Thursday, January 23, 2014

40 Games In: Answering the ten questions about the Grizzlies

Posted By on Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 10:34 AM

Courtney Lee is a difference-maker I didnt see coming at the beginning of the year.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Courtney Lee is a difference-maker I didn't see coming at the beginning of the year.

When the Grizzlies finish playing the Rockets in Houston on Friday night, and get on a plane to head back to Memphis and play the Rockets again Saturday night, they'll be at the halfway point of the season: 41 games played, 41 games to go.

Of course, they're on one of the longer breaks of the season right now, having last played Monday evening against the Pelicans, so this is a better time to stop and take stock of what a crazy season this has been so far.

If you'd told me in September that the Grizzlies would be 20-20 right now, with Tony Allen having played in 27 games, Marc Gasol in 17—Kosta Koufos and Mike Miller are the only guys who have played in all 40 games—with Jerryd Bayless replaced with Courtney Lee and James Johnson as a major piece of the rotation, I would've asked you what you were on, and maybe where I could get some. When we started talking about what the Grizzlies were going to look like this year, I think Memphis fans and media were a little blinded by what happened last year when trying to formulate what this year would look like—especially given the coaching change and the time that would be (and was) needed to adjust to that transition.

When I previewed the season all the way back in November, I asked ten questions about how the Grizzlies' season would go. So. Why not go through them and see if we have answers yet? I'll do the first five today, and the other five tomorrow, and it'll give us a good framework for taking stock of this season at its halfway mark.

1. Was hiring Dave Joerger instead of bringing back Lionel Hollins the right move?

Halfway through the season, my answer now is the same as it was in November: probably. It seemed pretty questionable the way the Grizzlies opened the season, getting demolished by everybody and their brother (except the Celtics, for which games Jerryd Bayless showed up). Joerger said he hadn't changed anything about the offense, but the players (Tony Allen especially) kept talking about adjusting and "adding in plays from last year" when the new things weren't working. Then the Grizzlies went on an undefeated 4-game West Coast trip and played basketball that looked like last year's Grizzlies, with last year's starting five, and everyone stopped panicking.

And then Marc Gasol sprained his MCL.

Which changed everything about this season. The new m.o. became "try to stick around .500 until he gets back." And then Quincy Pondexter got hurt. And then Ed Davis and Tony Allen missed time. There were several games where the Grizzlies had nine players available to play, and it wasn't always the same nine players. A rotational/matchup nightmare.

Mike Conleys incredible play has kept the Grizzlies afloat through this seasons rough patches.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley's incredible play has kept the Grizzlies afloat through this season's rough patches.

Slowly things got going, though. Allen is out again, James Johnson was added to the team, Bayless was dealt for Lee, and the Grizzlies turned into an offensive juggernaut, playing fast-paced, athletic basketball with Johnson and Davis and riding back-to-back 30 point games from Mike Conley. Now Gasol has returned and the pace has fallen through the floor while he tries to adjust to playing with a team that is in many ways completely different from the one he left.

All of that is to say this: Joerger's real test begins now. He has to reintegrate Marc Gasol into the offense, adjust the rotations to work with his presence, figure out a game plan that plays to the strengths of this roster, all of which while chasing the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks for the 8th playoff seed. Which isn't easy. My guess is that it would've been just as challeging for Lionel Hollins. But the second half of the season will show us a lot about what Dave Joerger is made of. I, for one, am not particularly worried that he won't do a good job.

2. Will Zach Randolph be in Memphis at the end of the season?

This one is still unsettled, but my answer right now is "probably." With the team floundering in Gasol's absence, it seemed for a while like the smart thing to do would be to move Randolph for a starting-quality small forward and reload for next year, but now that the playoff race is on (for now, anyway) and since Randolph's camp has already made noise about being willing to take less money per year on a longer-term deal to stay in Memphis, I think it's possible (and maybe even probable) that Randolph and the Grizzlies will work out a deal where he can do just that. If they can re-sign Ed Davis, it'd make a transition from the Randolph Era to the Davis Era that much smoother. (That's a pretty big if at the moment, but more on that later.)

3. Is Nick Calathes the backup point guard the Grizzlies have been missing?

Well, he's better than Josh Selby. After Joerger rode Bayless as the primary backup ball-handler until the front office took away his toys (and in the process managed to move a guy they didn't really want back in the first place) the Calathes Experiment is underway, and boy, do some of you guys really not like him.

Calathes doesn't really have to be that good to be an adequate backup for what this team needs right now. I think he can play much better than he has—and so does he, and so does Dave Joerger and the entire Griz organization. Hence the minutes he's getting right now: it's his time to prove he can handle it or else the Grizzlies are going to bring in somebody else who can. I think we'll know by the end of the month whether he's going to be able to handle the backup PG minutes from here to the end of the season.

4. How much will the Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay’s offensive efficiency?

In the preview piece I answered this question with "Next question." But I think there's something worth saying here: the Grizzlies' small forward play was an absolute train wreck before James Johnson was signed. Between Tayshaun Prince's injury and conditioning issues, and Mike Miller's age-and-too-many-minutes issues, it would've been nice to have Ole Foot-Dribbler back out there on a few nights. But. The situation has improved. Prince has gotten healthier and improved his play. James Johnson has been face-meltingly awesome for stretches when he can stay out of foul trouble. Miller sometimes hits threes, but still probably plays too many minutes. It's better than it was, but it's still not resolved.

5. Who is going to be the backup power forward?

I said it was between Ed Davis and Jon Leuer. It's clear now that the answer is both of them. Davis struggled early but has greatly picked up his game lately, seemingly improving from game to game. Leuer has been hot and cold—especially hot against the Phoenix Suns, though—but overall has played very well, too. Depending on matchups and lineups, it's either Davis or Leuer or sometimes both of them together. And that versatility, something I didn't really expect coming into the year, has been nice to have.

Part two of this post will appear tomorrow, with the other five questions and answers.

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