Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bigs and Balance: Elevating Marc Gasol and sharing the ball will be the Grizzlies' second-half path.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 19, 2013 at 1:21 PM

Zach Randolph has bounced back from a rough January, but dealing Rudy Gay hasnt really changed his role so far.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Zach Randolph has bounced back from a rough January, but dealing Rudy Gay hasn't really changed his role so far.
The Grizzlies emerged from last weekend's NBA All-Star break still on pace for the best record in franchise history but with many questions to answer over the season's remaining 31 regular-season games.

If the team, projected to finish fifth in the Western Conference even before the trade of longtime would-be star Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors, slides further than that, then jettisoning Gay will obviously be seen — fairly or not, given the preexisting downward trajectory — as a turning point. But if the Grizzlies maintain their ground or better, the correction will have begun not so much with the deal itself but with the delayed acceptance of it.

The Grizzlies, from the head coach down through the locker room, wasted a few days pouting in the wake of the Gay trade, despite the fact that the team's slide since November had coincided with Gay's worst season since his rookie year.

The trade itself was a reminder of something we learned with the Pau Gasol deal: that, in a lot of quarters, any deal made by the Grizzlies that includes financial motivation will be seen entirely through that prism.

Make no mistake, with new controlling owner Robert Pera acknowledging some initial cash-flow issues in the immediate wake of his purchase agreement with Michael Heisley, there are legitimate questions about the wherewithal of the new ownership group. But those questions can't begin to be answered until we see how they conduct the coming off-season. The problem with drawing such conclusions from the Gay deal, of course, is that “financial reasons” and “basketball reasons” are becoming increasingly inseparable in the NBA. Gay is set to make north of $19 million at the conclusion of his current contract without having ever made an All-Star team. In a league with strict rules that tie player payroll to methods of player acquisition, that's a poor allocation of resources, no matter your market.

Nevertheless, the deal was disruptive, and the team seemed very fragile in its aftermath, with head coach Lionel Hollins seemingly incapable of making public statements without generating controversy and the team's defensive effort looking near non-existent in the first half of a road loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

But the team rallied to play a competitive second half in Atlanta, and, afterward, team leaders such as Marc Gasol and Tony Allen responded with tough-minded comments that went beyond the usual locker-room platitudes. A day and a half later, Hollins used his pre-game press availability to finally end the mourning. He didn't pretend to approve of the deal, but he did re-engage the season's challenge.

Marc Gasol may have moved to the top of the teams pecking order.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Marc Gasol may have moved to the top of the team's pecking order.
“Have I been emotional about the trade? Yes,” Hollins said. “But I don't want it to be taken that I can't move forward and for my players to take it that I can't move forward. Because I have and I will. And I expect them to.”

This “calming-the-waters” address was at once emotional, positive, and tinged with defiance. It was also effective, because an hour later, his team took the floor and replicated that tone in a rousing win over the playoff-seeding rival Golden State Warriors, launching a three-game winning streak going into the break and ushering the post-trade malaise out of the organization.

This winning streak brought the Grizzlies to 4-2 post-trade. That's a small sample size and one made even less persuasive given that five of the six games were at home and four of the six were against teams with losing records. But these games still offer a useful glimpse of the way the Grizzlies may play after two trades that turned over more than a third of the team's roster.

Removing Gay, who, over the course of the season, has led the team in minutes and used — via shot attempts, assists, and turnovers — nearly a quarter of the team's possessions while on the floor, created a huge hole in the team's offense. And replacement small forward Tayshaun Prince was never going to — really, was never meant to — fill it.

The idea was that Prince would use his possessions more efficiently while fostering better overall team play on the offensive end. Though six games post-trade, so far so good.

Predictably, measures rooted in athleticism and physicality — steals, blocks, offensive rebounds — have declined since the trade. Those rooted in skill and decision-making — shooting and assists — are up.

Prince has one of the lowest usage rates among the team's regulars (15.9), but has shot much better than Gay (49% to Gay's 42%) with an assist ratio nearly double and an assist-turnover ratio nearly triple Gay's from January. (All stats via NBA.com.)

There was some thought that the extra touches freed up by Gay's departure would shift heavily to Zach Randolph, but that has not been the case so far. Randolph's usage rate since the trade has held steady (19.9 in January, the same since the trade), and while he's rebounded from his historically rough January, his still-all-star-level production this season hasn't come with much that would convince onlookers he can still put a team on his back the way he did two seasons ago.

Instead, these extra touches have essentially been dispersed among Gasol (21.7 post-trade usage rate), Mike Conley (21.0), and Jerryd Bayless (22.0), with Gasol leading all starters in usage rate since the trade but no-one approaching Gay's 23.2 in the month before the deal. Fittingly, exchanging an offense driven by a turnover-prone isolation scorer in Gay for one driven by the team's most talented combo passer/scorer in Gasol has had a dramatic impact.

Prior to the trade, the Grizzlies' team assist ratio and overall offensive production had both fallen to the bottom third of the NBA. In the six games since the trade, against a pretty solid array of defenses, the team has notched an assist ratio (18.6) that would be in the league's top five and an overall scoring rate (103.9 points per 100 possessions) that would be approaching the top 10. People worried about replacing Gay's team-leading 17 points per game, but, in reality, Gay's low-efficiency ball dominance may have been a drag on the offense.

For the past few seasons, the over-emphasized question for the Grizzlies has been: Randolph or Gay? The answer, unsurprisingly, may turn out to be Gasol, who, in the wake of Gay's trade and Randolph's hopefully soft decline, now seems to be taking his rightful place atop the team's pecking order.

