The Real Lineup Problem
I'll just put it bluntly: the Grizzlies cannot survive this season if they start playing a short, eight-man playoff rotation in November. That approach may win them games in November, but it (1) won't win them games through the winter when guys start getting fatigued and it (2) will render the starters—three of whom are in their 30's—so worn down by the wear-and-tear of fighting through the regular season at 36 to 40 minutes a night that they can't keep playing at the same high level through the playoffs.
So, part of the Grizzlies' issues are related to rotations—Mike Miller is playing far too many minutes, and Ed Davis and Quincy Pondexter are playing so poorly that they've had their minutes limited, and while Nick Calathes has played well at backup point guard in the absence of Jerryd Bayless, who is clearly much more comfortable off the ball than he is at the backup spot, Bayless' scoring punch off the bench (when his shot is falling) has been sorely missed as well. But to insist that the shortened rotation is the one that Dave Joerger needs to go with is to miss the point of having a deeper bench: to prevent the starters from being worn out by the time the playoffs roll around.
The other issue is that the Grizzlies' starters haven't been good. Or, more precisely, Tayshaun Prince's game has been limited by the illness he suffered during the preseason that kept him from practicing and playing, and Marc Gasol has looked halfway interested in the Grizzlies' losses, while Zach Randolph has played well on offense and mostly gotten abused on defense and Tony Allen keeps on Tony Allen'ing. The starting lineup just isn't working right now, for whatever reason. The starters + Koufos, Calathes, and Miller rotation that beat Golden State by so many points is just not going to be tenable over the course of the season.
So Joerger has lineup problems, but they're not the lineup problems that Twitter is worried about. The problem with the lineups so far has been that the players in them are mostly not playing well.
Not much went well for the Grizzlies, who fell to 3-4 Monday night on the road against the still-undefeated Indiana Pacers. The Pacers, after coming up one game short of the NBA Finals last year, are on a mission to win home court advantage this year, and they've gotten off to a white-hot start, and at this point they're the only team left in the league that has yet to lose.
The Grizzlies got off to a slow start, trailing 23-16 after the first quarter, and they never really got back into it from there. They only outscored the Pacers in the 4th quarter, and that was only by one point. Really, nothing went according to plan for the Grizzlies.
• Injuries came into play tonight: Jerryd Bayless did not dress for the second straight game after injuring his knee against the New Orleans Pelicans. Quincy Pondexter left the game after taking a nasty elbow from, well, Ed Davis, and X-rays on his face later revealed that he had a broken nose. It remains to be seen how much time Pondexter will miss, if any—Pondexter seemed to be back in the rotation after only playing limited minutes against the Warriors on Saturday night.
• The Pacers, honestly, are a better version of the Grizzlies. Roy Hibbert is in the top tier of NBA centers, and the Pacers have much more talent on the wings than the Grizzlies do at this point, especially offensively. George Hill gave Mike Conley all kinds of problems tonight, but what really killed the Grizzlies was the play of Lance Stephenson, who notched his first NBA triple-double, and Paul George. Until the Grizzlies are able to supplement their inside play and stifling defense with more offensive firepower—time will tell whether the addition of Mike Miller was enough to improve spacing for this year's Grizzlies, but early signs point to "ehhhh"—they're going to look like a scrappier, underdog version of this Pacers team.
• The interior defense problems popped back up tonight, with the Pacers' guards and forwards able to slash through the heart of the Grizzlies' defense at will. At least twice, Paul George drove straight through a crowd of four Grizzlies players to get a layup. That's just not going to cut it. Sure, the Pacers are good, but the Grizzlies have to tighten that up.
• I'm still not panicking. I think we are starting to see what's worth worrying about, though. Joerger beat a good team by shortening the rotation and then went right back to "play everybody" mode tonight in Indiana, except for Jon Leuer, even though Leuer had been playing really well. I don't understand how it takes this long to see that the all-bench-players lineups aren't able to do anything productive and that there's no shame in always having a starter on the floor. Just because the team can go 12 deep doesn't mean that (1) that has to happen every night and (2) you need to just sub the whole team out hockey-style. It's early, but the shorter rotation worked wonders on Saturday night.
• Ed Davis, on the whole, was more good than bad against a very good team. In 17 minutes he had 5 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and while he had his moments—trying to dunk on Roy Hibbert was a bad decision—I thought he handled himself pretty well. Mild praise, I know, but Davis seems to be becoming a bit of a punching bag among Griz fans (Grizz fans? I know we're having a "One Z or Two" debate in the Grizzlies universe right now...) and I want to point out that he wasn't bad against Indiana.
