Stuck out of town for the holidays, I assumed I wouldn't be able to see the Grizzlies' opener — a 95-82 loss in San Antonio — but the free League Pass preview saved me. My blanket comment is that it's one game on the road against a good team and that even in the best of times the Grizzlies always lose the opener and almost always start out slow. Even with each game weighted a little bit more in a 66-game season, I feel like we need to have about five games in before getting too worked up about much. But that doesn't mean I don't have some thoughts on the game, and, true to form, these intended “quick notes” came in about three times longer than I planned:
1. Shot Distribution: Because so many hoops fans in Memphis have been trained via years of mediocrity to think their team can only have one good scorer at a time and because so few seem to remember how good the Grizzlies were at the moment when Rudy Gay injured his shoulder in back in February, of course the combination of Gay (18) getting a lot of field-goal attempts, Zach Randolph (8) getting far fewer than his norm, and the team losing is going to instigate some panicked overreaction.
The Grizzlies are not a team like, say, the Nuggets, where scoring skill is fairly balanced throughout the roster. Randolph and Gay are clearly the team's two most talented scorers. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and O.J. Mayo comprise the second tier. Everyone else is — or should be — an offensive bit player. And shot distribution should reflect that reality. Instead, the shot distribution in last night's game was flatter than what the Grizzlies need it to be.
If you look at the box scores of most NBA games and identify the two most talented scorers on a team, in most games each of those players is going have field-goal attempts north of a dozen. It's not a matter of Gay or Randolph. It needs to be Gay and Randolph. As a matter of strategy, two things should be true about the Grizzlies offense:
1. It should be inside-out, built on the foundation of the Randolph/Gasol tandem.
2. The inside game should be balanced by Gay major perimeter scoring threat.
Last night, Gay made a strong return — attacking the basket, shooting with confidence, active on the boards and in passing lanes — and Randolph struggled, especially early, starting the game 1-5 and hitting only 50% on free-throws. But the Grizzlies, as a team, still weren't focused enough on establishing their post game. And, make no mistake, finding the right role for Gay relative to Randolph/Gasol is a component of that. Of Gay's 18 field-goal attempts, only one was a three-pointer, which he made. Gay shot better than 40% from long-range last season and has looked great shooting the ball in training camp and preseason. In Gay, Mayo, and Conley, the Grizzlies have some viable three-point shooters and need to use them to loosen up the opposition's interior defense. The Grizzlies have probably de-emphasized the three-point shot too much — only seven attempts last night, three from rookie Jeremy Pargo — and a 17/1 two-point/three-point shot ratio is probably not the best use of Gay's skills in the context of the team's offense.
But Gay's number of shot attempts shouldn't be an issue. Rather, a trio of Randolph, Gasol, and Mayo combining for the same number of field-goal attempts (18) as the far less skilled quartet of Pargo/Quincy Pondexter/Dante Cunningham/Brian Skinner (or substitute Sam Young for one of the first three for a similar outcome) is not an ideal distribution. Randolph needs more touches and shots, but based on last night's shot array, they don't need to come from Gay, they need to come from role players.
2. Turnovers and Offensive Rebounds: But the Grizzlies biggest offensive problem in last night's game wasn't shot distribution. The Grizzlies out-shot the Spurs 47% to 40% last night. The problem was the Spurs getting 15 more attempts. As a rule over the past couple of years, the Grizzlies have gotten more attempts than their opponents by winning the turnover battle and pounding the offensive glass. The team's performance was out of character in both areas last night. They only got 9 offensive rebounds — one from Gasol and none from frontcourt reserves Cunningham and Skinner — and were a crushing -11 in turnover differential. The Grizzlies hounded the Spurs in the first quarter, but the Spurs took care of the ball the rest of the game (13 total turnovers) while the Grizzlies were having team-wide problems with Tony Allen (4 turnovers in 15 minutes) and Pargo (3 in 16 minutes) the worst individual offenders as the team ran up 24 total turnovers.
3. Wing Jumble: If Gay (35 minutes) is going to be the constant at small forward, the rest of the wing rotation looks unsettled. In theory, Allen is the defensive anchor in the starting lineup and Mayo is the volume-scoring, instant-offense sixth man, with everyone else filling in as needed. But last night the minutes were split pretty evenly among Allen (15), Mayo (only 4 shots in 17 minutes), Young (19), and Pondexter (17).
While Allen and Mayo would seem to be the team's most talented options at the two, remember last year how many starts Young and Xavier Henry got. The sense you get is that neither Allen nor Mayo is really Lionel Hollins' ideal. Mayo can get overmatched defensively at the position and Allen is unreliable offensively. Hollins seems to want someone who can split the difference — bigger and more solid than Mayo defensively, more controlled and deferential than Allen offensively — and Young, Henry, and now Pondexter all seem to have a chance to offer that kind of solid, vanilla role-player option.
Allen bears watching. His defense transformed the team a season ago, but he's a classic example of what John Hollinger calls the “Fluke Rule” — a player who makes a big leap later in his career is likely to regress the next season — and his sudden rise has echoes of former Griz great James Posey, who had a bad second season with the team. Allen's defensive intensity was so key to the entire team's transformation last season that I think he needs a long-ish leash and I wouldn't be concerned about his defensive problems last night — the Spurs' herky-jerky genius Manu Ginobili is a tougher match-up for Allen than more prolific but less crafty/unpredictable scorers — but Allen has got to play more within his limits offensively to maintain his starting role and build on last season's breakout.
As for Mayo ...
4. Still Need a Back-up Big: Cunningham had a nice debut for the Grizzlies, excelling in many of the areas I'd identified in my post-trade reaction — hitting mid-range jumpers, getting out in transition, being an active, harassing defender. He looks like he could be a legit rotation player and a good value signing for the Grizzlies. But he's not a real big. Cunningham didn't have a single rebound in 17 minutes, which isn't acceptable if he's playing almost exclusively behind Randolph at the four. And as for back-up center Brian Skinner? He also registered a goose egg in the rebounding column, but in only four minutes. Meanwhile, Gasol played 37 in a loss and the Grizzlies can't afford to play him that much in this compressed season.
The team simply has to find some better bigs to bring off the bench. And while Hamed Haddadi would be an upgrade over Skinner, he's probably not enough of one. The solution, at some point in the near future, has to be trading away a wing player or two for a viable third big man. Trading point guard Greivis Vasquez for Pondexter when the team already had Allen/Mayo/Young/Henry/Cunningham seems to make this even more inevitable. If the Grizzlies can get a real contributor for Henry, great. But if Mayo isn't going to be featured like a true scoring sixth-man, then the Grizzlies might be better off moving him for a big.