Friday, October 7, 2016

Hawks 104, Grizzlies 83: Preseason Notebook

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 9:50 AM

click to enlarge Zach Randolph, now the primary scorer on the Grizzlies' second unit. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Zach Randolph, now the primary scorer on the Grizzlies' second unit.

The first half was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. The second half, well… you know… sometimes the preseason happens when you least expect it. The Grizzlies played the Hawks last night, but since it wasn’t broadcast anywhere, it might be better if we just all agree not to talk about it anymore, especially since they lost 104-83. Problem with that is this: I have to talk about it. It’s my job. So, here are three things we can discuss this morning.

In Which The Grizzlies Play One Half Of Basketball And One Half Of Some Sort Of Activity That Only Just Resembles It

Last night, the Grizzlies were without Mike Conley and Jarell Martin in addition to the guys who haven’t yet made an appearance this preseason (Tony Allen, Deyonta Davis, Chandler Parsons, and, yes, Jordan Adams). Nothing was wrong with Conley, but Jarell Martin was spotted in a walking boot on his right foot—which, if there’s good news there, isn’t the one he had so many issues with last year. Because of that, Wade Baldwin got the start and had a hard time conducting the offense with any sort of a rhythm.

Baldwin was matched up against Dennis Schröder, which is probably the caliber of player he’ll have to be ready to face off against if/when he’s the Grizzlies’ “real” backup PG, and it didn’t go well for him. He kept his turnovers down, but was 1-6 from the floor. Good things: 4 assists and 1 turnover, taking 8 free throws in 23 minutes. Bad things: getting flummoxed by Schröder. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.

David Fizdale put it best in his postgame presser: in the first half, the Grizzlies played cohesive basketball, made plays and got stops, and while they certainly weren’t in a rhythm, they at least hung together and looked like they knew what they were doing. In the second half, once Fizdale decided to play the “training camp roster” guys to let them get some reps, that all fell apart, and everybody was trying to make their own highlight reel. Understandable, given that these sorts of training camp deals are really an audition for all 30 teams, not just the one to which the players are signed, but… at the end of the day, it made for an entire half of basketball that was incoherent, and the Hawks were there to take advantage of it.

The second half was just short of a travesty, a callback to the end-of-the-season games last year when the Grizzlies were mostly playing D-League guys. Sometimes shambolic basketball can be fun, like a Velvet Underground song, just barely hanging together in all the noise. Other times, it can be Metal Machine Music, and you just want to turn it off because it sounds like the bleats of dying appliances. That was last night. There weren’t many great lessons to be learned. On to the next one.

In Which Zach Randolph Comes Off The Bench Again Except This Time No One Is Surprised By It

The big story from Wednesday’s Grizzlies practice is that Zach Randolph is officially coming off the bench this season. He’d been practicing with the second unit all training camp, and apparently no one had made that connection yet, but when he didn’t start Monday’s game against Orlando it got people talking. This, more than anything, is a signpost of a passing era: a combination of Randolph’s slow but inexorable decline due to age, and the evolution of the NBA offense teams mercilessly attack his inability to cover all the way out to the three point line. It seemed inevitable last year, but Grizzlies fans love Zach Randolph more than they love most of their own family, so nobody (including me) wanted to cross that bridge yet.

Fizdale crossed it for us. Instead of waiting for the team to struggle and then benching Randolph for He Who Shall Not Be Named (rhymes with “Shmeff Mreen”) in what might have been one of the least popular coaching moves in Grizzlies history, he tackled it head on, telling Zach what he wanted to do before training camp even started, getting Randolph on board—to the extent that Randolph is ever going to be on board with coming off the bench, which is probably minimal—and moving ahead with the plan.

It makes a lot of sense. The apparent second-unit frontcourt pairing of Randolph and Brandan Wright leaves each able to play his own game to an extent (more on that later), provides a real scoring threat to the second unit—can you imagine what Randolph is going to do to some of the scrubbier backup 4’s and 5’s of the league?—and lets him play the “center with the bench unit” role he’s been playing very effectively in spots over the last two years. It saves him from having to defend starting stretch 4’s and getting ripped apart in pick and roll defense by uptempo spread teams.

There was no way Randolph was going to be able to start NBA games until he’s 40. He was going to have to start coming off the bench at some point. Right now, during this transition to Fizdale’s overall offensive and defensive system, makes a lot of sense.

I hope it works. Check back later.

click to enlarge Brandan Wright. Yes, this picture is from last year. #preseason - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brandan Wright. Yes, this picture is from last year. #preseason

In Which Brandan Wright Becomes An Important And Yet Sort Of Ill-Defined Part Of This Year’s Grizzlies Team

Randolph’s fellow second unit big man Brandan Wright missed so much of last season that he’s basically an additional free agent signing that was already under contract. (And yes, he’s aware of what team Ronnie Price is on now, and will be watching out for Price’s kneecaps this time.) The question of where he fits in the overall scheme of what the Grizzlies are trying to do was echoing around Grizzlies Twitter the last couple of days; without a clear picture of where Wright would land in the rotation, it seemed counterintuitive that he’d be a big role player, and maybe his extremely valuable contract meant he should be traded for wing help.

I think last night’s game cleared that up a little, with Wright taking the floor mostly with Randolph in the first half, taking the toughest defensive assignment (aka the 9-foot-tall Atlanta center Walter “Edy” Tavares) and building up some rhythm with his around-the-basket touches. I asked Fizdale in the postgame presser where he sees Wright fitting into the Grizzlies’ scheme and he gushed about Wright’s speed, his ability to guard all the way out to the perimeter, and his scoring. I picked Wright’s brain about it in the locker room and got a similar answer–that on defense, Wright is out there to keep Randolph from being the offense’s point of attack, and I expect to see the Randolph/Wright tandem deployed a lot this season.

It’s maybe the only good injury news yet this season, that Wright is back. There were times last year when it seemed like he was bound to disappear into the Jordan Adams Memorial Memory Hole and never be heard from again, and when Adams, Parsons, and now Deyonta Davis are all hanging out there with no projected return time, seeing Wright back and ready to go inspires hope that maybe guys will get healthy again. He played 23 minutes last night—according to him, probably the most he’s ever had to play in a preseason game—because there weren’t enough active bigs to put a young guy in during the free jazz (in a bad way) second half, and also because he wanted the reps.

If the Grizzlies can really figure out how to use Wright, and really take advantage of the things they signed him for (and maybe, since Fizdale claims to be borrowing so many principles from Rick Carlisle, unlock that seldom-seen Wright/Vince Carter two man game), they’re going to be in much better shape with their second unit this year, and with Randolph and Wright steadying that frontcourt, some of the worst fears about depth are at least partially alleviated.

Game Haiku #0B

The people have spoken, and now I have to do one of these for every game.

Tavares, giraffe,
The Space Needle, a redwood:
All too tall to guard.


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