That's all I got. The Grizzlies lost on the road to a better team that was executing much better and looked much more confident in their identity. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Pacers in the Finals. I'm glad that's the only place in the playoffs the Grizzlies could possibly have to play them.
UPDATE: The original version of this post mentioned Danny Granger in the Pacers' wing rotation like he'd played tonight... which didn't happen. Granger hasn't played a game yet this season. To be honest, I don't remember who I was thinking about when I typed "Danny Granger" instead, or whether I was thinking about this Granger update, so I just deleted that sentence. Blogging is a tough business, y'all. That said, whenever they do get Granger back, the Pacers are going to be even better.
6:10pm, Pregame Down in the bowels of FedExForum eating chicken tenders and fries that I assume were leftovers from the Tigers game the night before, calculating how much barbecue sauce would make the startlingly pale fries taste OK, the mood was one of muted anxiety. The conversations ran along lines of "what happens if they don't get it together?" and "how bad will it get over the next couple of weeks if the Warriors win by 25?" and even the most optimistic observers couched everything with "If they do _____" or "If they can only get it together." The sixth game of the season, and already a fanbase on the edge, and a growing sense among the media that this particular team, this front office, is perfectly willing to blow the whole thing up if they continue to flounder into December, into January.
Peter Edmiston had us go around the table and make predictions, winner and point spread. Warriors by 18, Warriors by single digits, Grizzlies by 5, Warriors by 10. The conversation was quiet, a little apprehensive. Even the folks with nothing at stake knew the game was important as a statement, as a correction, a return to the mean.
12:00, 1Q The Grizzlies win the tip, and Zach Randolph scores a bucket isolated on David Lee. Randolph seems to have a list of players he keeps in his head (or maybe in his locker) and whenever he comes up against a player on his list, it's like he makes it a point to embarrass that player. Blake Griffin. Kevin Love. Kendrick Perkins (although usually Marc Gasol seems to handle that). David Lee is on the list, and Lee would have his hands full with Randolph for the whole game.
I think you’re probably as tired of reading “What’s Wrong With The Grizzlies?” pieces as I am of writing them, and we’re only five games into the season. So I’m not going to write another one of those, because I’ve done it twice now.
The more irrational members of the Grizzlies' fanbase are in full-on panic mode, and though I don't really subscribe to that ethic, it's easy to understand what's motivating some of the panic. This is a team that started 12-2 last year (even though they went on to play exactly .500 through December and January after the hot start), that blew up opposing teams with defense and effort and barely scoring enough points to beat the other guys, and that made the Western Conference Finals thanks to a combination of intensity and toughness and Kendrick Perkins' all-around awfulness.
The Grizzlies, at their current level of play, are 2-3 right now. The Warriors come into town 4-2, fresh off a loss last night in San Antonio. The wins have come over the Lakers, the Kings, the 76ers, and the Timberwolves, and the losses have come on the road against the Clippers and the aforementioned Spurs. Historically (as in, over the last two or three seasons), the Grizzlies have had the Warriors' number, but these circumstances would appear to be a little different.
If the Grizzlies can come out tonight and play the style of defense for which they've become known around the league—anchored by Marc Gasol's brilliance and Tony Allen executing his role as the Lord of Basketball Chaos—they should be able to at least slow down the scoring attack of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Golden State's addition of Andre Igoudala (who I wanted to trade Rudy Gay for for a long time) gives them help on the defensive end that can occasionally get hot from three himself. Andrew Bogut is healthy for the first time I can remember, and is playing very well. Somehow, the ghost of Jermaine O'Neal is also on this team, presumably because the Warriors offered more money than the Crypt Keeper. They're a good team, a team that historically has struggled on defense whose defensive rating—93.6 points allowed per 100 possessions—is good for 2nd in the league at the moment.
It's going to go one of two ways:
Scenario One: The Grizzlies, embarrassed by being booed off the court Wednesday and bolstered by two days of good practice and home cooking and finally snapped out of whatever torpor they've been in since the Raptors preseason game, come out and play their brand of defense and stop taking stupid 20-foot jumpers on offense. Mike Miller does not play 25 minutes and thus does not negatively impact the defense by being played too much. Z-Bo is so happy about Zach Jr., who was born during Wednesday's Pelicans game, that be clobbers David Lee so badly that Lee immediately retires from basketball, scoring 40 points in the process.
