Friday, February 1, 2013

Road Recap: Thunder 106, Grizzlies 89 — Three Issues of Ongoing Concern

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 11:36 AM

Zach Randolph has been calling for the ball. Now hes likely to get it.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Zach Randolph has been calling for the ball. Now he's likely to get it.
Last night in Oklahoma City was the absolute worst way for the Grizzlies to begin life post-Rudy Gay: On the road, against arguably the best team in the NBA, which was, itself, coming off three days rest and into a nationally televised revenge game against a team that had beaten them in their building earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies were still wrapping their collective heads around a disruptive trade and were playing with only nine active bodies, three of which were first- or second-year players who have relatively minimal NBA game experience.

Needless to say, it didn't go well for the Griz. The Thunder went an entire quarter without having a possession end with a missed shot, on the way to building a 25-point lead. A bout of temporary insanity from Russell Westbrook and the Grizzlies' pride conspired to make it a game again in the second half, if briefly, with the Grizzlies coming back to within 10 points. But then Kevin Durant did Kevin Durant things.

With all those first-graph factors in mind and considering that the Grizzlies were playing without four potential rotation players in trade acquisitions Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, and Austin Daye and the still-recovering Quincy Pondexter, you can pretty well ignore this loss.

But there were a couple of problems — and one pre-game grenade — that underscore some big issues going forward in terms of whether this team can maintain it's stature post-trade:

Can Z-Bo Still Carry the Offensive Load?
Zach Randolph reacted to the Rudy Gay trade, in part, by suggesting it might allow him to become a bigger part of the offense, making this at least the third time in the past few weeks — including his Bulls post-game TV interview and his All-Star reaction — in which he's done a variation on “give me the ball more.”

Then, last night, he promptly went out and missed his first 10 shots. Randolph was still rebounding at his usual beastly rate and did finally get his offense going in the second half, but it's a very real and now crucially important question as to whether he's still capable of carrying the offensive load he once did.

The evidence is mixed this season.

Randolph's 15.7 scoring average is his lowest in a healthy season since first becoming a full-time player. Then again, so is his 13.7 attempts per game. His 47% shooting is right at his career average, but well below his All-Star and All-NBA first two seasons with the team. Randolph's assist rate is down and his turnover rate is up. His PER is four points lower than in ’10-’11.

And Randolph's production has been trending down. As Peter Edmiston tweeted this morning, Randolph's shooting this month is his worst in seven years.

One problem with evaluating this is that it's happening the middle of a team-wide offensive malaise over the past couple of months that's seen most players on the team shoot at or near their career-worst levels. When the whole offense becomes dysfunctional, there's got to be more at issue than individual slumps and declines.

That said, one common denominator with Randolph seems to be that he's been less effective in the paint. His shooting splits between jumpers and shots in the paint is roughly the same as two years ago, pre-injury. As is his shooting percentage from the perimeter. But he's converting shots in the paint at a lower rate and getting to the free-throw line less frequently.

That suggests a physical decline, which wouldn't be surprising given that Randolph is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a serious knee injury. But, if that is the case, then why is he still rebounding so well? Randolph is nipping at Dwight Howard's heels in the rebounding race (11.7 to Howard's 11.9) and his rebounding rate is at roughly the same level as it was pre-injury.

With Gay gone, I think Marc Gasol and Mike Conley need to be counted on more heavily as the primary offensive catalysts. But Randolph, ideally, is going to be the leading scorer. He wants the ball more? Wish granted. And that needs to mean pushing back toward that 20-point level while maintaining something like his career efficiency. Whether that can happen is a mystery that will be solved in the next couple of months. The answer will have a lot to say about the Grizzlies' ability to maintain some semblance of contention, and it may be paramount in setting the course for this franchise as it enters next summer.


Can the Grizzlies Boost Their Three-Point Shooting?

For the Grizzlies to offset Rudy Gay's missing points — however inefficiently they were being generated — it obviously means a bigger load from Randolph and Gasol (and maybe Darrell Arthur and Ed Davis). But it also means getting better collective three-point shooting.

My biggest problem with the deal the Grizzlies made — and the reason I might have rolled the dice on waiting to do a deal this summer — is that I don't think they upgraded their three-point shooting enough to feel comfortable about filling that void.

The Grizzlies, for the past several seasons, have been one of the NBA's least prolific and effective three-point shooting teams. This season, they are one of two teams, along with the Bulls, significantly behind the rest of the NBA in their use of three-point shooting. A lot of this — maybe most of it — has been personnel. Perhaps part of it has been a question of emphasis, strategy, system.

But with Gay out and no slashing wing creator in his place, that's going to change. It will change going forward; you can bet that as the team is rebuilt in the coming seasons it will happen with a greater emphasis on shooting. But it also has to change now, out of necessity. Whether that change can be effective is much more doubtful.