Tony Allens slashing game has been sharp since the trade.
Gasol is probably a slightly more prolific scorer on the (usually left) block than he is in the high post. There, he can score with rumbling hooks and short turnaround jumpers and is more likely to draw fouls. But the team's overall offense seems to function best with Gasol stationed around the free-throw line, where he can direct the offense out of the high post or form a pick-and-roll partnership with Conley.

Since the trade, of Gasol's 25 assists, 21 have come from the high-post/free-throw-line area. There, Gasol can send bounce passes to backdoor cutters or set up frontcourt mates — namely Randolph — for low-post attempts. If that's not there, Gasol can simultaneously deliver the ball to curling shooters — primarily Conley — while hip-checking their defender to free them up for open jumpers. And if he can't make a play for someone else, Gasol can torch defenses with his own near-50% mid-range shooting. Since the trade, Gasol's getting to the free-throw line more and grabbing more rebounds. And while he shot poorly in the pouting games, Gasol averaged 18-11-5 on 56% shooting during the pre-break winning streak. Save for shooting percentage, those would all be career highs over the course of a season, but would also be well within the range of possible as Gasol is pushed up the team's offensive pecking order.

While Conley's individual production has not been as strong as it was in his unsustainably superb November, the team's offensive performance with him on the floor has been nearly as good, and he's combined solid shooting with his best assist ratio of the season. And Bayless' renewed dynamism has added another boost to the overall attack. Bayless' scoring average has nearly doubled from January to February, with his three-point shooting up dramatically in both quantity and quality. For much of the season, the Grizzlies have been good when Bayless has been good and, tellingly, Bayless' overall impact has increased as his own assist ratio has plummeted. Never a good fit as a Mike Conley-style run-the-offense point guard, Bayless' re-emergence happened, not in response to the Gay deal, but in response to the previous one, which jettisoned scoring guard Wayne Ellington, elevated, for a moment, rookie point guard Tony Wroten, and moved Bayless off the ball, putting a premium on his shooting. With trade acquisition Austin Daye playing well as a shooting specialist at small forward and swingman Quincy Pondexter on the mend, Bayless is likely to shift more back to the point guard in the season's final stretch. Can he maintain his aggressiveness and production? That's a big question.

Another thing that very much remains to be seen is how the team's new more balanced and Gasol-focused offense functions in a "final shot" situation, where the team has previously (over-)relied on Gay's isolation skills. So far, they haven't found themselves in that situation.

While the early returns on the team's post-trade offense have been very encouraging, there's some concern on the other end, where the team's once-elite defense has slipped a little. The post-trade defensive efficiency (99.6) would still land the Grizzlies in the league's top 10 but several spots lower than the overall second-place rank (97.7) for the season.

Mike Conley also has the ball more in the teams post-trade offense, with good results.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Mike Conley also has the ball more in the team's post-trade offense, with good results.
The conventional wisdom after the trade was that the Grizzlies would miss Gay's scoring and shot creation, but they would become even more solid on the defensive end. But Gay's defense may have been as underrated as his offense was overrated, and exchanging Gay's minutes on the wing for aging Prince and physically weak Daye has drained the team of some dynamism on that end. An even bigger concern may be Gasol. The team's defensive efficiency with Gasol on the floor, while still very good, has slipped each month, and the Grizzlies need Gasol, even with an expanded offensive load, to get back to the all-NBA-caliber defense he displayed earlier in the season.

Around the core of Gasol-Randolph-Conley-Bayless, the Grizzlies have the means to get good role play at a variety of spots. Up front, Darrell Arthur has been slumping of late but is a known commodity as long as he's healthy. While I think new trade acquisition Ed Davis' upside has probably been a little overstated — his offense is pretty vanilla and at 23 he's not that young — I also think he's been so-far underutilized. Davis looks slight but plays big, and his ability to make plays at the rim on both ends should make him a decent fit along either Gasol or Arthur, who are both more high-post/pick-and-roll players. On the perimeter, I'm skeptical about Daye's hot initial shooting, but the return of Pondexter should give the team someone who can combine spot-up shooting with more athletic defense, potentially cutting into the minutes of both Daye and Prince.

As for Tony Allen, who rounds out the likely rotation, he's been fantastic of late. And while his jumper has been fluky-good since the Gay trade, his improved rebounding and more dynamic slashing and cutting seems to be the result of the confluence of Gay's absence (Allen taking up the rebounding slack and benefiting off the ball from better overall movement) and hitting a good stretch with his always wonky knee. Allen's play improved two seasons ago when Gay was lost to injury, giving some hope that he may be able to keep up some of this, especially in a contract season.

The balance the team has displayed since the trade — to the extent you can believe in it — is more promising going forward than the all-defense/no-offense game the team had played for much of the previous two months. And the realistic goals before the trade seem just as realistic now. Before the trade, the Grizzlies were a four seed trending toward a fifth seed, trying to hold off a surging Denver Nuggets team that has a more favorable remaining schedule. That's still the case.

“Realistic goals,” then and now, doesn't mean “winning a title,” which was always loose talk. It means the same thing it's meant the past two seasons. The reality in the current NBA is that if you don't have one of the 8-10 most dominant ballhandler/playmakers in the league, winning a title is a longshot regardless of how good the rest of your team is, especially given that the two reigning conference champions, Miami (Lebron James/Dwyane Wade) and Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook) are each blessed with two such players. Rudy Gay was payed to be that guy, but, in truth, he was nowhere close.

The truer franchise goal remains unchanged — to have a competitive playoff team, one with a chance to make a make a run if the stars align. This team still has a chance to do that, and with a more satisfying share-the-ball style of play and a roster trajectory that now seems more sustainable.

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