Scenario Two: The Grizzlies come out and play crappy defense again. Marc Gasol wanders around the lane, not defending well and not facilitating on offense in a smart way. Mike Miller plays 30 minutes and Andre Igoudala schools him on both ends of the floor. The poor offensive play allows Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to get out in transition early and often, and the Grizzlies get run out of their own building, losing by 40 points.
Those are exaggerated, of course—Lee might wait a week before retiring—but you catch my drift. If we see "the old Grizzlies" tonight, the Griz are going to make a big step towards getting back on track sooner rather than later, and the fans who think the whole thing is doomed will probably start to calm down. If we see the team that we've seen in the last five games, and, importantly, if some of those lineups stay the same, playing every guy on the roster except the racing-to-the-hospital Z-Bo ten minutes or more, the Warriors are going to win, and then the Grizzlies go into a road game in Indiana Monday 2-4, probably return home to play Rudy Gay and the improved Raptors on Wednesday and either come back to 3-4 or fall to 2-5, and then...
...they head off on the dreaded November West Coast Road Trip of Death that always seems to put the Grizzlies in a hole to start every season. If the Grizzlies can't get it together tonight—and, hoenstly, one game is a pretty quick turnaround and I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect them to fix everything in two days' time—it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Strap in, folks. Tonight's a big one.
Instead of trying to craft a narrative about how it’s either (a.) time to panic or (b.) not time to panic, I’m going to list all of the things that went horribly wrong for the Grizzlies in their 99–84 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. The Grizzlies came out and played such a flat, uninspired 35-or-so minutes of basketball that it’s hard for me to imagine a way to convey it on the page. Those of you who were in attendance—and, don’t forget, many in attendance started booing when the Griz were down 22 points at the end of the third quarter, and rightfully so—will understand.
Marc Gasol was a complete, total disaster tonight. In 30 minutes of play, he managed to secure 1 rebound, and that’s not even the worst thing he did. On multiple occasions, Gasol was one-on-one against Greg Stiemsma—GREG STIEMSMA—within seven feet of the basket, did a move to get by him, which is easy because IT’S GREG FREAKING STIEMSMA and he’s Marc Gasol, and once he was by his man and completely unguarded three feet from the basket, he… froze, and passed it back out to somebody on the perimeter. One time such a pass landed in the hands of Tony Allen, who was wide open from three, who promptly fired one, which (as is typical) missed and was rebounded by the Pelicans.
I don’t know what’s wrong with Gasol, but he looked like he’d rather be back in Eurobasket tonight than competing in an NBA game. He wasn’t making good decisions on offense—which is very unusual for him—and he wasn’t playing well on defense at all, whether it was against Anthony Davis, which is understandable, or against Greg Stiemsma, which is roughly equivalent to guarding a cardboard cutout of my dad.  If Gasol doesn’t get his head right, and it hasn’t really been right yet this season, the Grizzlies are going to get worse before they get better. No two ways about it.
The Grizzlies look to maintain their undefeated record at home tonight when the newly-christened New Orleans Pelicans (née Hornets) come to town tonight for what is already the third divisional game the Grizzlies have played in the young season so far. The Pelicans come into town 1–3, with losses to the Pacers, Magic, and Suns, and a win in New Orleans over the Bobcats.
World-beaters they aren’t, but the Pelicans do have one weapon which could prove effective against the Grizzlies’ porous interior defense: Mr. Unibrow himself, Anthony Davis. In his second year in the league, Davis is so far averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds a game, and his length and athleticism around the rim make him a force to be reckoned with even given his relative lack of experience. The Grizzlies have struggled to stop guards from penetrating the paint so far this year, and they’ve also let opposing bigs do more damage than is usual for a Memphis Grizzlies defense. If they’re not focused on containing Davis—and all the while keeping the Pelicans’ guards away from the rim, because, after all, this is a team that features Jrue Holiday (acquired from Philadelphia in a draft-day trade for Nerlens Noel), Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans.
The Pelicans aren’t a great team yet, but they’re making moves in the right direction, trying to build a contending team in a division seemingly full of them. The Grizzlies shouldn’t have much trouble with them, but then, they shouldn’t have had much trouble with the Boston Celtics on Monday night either, and that game was far closer than either team probably expected it to be.