The Grizzlies, searching for offense outside the paint, shot 6-25 from three against the Thunder last night. That's bad, but a closer look makes it less troubling.

Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless combined to go 5-14 (36%). That's not great, but it's acceptable shooting from guys you want taking those shots. Chris Johnson, Darrell Arthur, Marc Gasol, Tony Wroten, and Tony Allen combined to shoot 1-11. Johnson, who played his first bad game last night, won't be on the roster if he shoots that poorly, much less on the floor. Arthur will spend less time at small forward once Prince, Pondexter, and Daye are in the fold, which means his attempts will be few. And Wroten, Allen, and Gasol — who took one each — won't be taking many of those shots.

Instead, Prince, Pondexter, and Daye — to the extent he plays — will all add legitimate if not prolific shooters to the mix. They've combined to shoot 2.6-5.8 (45%) on the season. If Johnson pans out, that means the Grizzlies could have six viable three-point shooters at their disposal. And the team still has the means — roster and financial space, trade exceptions — to potentially add another shooter to the mix.

I would be more optimistic on this front if the Grizzlies had added a better shooter — a J.J. Redick or Kyle Korver or Jared Dudley — in the Gay trade, but there should be the raw materials in place going forward to fashion a more effective three-point shooting attack to surround the team's deep, talent collection of big men. They're going to need it.

Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget?

When Lionel Hollins seemed to take shots a few weeks ago at the use of “advanced” stats as an evaluation tool — and, as an extension, seemed to take shots at his new front office — it was a story du jour around the NBA blogosphere. I pretty much left it alone. I thought then and now that it was “just Lionel being Lionel” and not necessarily that big of a deal.

Lionel Hollins, facing yet another challenge.
Hollins' nationally televised reaction to the Gay trade last night was a bit more of an eyebrow-raiser.

“When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market,” Hollins said to TNT's Craig Sager before the game.

As with the stats comments, the quotable opening salvo was followed by less quotable but more grounded follow-up.

Hollins' comment itself is debatable. We aren't really going to know if the Grizzlies have a “beer budget” until next summer.

Moving Gay's contract was primarily about getting under the tax for next season, something that the vast majority of NBA teams are going to be committed to when the elevated tax rates kick in next season. It was a preemptive move to do so rather than waiting until the last minute, when desperation would set in and good offers might be more difficult to come by. Oklahoma City was even more proactive when faced with the exact same issue, dealing James Harden before the season in a similar deal. (It was a better deal, obviously, but Harden was also a much more valuable commodity than Gay.) In retrospect, the Grizzlies would have been wise to have made their move last summer as well.

Moving Speights and Ellington, it turns out, was primarily about removing the potential obligation of Speights' near-$5 million player option next summer. Even with the Gay trade, Speights' option would likely have prevented the team from re-signing Tony Allen and using one of the mid-level exceptions in free agency next summer. They would have had to choose between those two things. Now they can likely do both.

So, even though these two deals, in concert, brought the Grizzlies well below the luxury tax line, both were heavily driven by sound long-term goals in terms of future tax burden and roster flexibility. Was parting with a future first-rounder in the Speights deal worth it? Would it have been better to stand pat with Gay now and take the risk this summer? Those are both legitimate questions. I struggle with both. But “beer budget” is jumping the gun.

But we'll find out this summer. The question will be: Will the Griz be willing to spend up to the tax but be unwilling to cross it? If so, that should be acceptable to anyone with a realistic sense of the new NBA economics. Or will they set a player payroll budget significantly lower than the tax threshold? If that's the case, we might have a problem. I don't know the answer to that question yet. My guess is Hollins doesn't either.

As for the realpolitik meaning of Hollins quote, it's probably not endearing to those who still have a coaching decision to make for next season. There are so many factors in play in that decision: Can Hollins and the new regime have a good working relationship going forward? Will new ownership be willing to give Hollins the kind of raise he's arguably earned if he's retained? Does this team need a new hand at the wheel to refashion its offense? Can the organization really risk parting with a proven winner and strong locker-room leader and venturing into the unknown? Remember, Marc Iavaroni once looked like a great hire.

From the outside looking in, the prospects of Hollins' return certainly look shaky. Having Gay traded after a public plea-of-sorts to keep the team together and then responding in a nationally televised setting in a way that seemed critical of the new regime isn't necessarily a determinative act. But it certainly casts more doubt where there was already plenty.

It also raises the stakes on the rest of the season. Whatever the questions about on-court personnel post-trade, how a disapproving coach responds to the change is probably just as important. Hollins has made a habit of guiding his team through adversity. He may not have wanted this, but it affords yet another chance to prove his ability to steady his team and adjust on the fly.

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