Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Season Preview: Emptying the Notebook

Posted By on Wed, Oct 27, 2010 at 2:05 PM

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

Admittedly, this is a relatively small sample size of only 153 minutes, but the numbers here rhyme with what I was seeing at games last season. And look what happens when you put at least one other starter on the floor with them:

Gasol/Thabeet with Another Starter: +8.8 (142 minutes)

Why did this work? When you look deeper at the numbers what you see is that the Gasol/Thabeet combo helped the team defensively more than it hurt offensively. As we saw, Gasol defended power forwards better than Zach Randolph last season, so the Gasol/Thabeet pairing gave the team a better defender at the four while retaining a defensive presence in the middle. Purely observationally, I got the sense that Thabeet was more comfortable with Gasol than with Randolph, probably because Gasol is a better passer and was probably more attentive about playing with Thabeet. The pairing also lead to more offensive opportunities for Gasol, who was a very efficient scorer and probably needs more touches generally.

All that said, I'm betting the Gasol/Thabeet combo gets fewer minutes this season, not more. The team wants to rest Gasol, Darrell Arthur is pushing for more time, and Thabeet hasn't looked good in preseason. All those factors work against exploring the twin towers look, but how the team performs with each of its possible frontcourt combinations is something that bears scrutiny this season.

The Under-Noted "Health" Factor: The note of caution about the Grizzlies chances this season that gets mentioned the most is that the team had unusually good health last season — with the five starters missing a combined 18 games — and are unlikely to be so fortunate again. I agree with this, but I think the observation misses a key point. The real issue is injury as much as unexpected absence. How much is the team you think you're going to have disrupted by absences? Last year, the player the Grizzlies expected to be their sixth man, top bench scorer, and veteran presence — namely Allen Iverson — played only two games. I think Tony Allen plays more than two games. Factor in also that the player who should have been the team's top frontcourt reserve, Darrell Arthur, missed 50 games and was never really right. And that trade acquisition Ronnie Brewer got injured immediately and never played. That starting lineup remained mostly intact, but the team's depth was severely impacted by unexpected absence, so I don't think the odds are that the overall injury/absence impact will be significantly worse this season.

Randolph's Second-Half Slippage: Zach Randolph had such a charmed season for the Grizzlies that his troubling second-half slippage went mostly unnoticed. Randolph's great start was built primarily on shot discipline, dialing back on perimeter shots and concentrating his game more in the paint, where he's obviously a beast. But look at Randolph's month-by-month shooting percentages last season: 50/52/50/46/48/45. And look at Randolph's first half/second half splits for three-point shooting:

First 41 games: 4-17
Second 41 games: 11-35

And it's no accident that Randolph's offensive efficiency declined as his three-point attempts were doubling. For Randolph to be the game-changer he was for the Grizzlies last season rather than just the stat-accumulator he'd been in some previous seasons, he needs to get back on track in terms of his shot discipline. The fans love Z-Bo, but they do neither him nor the team any favors by cheering three-point heaves that aren't a product of pure shot-clock necessity.

Sam Young and Darrell Arthur's Preseason Production: I touched on this in my season preview in the paper, but both Young and Arthur were very productive in the preseason. After shooting 45% from the floor and 20% from three last season, Young shot 56% and 50% in the preseason. And Arthur, after averaging 12.5 points per 40 minutes on 43% shooting last season, was up to 18 points per 40 and 55% shooting in the preseason. Neither of these guys is going to duplicate those numbers in the regular season, but I do think the preseason production suggests both players can be much improved this season, which would be a huge help to the Grizzlies.

Mayo at the Point, Yet Again: I've already expressed some skepticism about the notion that O.J. Mayo should ultimately be a point guard, but I did think his turn on the ball against the Hornets in the preseason — an exciting 16-4 fourth quarter run — was interesting. Mayo's handle is shaky and he had some turnovers, but he also made plays. And for me, it still comes down to this: Why not have using Mayo on the ball as a situational option? Use if when you're struggling against bigger backcourts. Spot him against back-up points. I'm nowhere near convinced it should be Mayo's primary position and I don’t want him handling the ball against the Chris Pauls and Rajon Rondos of the world. But I think it could help the team against certain match-ups. And if Sam Young and Xavier Henry both press for playing time and Acie Law is inconsistent, then giving Mayo (or, fine, Tony Allen) some of the minutes behind Conley could be the only way to get all of those wing reserves into he mix.

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