Davis had performed well in the preseason. He also could have filled a situational role — a frontcourt floor-stretcher — that no-one on the current roster could fill. The sense I got was that Davis was highly regarded throughout the organization. I don't know for a fact that the team wanted to keep Davis and the owner vetoed spending the extra money to keep him, but that's what I suspect. I also have a hunch — and only a hunch — that if Lionel Hollins had his way the team would have kept Davis and Wilkins, even if it meant buying out a current player (such as Hamed Haddadi). This team needs more solid veterans, even if those veterans are only on the back end of the rotation. If Davis was cut loose as an ownership mandate, then you have to ask: How can you demand playoffs and not do minimum things to give your coach the tools he wants to make that happen?here for the full lineup. Also, if you want Chris Wallace and Lionel Hollins to bag your groceries, then check this out.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann points out that the last 11 teams to go through preseason with one of fewer losses have made the playoffs — potential good news for the Grizzlies, who are 7-0 heading into their final preseason game tonight against the Detroit Pistons. Schuhmann also shows that the Grizzlies have looked good defensively in the preseason.
This 82Games.com article from a few seasons ago backs up the assertion that there's a correlation between a really good preseason record and regular-season success.
We've got a few tickets to the Grizzlies' regular-season home opener and we're giving them away!
The game is next Wednesday, October 27th, at 7pm vs. the Atlanta Hawks.
The seats are good. They're in section 115, pictured below.
Also, Wednesday night marks the beginning of the Grizzlies' 10th season in Memphis, which will be celebrated with performances by local musicians — including Booker T. Jones and the Bar-Kays — before the game and during halftime. See the Grizzlies' official site for more info.
Enter here for the drawing, which will take place on Monday, October 25th. One entry per reader, please.
A year ago in this space, I approached the question of what kind of player O.J. Mayo would become by comparing his rookie season to the rookie seasons (or, in some cases, just the first full seasons) of players who embodied on of the three types: The Big, Scoring Point Guard, The Shooting Specialist, and The Ball-Dominating Two Guard.
Mayo compared favorably to the shooters however, his rookie-year shooting percentages and three-point prolificacy in line with players such as Kevin Martin, Ben Gordon, and what may be the gold standard of reasonable Mayo comparisons: Ray Allen.
A year later, not a whole lot has changed. Mayo's second season was only modestly different from his rookie year. His turnover ratio improved from 56th to 44th among shooting guards, but his assist ratio was stagnant. There's still an issue of opportunity here. But both on the stat page and on the court, Mayo hasn't demonstrated the kind of handle, passing, and decision-making ability to make him a great creator from the two-guard position, much less someone ready to play the point full-time.
The Grizzlies opened their preseason with an 87-85 home win over the Indiana Pacers Wednesday night. There's only so much you can learn from one game, with information even more unreliable in preseason contests. So, at the risk of putting too much emphasis on one night, a few reactions:
Hasheem Thabeet's performance was a pretty even mix of good and bad, which makes it a fairly big upgrade over most of his games last season. On the plus side, Thabeet was productive in his minutes, scoring 10 points on 3-3 shooting (4-6 from the line), with 5 rebounds and a steal and a block in 13 minutes. Two of those baskets were point-blank looks, but one was a nice little baseline jumper. Thabeet generally seemed more alert and comfortable than he looked most of his rookie season. On the downside, Thabeet only played 13 minutes because that's how long it took him to foul out. At least a couple of those fouls were on the offensive end. And one bad offensive possession, where he tried to make a post move against Pacers reserve Solomon Jones but wasn't able to get the ball over his head and get off a shot, demonstrated that he still needs to add much more upper-body strength. On the whole, though, given the meager expectations, this was a promising start to Thabeet's sophomore season.
Rookie Xavier Henry got off to a rough start. He was tentative and overly deferential early, not taking a shot in the first half. Then when he started shooting, he couldn't hit, missing his first three field-goal attempts and first two free-throw attempts. On one fastbreak, Henry approached the basket in a way that suggested he'd want to finish with his right hand, but switched to his strong hand (Henry is a lefty) at the last minute, creating a more awkward angle and missing the lay-up. Henry needs to be able to finish with either hand at the rim. I also noticed a little hitch in Henry's jumper — a slight pause at the height of his delivery — that I hadn't taken note of before. This won't matter if the shots go in, as they did at Kansas. Henry settled down late, hitting two jumpers down the stretch and seemed to have his head in the game. We have to remember that, after missing summer league, this was Henry's first real game against NBA competition. And that he's still just 19. For what it's worth, Henry played better than the Pacers' two rookie wings, Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
Finally, real live basketball is back. The Grizzlies begin their eight-game preseason schedule tonight at 7 p.m., hosting the Indiana Pacers at FedExForum. Here are the five players I'm most interested in watching tonight:
The Grizzlies really need someone on the bench they can rely on to put up double-digit points when given the opportunity and, sadly, Henry, a 19-year-old rookie, is probably the bench player best equipped to do that.
The Pacers match-up also provides a lot of interesting contrasts to Henry among wing players: There's Paul George, who seemed to be the other player the Grizzlies were most interested in at Henry's pick, but went to the Pacers two picks earlier at #10. There's fellow rookie Lance Stephenson, who I thought outperformed both at his Grizzlies workout. There's Dahntay Jones, a former Griz player who has carved a niche as a solid rotation/spot minutes guy. There's Brandon Rush, who profiles similar to Henry in many ways — swingman with good size, good shot, and seemingly average athleticism who was an elite high school prospect and very good college player at Kansas before becoming a mid-first-round pick. Rush has been a middling pro so far; the Griz need Henry to be better than that. And, finally, there's Danny Granger, a true all-star-level player.