It remains to be seen how long it’s going to take the Grizzlies to get their act together on both ends of the court. Monday night against Boston, it seemed like the whole team was settling. Someone on Twitter—I can’t remember who or I’d just embed the tweet (UPDATE: it was Peter Edmiston)—said that the game resembled a 1/16 matchup in the NCAA tournament, where the top-seeded team didn’t even bother to prepare for the game. That’s how it felt. I won’t say that the Grizzlies weren’t playing hard, but it’s indisputable that their execution wasn’t what it should have been. If it hadn’t been for Jerryd Bayless’ 4th quarter explosion, the game could have ended in a manner that was… much less pleasing to the Griz faithful, a fanbase which already feels a little more panicked than they should be after four games.
I’m going to keep repeating the “It’s early in the season” mantra for a while. I don’t know that anything that happens in October or November is really indicative of the true character of a team. After all, the 76ers are 3–1 and have beaten the Bulls and the Heat. Things aren’t settled yet in the NBA. While every game counts, every game is not the final word in how good or bad a team is, and it’s still early enough that I’m not going to be seriously concerned about the direction in which the Grizzlies are headed until they make it out of what looks to be a tough November schedule.
Speaking of which: the Grizzlies are at home tonight against the Pelicans, they’re at home against Warriors on Saturday, and then five of the six games after that are on the road for the classic Grizzlies Early Season West Coast Road Trip (hey, remember the time Allen Iverson went on one of those and didn’t come back?). After a Monday in Indiana and a Wednesday home game against the Raptors—and the newly eyesight-adjusted Rudy Gay’s first chance to, well, see the Memphis crowd—it’s four games in six days, including facing the Clippers in L.A. on a SEGABABA, which is as tough of a draw as it gets in the Fall 2013 NBA. This week of home games is important for the Grizzlies because they’re going to be pushing a giant boulder up a hill for much of the next two weeks, and establishing their identity in the current home stand would go a long way toward making that less of a death march.
It should be a good game tonight. The Grizzlies and the Pelicornets always seem to play each other well, regardless of how good or bad either team is, and I expect tonight’s game to be no exception, especially given the Grizzlies’ peculiarly inchoate nature at the moment. I just hate that I won’t get another look at Kelly Olynyk’s Mike-Miller-rivaling hair.
The Grizzlies lost on the road in Dallas Saturday night, dropping to 1–2 on the year. Tonight they’re back home to face the Boston Celtics. What’s working for the Grizzlies so far, and what’s not?
First things first: the reason the Grizzlies have gotten off to a 1–2 start is not that Dave Joerger’s “new offense” is terrible and doesn’t work. Are the Grizzlies’ offensive difficulties related to the transition to a different offensive mindset? Sure. But their offensive difficulties aren’t the real problem so far: the bigger problem at this point—the reason the Grizzlies’ opponents in all three games so far have scored 100 points—is the defense.
In all three of the Grizzlies’ games so far, the two losses on the road at San Antonio and Dallas and the overtime win at home against Detroit, the Grizzlies’ interior defense has been slow to rotate and has let opposing guards drive to the rim pretty much at will. Lockdown perimeter defense has come and gone—usually when the Grizzlies have found themselves in a hole (as has happened in all three games played so far) they’ve been able to dig themselves back out by tightening up and generating turnovers—but even when the perimeter is secure, the path to the basket appears to be far too open for opposing guards.
Back to the Grind
It wasn't pretty, but then, what ever is with these Memphis Grizzlies? When is it ever easy, and when does it ever look good when it happens? The Grizzlies got their first win of the young season tonight in their first home game, and they did it in typical Grizzlies fashion: they had to grind out a win even though nothing was going their way.
First things first: the Detroit Pistons are much better than they were last year. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe are a brutal post duo to face off against (sound familiar?) and the addition of Josh Smith at the small forward spot in the place of our mutual friend Tayshaun Prince (not to mention swapping Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight at the post, although Jennings was injured and out of action tonight) has made this a much better team than they were last year. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who I'll refer to as KCP from here on out to avoid having to type that again) is a rookie guard out of Georgia with a lot of promise, and along with Rodney Stuckey the two of them gave the Grizzlies' guards a great deal of trouble tonight off the bench.
A lot of things went wrong for the Grizzlies tonight against the Pistons. The first, and most obvious thing was the turnovers. I mean, 20 of them. Uncharacteristically, five of them were on Mike Conley, who seemed to be a little lackadaisical with his passing tonight. Zach Randolph accounted for another 4. It seemed like every other trip down the court, one of those two guys got the ball swatted out of his hands. Detroit is a much-improved defensive team this year, but they're not, well, the Grizzlies, and taking care of the ball has to be a bigger concern for the Griz going forward.