Monday, January 23, 2012

Weekend Recap/Road-Trip Preview

Posted By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 3:32 PM

The Hottest Team in the League: After blistering overmatched opponents in back-to-back games this weekend — winning 98-81 in Detroit Friday night and 128-95 at home against Sacramento on Saturday — the Grizzlies head out on a four-game West Coast swing as the hottest team in the NBA.

The Grizzlies are tied with division rival Houston Rockets for the longest active winning streak in the NBA, but where the Rockets' current six-game streak has been more of a tightrope walk — a point-differential of +9.2, but with two wins in overtime and another by only three, and with five of six at home — the Grizzlies' streak has been a bit more dominant (and against three common opponents) — a point-differential of +15.3 with four of six at home.

Even accounting for the team's rough start, the Grizzlies have arguably been better than two of the four Western Conference teams with better records on the season, the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, both of whom have lower point differentials against easier schedules while feasting on an early slate extremely tilted toward home games. (Ten of 14 at home for the Clippers; 10 of 15 for the Jazz.)

The Grizzlies have moved up to 6th overall in John Hollinger's automated NBA power rankings — which take into account point differential, strength of schedule, home/road splits, and play over the past 10 games — and second in the West behind only the 13-3 Oklahoma City Thunder.

Some of the subjective rankings trickling out today also have the Grizzlies on the rise:

Sixth (third in West) via NBA.com's David Aldridge, who also tabs the Grizzlies “Team of the Week”
Ninth (fifth in the West) via SBNation's Tom Ziller
A more modest 12th on NBA.com's overall power rankings.
The biggest mover — from 17th to 10th — in Marc Stein's power rankings.

The Grizzlies are also, if you're keeping track, now 8-3 since Zach Randolph went down. They're better without Randolph! Okay, not really. Not any more than they were better without Rudy Gay last season. The lesson, in both instances, is that the Grizzlies are a good team. They have lots of good players and are able to shift the focus to make up for absences. Another lesson, I think, may be that as good as Randolph and Gay are, their positions make them easier to adjust for than if the team were to lose the player who triggers their offense or that anchors their defense, which brings us to …

The Mike and Marc Show: For all the talk of Randolph's absence and Gay's return, the primary engine of the team's recent re-emergence has been the career-best play of point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol.

Gasol was +26 and +39 (!!!) in the games over the weekend, thoroughly dominating talented young post players Greg Monroe (Pistons) and DeMarcus Cousins (Kings) and has averaged a +23 in the six-game streak, while posting per-game averages of 18 points (on 61% shooting), 10 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.6 blocks.

And even all that shortchanges Gasol. His ability to anchor what is currently the league's ninth best defense goes beyond blocked-shots and boards to strong positional and team defense and on-court-coach leadership, the last of which seems to have been instrumental in the rapid acclimation and surprisingly spirited play of current post-mate Marreese Speights, whose rebound and assist rates are at career highs. Watch closely and you can see the copious on-court instruction and encouragement Speights is getting from Gasol.

Another interesting facet of Gasol's current play is an expansion of a mid-range game that has been heretofore underexploited. According to Hoopdata.com, Gasol has gone from attempting 2.1 mid-range (10-23 feet) shots a game last season to 4.8 this season. Accordingly, his shooting percentage on those shots has risen from 38% to (a probably somewhat unsustainable) 48%. This was underscored by a memorable sequence in the Kings game Saturday night. Early in the third quarter, amid a physical, chippy battle with the Kings' Cousins in the paint, Gasol tortured his increasingly frustrated counterpart with a series of jump-shot jabs: First from 19 feet, a minute late from 21 feet, then, on the next possession, after pausing for a second to let a “What the hell? I'm killing this dude. Let it rip.” thought bubble emerge over his head, drilling a straight-away 25-foot three-pointer.

Given his total impact on the game — as a scorer, offensive facilitator, rebounder, and defensive anchor — there's a strong case to be made that Gasol is the second best (and, at worst, third best) center in the NBA right now. Gasol and clear-cut positional alpha dog Dwight Howard are the only players in the NBA at the moment among the Top 10 in rebounds, blocks, and field-goal percentage. It seems to me that if you made a checklist of every facet of the game Gasol could impact from his position, he's checking off every box right now. (Incidentally, Howard and Gasol were named the players of the week in their respective conferences this afternoon.)

And Gasol's frequent pick-and-roll partner Conley has been nearly as extraordinary — perhaps more-so factoring in his more erratic track record and lower expectations.

Conley is currently one of only two point guards — the other is some dude named Chris Paul — with more steals than turnovers, which captures his rare combination of defensive dynamism and offensive control.

Despite a one-possession appearance in the home opener dragging his per-game averages down, Conley is at or near career highs in every significant statistical category except rebounding. (It was easier to snag boards out of the backcourt back when Hakim Warrick was the starting power forward.) In the current six-game streak, Conley is averaging 16.5 points, 8.2 assists, and 2.5 steals while shooting 60% from the floor and 50% from three-point range.

