Friday, January 4, 2013

Game 30 Preview: Grizzlies vs. Blazers

Posted By on Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 8:51 AM

The Grizzlies return home tonight to for their first contest this season against the Portland Trailblazers. As always, three thoughts:

Darrell Arthur
1. The New Old Griz: This Portland team reminds me a bit of the 2009-2010 Grizzlies. They've got a really good, young, balanced starting line-up that features several potential All-Stars — led by power forward LaMarcus Aldridge — but no real superstars. (Though I guess we can't rule out Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard getting to that stage.) That starting lineup has made the Blazers more competitive that many expected — they've gone 8-3 over their past 11 games to get to 16-15, currently 8th in the West — but it's undercut by a truly deplorable bench. The Grizzlies' best bench player in 09-10 was rookie Sam Young, who averaged 7.4 points with a 13 PER. For the Blazers, their best reserve has been rookie Meyers Leonard, who's averaged 4.7 points with a 13.0 PER. This lack of depth is going to keep the Blazers from making the playoffs. That Grizzlies team contended for awhile, but finished up at 40-42. I suspect the Blazers are heading for a win total somewhere in the mid-thirties. But, like those Grizzlies, there's potential to make a significant leap next season simply by adding a few professional basketball players to that bench.

2. The Diversity of Darrell Arthur: I'd like to see Darrell Arthur score and especially rebound at a little higher rate, but those are topics for another day. Right now, let's take a moment to appreciate his athleticism and the diversity it allows. Watch Arthur closely and you'll regularly see him make impactful defensive plays that don't register in the box score: Blowing up pick-and-rolls. Switching onto and containing perimeter ballhandlers. Cutting off drives and setting up teammates steals. Racing down in transition to disrupt a fastbreak.

Now, with the recent injury to reserve wing Quincy Pondexter, we've seen Arthur add to his resume by playing a more than passable small forward. When Lionel Hollins made the unexpected switch following Pondexter's injury against the Nuggets, I suspected it might work, in spots, because I think Arthur can guard all but the most dynamic players at the position, but so far it's turned out even better than I expected.

Through three games and five separate stretches of play, the Grizzlies have played Arthur at small forward for a total of 26 minutes and 11 seconds. In that time, the Grizzlies have outscored opponents 49-32. That's a small sample size and I wouldn't expect an advantage that large to continue, but it does speak to how well this lineup twist has worked. Credit goes to Arthur, who surprised against the Celtics about shooting 2-3 from three-point range to add some position-appropriate offense to his more-than-solid defense. But credit also goes to Lionel Hollins, who has done a superb job of spotting Arthur at the three in situations that don't demand too much.

Against the Nuggets, Arthur matched up with Corey Brewer, a transition scorer and three-point shooter, but not a dynamic ballhandler. Against the Pacers, Arthur checked former Griz swingman Sam Young in the first half, and didn't have any problems with him. In the second, the Pacers stayed with starters Paul George and Gerald Green and Hollins gave his big lineup a quicker hook. (Though, honestly, I think the bigger problem defensively was Wayne Ellington on George than Arthur on Green.) In a more than 12-minute small forward run against the Celtics, Arthur spent most of his time on Jeff Green, the kind of combo forward that's a relatively easy match-up for him. When Arthur found himself having to guard Paul Pierce in the second half, Hollins went back to a conventional lineup.

It might be a little tougher to get Arthur extended minutes tonight — or it might be the most interesting test yet of his ability to man the position. Portland's starting small forward, Nicholas Batum, isn't a dynamic ballhandler, but he is a dynamic athlete that scores from the rim to the three-point line, and he's averaging more than 38 minutes a game. Batum's production has also been a leading indicator of team success for the Blazers. When he's able to give the team a third scorer to go with Aldridge and Lillard, the Blazers are a much tougher out: Batum averages 19 points on 46% shooting in wins and 13 points on 37% shooting in losses.

It remains to be seen how much the Grizzlies will allow Arthur to match up with Batum, and how successful he will be. But there is a good opportunity to spot Arthur in the brief periods when Batum is not on the floor, where relatively stationary shooter Luke Babbitt has been Blazers' primary small forward reserve.

3. Free Tony Wroten: Okay, so it's not really that dramatic. There's been no real reason to this point to give the rookie Wroten much run. He's a particularly raw 19-year-old playing behind two veterans in Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless and the alternating time he's spent playing for the D League Reno Bighorns and getting work and instruction in Grizzlies practice has probably been the correct way to proceed with him. But, if Bayless, who left Wednesday's game in Boston with a sprained ankle, can't play tonight or is limited, I think this would be an ideal situation to get a more substantial look at Wroten than his meager two minutes against the Celtics.

Instead of playing on the road against a team with two great ball-pressuring small guards in Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, this will be at home against either a fellow rookie (Lillard has been dynamic on the offensive end, but is very much a work-in-progress defensively), a journeyman (primary reserve Ronnie Price), or another unproven young player (third option Nolan Smith).

Given that Wroten's ankle sprain in training camp limited his pre-season action, part of this plea is selfish: I really want a chance to get a longer look at him in game action myself. But I also think that, developmentally, this game seems like a good opportunity to get him some game experience without risking too much.

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