Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Game 59 Preview — Grizzlies vs. Trailblazers

Posted By on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 9:12 AM

Ed Davis is a likely start against Portland tonight.

The Grizzlies return home tonight to face the Portland Trailblazers in only the second meeting so far this season between these teams. The Grizzlies lost the first meeting, 86-84, in Memphis back on January 4th. Zach Randolph missed that game, as he's likely to miss this one. Mike Conley scored only 6 points on 2-8 shooting and was outplayed by looming Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, something of which the Grizzlies don't need a repeat. But the biggest difference in the game was at the three-point line, where the Grizzlies actually shot a slightly higher percentage but the Blazers had 22 (!) more attempts.

I'm eschewing the usually three-part preview for this one, partly due to time constraints and partly because there's one thing in particular I'm most interested in tonight:

Opportunity for Ed Davis?: With Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur both looking doubtful, this means many more minutes and a likely start for Ed Davis, who's coming off a double-double against Orlando.

Davis' playing time has been pretty erratic since coming over as the primary long-term asset in the Rudy Gay trade. Though he'd been averaging more than 30 minutes a game for the Raptors over the prior month, Davis landed on a team with a deep, talented frontcourt rotation already in place, has seemed to struggle at times getting acclimated to the new system, and has had to earn the confidence of a coach more persuaded by his practice showing (and, apparently, his size) than his Toronto production.

The results, so far, have been mixed. Averaging only 11 minutes a game for the Grizzlies, Davis has shot 65% from the floor with a block rate that would rank third in the NBA over the full season. His free-throw shooting has been an unspeakable 39%. (He's north of 60% on his career.) As a team, the Grizzlies have been a little better offensively with Davis on the floor and a little worse defensively. And you can put a “small sample size” caveat on all of it.

But I feel like that team performance is a little misleading, as Davis' effectiveness — or, more precisely, the team's effectiveness with him on the floor — seems to vary greatly depending on his frontcourt mate. Again, small sample size. But I bring this up because it jibes with both the eye test and my sense of how individual styles might fight together:

Interior Tandems, Post-Trade

Gasol/Randolph (319 minutes) — 102.6 offensive efficiency/91.5 defensive rating (+11.1 net)
Arthur/Randolph (79) — 102.7/100.1 (+2.7)
Davis/Gasol (65) — 111.9/84.2 (+27.7)
Arthur/Gasol (60) — 98.5/100.5 (-2.0)
Arthur/Davis (47) — 100.6/113.0 (-12.5)
Davis/Randolph (28) — 97.8/94.8 (+2.3)

Caveats abound: Arthur has been slumping the past couple of weeks, which puts more of a drag on his tandems than there might otherwise be. And a healthy chunk of the Gasol/Davis tandem's minutes game in the Sunday blowout over Orlando, in which they started the second half together. But, still, I'm struck by the enormous difference between the effectiveness of the Gasol/Davis duo and the Gasol/Arthur duo in roughly the same amount of playing time.

Offensively, Gasol is good on the block, but my sense is that the overall team offense functions best when he operates above the free-throw line, either in the high post or in pick-and-roll plays. Arthur is primarily a face-up, pick-and-pop player himself, which means either taking Gasol away from his best spots or forcing Arthur into spaces where he's less effective when they play together. Davis, by contrast, is more of a power player who can operate down low and benefit from Gasol's feeds or rebound his misses.

Defensively, it's no surprise that the team is better when Davis is paired with Gasol than with other players, but exactly how good they've been together is eye-popping, though I find these results a bit less convincing than on the offensive end.

Even with his limited playing time, Davis has given Grizzlies fans a pretty reliable display of his relative strengths and weaknesses. He may be slender, but he plays big: He's a strong shot-blocker and attentive rebounder with an explosive vertical game.

Davis has rudimentary post skills and a functional free-throw line jumper. Most of his baskets for the Grizzlies have come around the rim and very few have been self-created. But he's a high-level, above-the-rim finisher of a kind the Grizzlies haven't really had in their frontcourt since Stromile Swift. He can run and dunk in transition. Get offensive rebounds and spring up quickly for put-backs. He's a threat diving on pick-and-rolls. And he's a great target for Gasol's high-low wizardry.

Davis is a compelling fit with Gasol, both now and perhaps in a fuller partnership in some post-Randolph future down the line. It would be useful to see them together more, and tonight we could get a big dose of it.

We'll also likely get some actual rotation time for Jon Leuer, who's looked pretty good in low-risk situations so far. Based on his play for Milwaukee last season and the brief glimpses we've gotten here, I feel like Leuer has some good back-end-of-the-rotation potential. Minutes are hard to come by when the Grizzlies are at full strength, but perhaps tonight we'll get a better look at him.

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