Last night, the Grizzlies beat the Wizards 110-104 in a game that saw the Grizzlies use their advantages to dominate most of the first three quarters... and then give up 40 in the fourth as Washington made a furious attempt at a comeback. In case anyone had any doubts that these aren't Your Father's Washington Wizards (or, more accurately, your slightly older sibling's Wizards, since your father's Wizards were probably the title-winning Bullets), the fact that without Nene the Wiz were still able to play the Grizzlies as tough as they did should put that to rest. The Wizards are a pretty good team this year.
There are a lot of interesting things about last night's game—not least of which is the fact that in James Johnson's absence, Tayshaun Prince somehow turned back the clock and racked up 21 points on 8-11 shooting, including 2-3 from beyond the arc. I think I speak for a lot of Griz fans when I say I wasn't sure Tayshaun still had that kind of a performance in him, especially not against a team that actually has a good defense (9th out of 30 in defensive rating according to B-Ref). That I doubted that Prince could still score 20 points in a game even though he averaged 14 a game as recently as the 2010-2011 season says something about his struggles this year.
I come not to bury Tayshaun Prince, but to praise him.
He's always been one of my favorite players. I can say that honestly. I remember those title-winning Pistons, and I remember thinking Prince was awesome. The Grizzlies were swept out of the first round, taking a lot of the excitement of that first playoff appearance with it, and so I watched the Pistons, and I watched Tayshaun Prince.
This Tayshaun Prince is still that Tayshaun Prince, in some sense. In others, he's not. I'm not going to argue that he shouldn't be playing. The guy is an absolute warrior: before the season even started, he was so sick he lost a ton of weight and couldn't travel with the team. He played through it. He's been fighting who knows how many nagging injuries this year. He's played through all of those. When he finally got healthy around late December, his production picked up. He's not afraid to get taken out at the rim, like he did last night, when he hit the floor so hard it sounded sickening through crappy TV speakers.
His toughness is undeniable. His decision-making is usually flawless. His leadership is unquestionable—watch the Grizzlies during a timeout next time you're at a home game, and watch Prince functioning as player-coach, telling guys what to watch for, talking about positioning, pinpointing the guy that needs the most encouragement and talking to him.
But. (And there's always a but with this, right?)
I don't even know anymore, man. When I see the guy on the court, I feel like the Grizzlies aren't in the best position to win. And I hate that—I feel guilty for even thinking that, honestly, because I like Tayshaun so much, first as a player, and then as a dude, from talking to him occasionally. It makes me tremendously sad to think that this player I like so much isn't helping the team.
I don't think Tayshaun Prince should be playing this many minutes. I don't think he should be playing in the situations he's playing in. I don't think he's being used effectively—and just like the Mike Miller situation, where he was playing far too many minutes and accomplishing far too little, I think part of the problem is Dave Joerger's deference to veteran players—which deference I completely understand from a first-year coach. I get it. But I just don't think there's any way this Grizzlies team is going to maximize what potential it can still wring from this calamitous grind of a basketball season if Prince continues to be used in the manner he's been used thus far.
There's clearly an advantage gained by this team when Tony Allen and James Johnson are on the floor together. The problem there is that Johnson is so foul-prone that you can't count on him being able to stay on the floor long enough to take Prince's spot. Tony Allen and Courtney Lee make a great pair of wings, too (especially when Lee isn't hobbling around on one and a half legs like he seems to be doing as of late). Even Tayshaun has his place—seriously, I think he does.
But I think that place is as a guy who starts games and plays 15 minutes. And I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way—I think I'm just tired of skirting the issue. And really, that's the issue, right? I like the guy. I like him as a player. I don't want to say anything bad about him because of the tremendous amount of respect I have for him. That's the problem with being a basketball writer with access to the team: you get a sense of who these guys are, and you lose the ability to objectively judge what's happening on a game-to-game basis.
I'm grateful for the access I've been granted, and I feel like that access has made me better able to discern what's happening with the team. But there are issues, like this one, where it makes me prone to self-censorship because I don't want to say what I really want to say. And that's where I'm at with Tayshaun Prince and this season. I don't know how this plays out. Honestly, I think the status quo is probably going to hold until the summer, because I don't see Joerger making that kind of a move late in the season. So really I—we—just get to sit and stew about this whole thing for 20-odd more games. But the truth is still the truth: the small forward rotation needs to be altered to maximize the advantages offered by this Griz roster, and if it were, the Grizzlies would be in a better position to win.
And I hate saying that, because I was genuinely excited that the Grizzlies landed Tayshaun Prince last season. And I love watching him play basketball when he's doing it to the best of his ability. And I think he's a really good guy. And last night was, if anything, a painful reminder of how not-normal that performance is these days. But look: basketball is ruthless, and time doesn't care what I think.