As we face a moment-of-truth weekend in the CBA negotiations, we here at Beyond the Arc continue to prepare for the best. The fourth post of my five-part look at the Grizzlies roster entering an abbreviated "off season":
What a year. Randolph didn't make the All-Star team like he did in his first season with the Grizzlies, but he was an even better player, and his payoff came at the end, with an all-NBA selection and a post-season explosion that solidified him — at last — as a recognized elite player.
In 2010-2011, Randolph consolidated his previous season's efficiency as a scorer and rebounder — notching his highest shooting percentage since becoming a starter and his best rebound rate ever — but made his real strides in areas that have always been his biggest weaknesses — passing and defense. Randolph didn't morph into vintage Kevin Garnett, but the days of legitimately labeling him a "black hole" or a "bad defender" were over.
At his very best, Randolph was as dominant a post-season player as anyone last season — including Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant. In consecutive Game 6s — one to close out a series and one to avoid elimination — Randolph took completely took over games. But Randolph's brilliant playoff games overshadowed some bad ones. In truth, Randolph was inconsistent in the playoffs, although this inconsistency probably had as much to do with the Grizzlies' inability to relieve pressure on Randolph with perimeter offense as it did with Randolph's own play.
Randolph had three playoff games in which he shot under 36% from the floor. In those three games, he averaged 11.6 points per game and the Grizzlies lost all three by an average of 14 points a game, which underscored all much the Grizzlies missed Rudy Gay as a second shot-creator on the perimeter.
With an important CBA negotiation meeting on-tap today that could point the way toward a potential deal, I continue my position-by-position look at the Grizzlies' current roster with a look at the small forward position.
When Rudy Gay went down with a shoulder injury on February 15th, he was enjoying the best season of his five-year career. Was it The Leap? No. But Gay's improved play was composed of small but meaningful across-the-board improvements. He notched career-best shooting percentages from the floor (mostly by finishing better at the rim), the free-throw line, and the three-point line. His blocks and steals were up, which was only the start of his significant in-season defensive improvement. His assist rate was up sharply. And at the precise moment that Evan Turner ripped Gay's left shoulder from its socket, Gay was displaying the kind of balanced, focused game that will maximize his impact on this team — scoring down slightly, in partial deference to the team's post game, but rebounds and assists and defensive focus at a career apex.
In Gay's final 15 games before his injury:
17.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.0 bpg, 1.5 spg
Team record: 11-4
It was this middle stretch of the season — after Tony Allen entered the rotation and before Gay was injured — when the Grizzlies played their best basketball, something that either went unnoticed or forgotten when the team held onto a playoff spot and made a post-season run without Gay. Extend back to early December, when Allen got in the rotation for good, and the Grizzlies were on a 23-12 run when Gay went down, including 10-5 against eventual playoff teams. That .657 winning percentage would have been the 8th best in the league over the full season.
So the notion that the Grizzlies were better without Gay was nonsense, something that should have been made clear in the back half of the series against the Thunder, when the Grizzlies were shooting under 40% every game and couldn't get any consistent perimeter offense, when the Thunder defense was begging Sam Young and Tony Allen to shoot the ball. And the idea that it will be difficult to integrated Gay back into an offense with Zach Randolph as the top option is also odd — Randolph was the leading scorer and an all-star-level performer alongside Gay for a year and a half before Gay's injury.
I continue this weeklong roster breakdown series with a look at the Grizzlies' most unsettled position.
Tony Allen had the best year of his career in his seventh season, at age 28. Has he reached a new plateau he can maintain in the remaining two years of his current contract with the Grizzlies or did we just witness a classic fluke season?
Last season, Allen notched a career-high steal rate — in fact, the highest steal rate in the NBA in nearly 20 years. And that's only Exhibit A for Allen's defensive brilliance last season. Fans witnessed Allen's virtuoso balance of aggression and containment, pressuring defenders and going for steals but still recovering to stop drives. They saw Allen routinely defend with such energy and awareness that he seemed to be guarding the entire other team. They saw him have crucial, shutdown defensive possessions on players ranging from the 6'0" Chris Paul to the 6'10" Kevin Durant.
Further, Allen had a catalytic impact on the entire team defense, as the Grizzlies improved from seventh to first in steals per game, from 17th to first in opponent turnovers, and, most impressively, from 23rd to eighth in overall defensive efficiency.
Pair Allen's defensive dynamism with a career-low turnover rate and shooting percentages from the floor and line higher than his career norms, and Allen was an extremely efficient and impactful player.
I remain optimistic that a deal will be struck in the next two weeks that will preserve the full regular-season, but even if that happens, we're going to be looking at an accelerated training camp/signing period.
In preparation for a potential deal and a crazy ramp-up to the season, I'm going to take a daily position-by-position look at where the roster stands heading into the hopefully approaching season.
Regular Season: 35.5 mpg, 13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.78 spg, 2.2 tpg, 15.9 PER, 44fg%, 73ft%, 37 3p% (2.7 att)
Playoffs: 39.9 mpg, 15.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.4 apg, 1.1 spg, 2.3 tpg, 13.9 PER, 39fg%, 83ft%, 30 3p% (2.8 att)
Contract Status: $6.5 million in first year of five-year deal.
Mike Conley is coming off his best and most consistent season. In the regular season, he avoided the slow starts that plagued him in previous seasons en route to matching or setting career highs in almost every statistical category. (Exception: His surprisingly effective three-point shooting fell off a little, from 41% and 39% the previous two seasons to just under 37% last season.)
Conley then held is own in the high-stakes atmosphere of his first playoff run, facing tough match-ups in both series, playing nearly 40 minutes a night, and helping guide a #8 seed to the seventh game in the second round.
Good season aside, Conley is not without questions. If the post-season established him as a cool floor general and solid starter, it also exposed some of his offensive and defensive limitations: In the regular season, Conley was able to mitigate his tendency to get overpowered defensively by using his quick hands and good instincts to pile up deflections and steals (sixth per game at 1.79). Asked to play big minutes in the playoffs, Conley was more conservative in an attempt to avoid foul trouble, and was going to struggle against the bigger, more explosive Russell Westbrook regardless. The Grizzlies ended up using Tony Allen or O.J. Mayo to defend Westbrook for stretches.
Offensively, Conley is steady (his assist rate went up as his turnover rate went down) but has not emerged as a dynamic playmaker. As a scorer, he's a nice secondary option, but the Grizzlies tend to struggle when Conley is forced into more of a primary role. With Rudy Gay out and the remaining wing players struggling offensively in the playoffs, Conley's field-goal attempts per game went up (11.8 to 14.1) while his shooting percentage dipped precipitously (from 44% to under 39%).