Given the dire question marks behind them — rookies Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby behind Conley and journeymen Josh Davis and Hamed Haddadi behind Gasol — the most troubling question for the Grizzlies is whether Conley (37 minutes per game in the current streak) and Gasol (37.8 minutes) can maintain their health and effectiveness in the face of a massive workload. The Grizzlies have only played two back-to-back sets so far this season and their schedule is going to grow much more compressed the rest of the way; that they've played minutes that heavy in a stretch where they were beating opponents by an average of more than 15 points a game is troubling.

Rudy Gay Looks Sluggish: Gay didn't look right to me over the weekend. In the Kings game in particular there were several plays that once would have resulted in power dunks that instead resulted in Gay getting fouled when defenders were able to catch up with him. I don't know whether it's related to his long off-season recovery, the hip injury that popped up a couple of weeks ago, or a more recent ankle injury — Gay was having an ankle iced on the bench Saturday night — and, attending the game Saturday with my father-in-law, I wasn't able to make it to the locker room to ask about it. But he doesn't seem as together physically as he was a year ago this time, and I think that's manifested itself in what has been, over the past couple of week, lower-than-normal production on rebounds and blocks.

The good news is that this hasn't kept Gay from making shots. While Gasol and Conley have played the best all-around basketball, Gay has actually been the team's leading scorer in five of six games in the streak. And he's done so efficiently, averaging 22 points a game on 56 shooting, including 6-14 from three.

Mayo in the Groove: This win streak began with a national television win over the New York Knicks where the main story — as I saw it at the time — was a breakout performance from O.J. Mayo, who not only put up points — 18 in 21 minutes, on 7-12 shooting from the floor and 4-7 from three — but did so with an aggression and swagger reminiscent of his first couple of seasons. Based on that performance and interesting postgame comments from both Mayo and coach Lionel Hollins, I speculated that Mayo might have finally re-discovered his offensive game, which had been missing since his move to the sixth-man role, where theoretical instant-offense had given way to run-of-the-mill role play.

And though Mayo dipped back in the next couple of games — scoring a combined 13 points in wins home wins over Chicago and New Orleans — he's gotten back into that scoring groove in the past three games, averaging 16 points off the bench while shooting 10-15 from three-point range. On the season, Mayo's current 49% three-point mark is fifth best among active players.

Mayo's current play presents a happy dilemma for the Grizzlies. Mayo has been on and off the trade block for the past year or so, and this can only help his value. On the other hand, his playing like this adds a major weapon to a team committed to maximizing this season even in the face of the Randolph and Darrell Arthur injuries. There's a calculation to be made here — finding the balance of short-term decline but long(er)-range value in dealing Mayo for a lesser player on a longer, cheaper contract (such as New Jersey's Anthony Morrow) and/or draft pick and weighing that against the short-term boost of what a rejuvenated Mayo can provide this season. Based on finances if nothing else, Mayo is still unlikely to be on this roster beyond this season, but if he's playing this well come playoff time, in concert with a returning Zach Randolph, this has a chance to be the best team the Grizzlies have ever had, or will have for the foreseeable future. In a conference that feels wide open starting at the second seed and with a likely top seed that the Grizzlies took to seven games last season without Rudy Gay or this O.J. Mayo, maybe the smartest thing to do is stay pat and take your best shot. Maybe the future is now.

Maybe Divisions Do Matter: Given that the NBA seeds conferences 1-8 for playoff purposes, it's fashionable to say that divisions don't matter. But a look at the current Western Conference standings shows why that's not entirely the case. The Grizzlies currently sit in first place in the Southwest division, barely ahead of rivals the Spurs, Mavericks, and Rockets. And even though they only have the fifth-best record in the conference, that would secure them a top-four seed were the playoffs to start today. This is because the three division winners are guaranteed top-four seed and currently, three of the conference's four best teams all come from the Northwest Division — Oklahoma City, Denver, and Utah.

While I can't imagine Utah staying that high, I do think a different Northwest team — Portland — could have a chance to get into the West's top four. But winning the Southwest would give the Griz a top-four seed regardless of what happens in the other divisions. It would also accomplish something that's never been done in franchise history. A worthy and realistic goal.

The Road (Trip) Ahead: As impressive as the Grizzlies have been on this six-game win streak, it hasn't come against the best competition. Four of the games (Detroit, Sacramento, New Orleans twice) have been against out-right bad teams. Another, New York, was a team that seemed decent at the time but that in retrospect might just be bad. And the other was against an elite team — Chicago — that happened to be playing without its best player.

At 9-6, the Grizzlies have generally won when they were supposed to (worst loss: at Utah) but also lost when they were supposed to (best win: home against Chicago sans Rose? At Minnesota?). The next couple of weeks will provide a truer measure of where this team is, with the four-game West Coast trip featuring two mediocre teams in Golden State (3-5 at home) and Phoenix (3-4) and two playoff-seeding competitors in Portland and the L.A. Clippers. And the team will come home to a tougher stretch, with a home back-to-back with San Antonio and Denver followed by a three-game trip to Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Boston.

A split on the West trip (2-2) or a winning record (say 5-4) in this nine-game stretch will bode well.

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