At 29-23 heading into the NBA All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies seem poised to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season. But despite their success, this year's model has been a hard team to get a read on. Their best player -- Pau Gasol -- has suffered through two or three mini-slumps en route to his first All-Star appearance. Due to either injury or ineffectiveness, the much-celebrated trio of veteran guards team president Jerry West brought in during the off-season -- Damon Stoudamire, Bobby Jackson, and Eddie Jones -- have had less of an impact than most fans anticipated. And despite a great pre-season, the team's explosive rookie -- Hakim Warrick -- has struggled to find playing time.
There's been only one constant all season: splendid team defense. But there are plenty of questions. At midseason, here's an attempt to answer some of them:
1. Are the Grizzlies the best defensive team in the NBA?
Not quite. Everyone from broadcasters to reporters to fans has made that claim this season, and it's based on the fact that the Grizzlies hold opponents to the fewest points per game (87.7) of any team in the league. But that doesn't really mean they're the league's best defensive team. That the Grizzlies hold opponents to an extraordinarily low scoring average is a combination of having one of the league's best defenses and playing at what has been the slowest pace in the league, a style of play that keeps scoring low for both teams. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs are really the league's best defensive team.
But even if the Grizzlies' defensive excellence gets overstated, they've still played terrific team defense, third-best in the league (behind San Antonio and Indiana) when judged by points allowed per possession, which is a more accurate measure.
2. So how have they done it?
The matrix of teamwork, effort, and execution that drives the Grizzlies' defense isn't easily explainable, but if you want to understand what's happening in terms of individual players, the addition of Eddie Jones is a good place to start. At 34, Jones is no longer the same player who led the league in steals six seasons ago, but he's retained the size, quickness, and work ethic to be a viable defensive stopper on the wings, something the Grizzlies lacked a year ago with James Posey hobbled.
Jones has had something of a defensive rebirth for the Grizzlies. He's 10th in the league in steals per game, and his presence has been beneficial to Shane Battier, whose lack of foot speed was exposed at times last season when forced to defend elite scoring guards. With Jones now handling those assignments, Battier has matched up more with forwards and secondary scorers, allowing him to showcase the versatility, smarts, and hustle that make him one of the NBA's best all-around defenders. Put Jones and Battier together and the Grizzlies have one of the finest defensive tandems in the NBA. And they've gotten help at the top of the defense: After jettisoning defensive sieve Jason Williams, the Grizzlies have also gotten more consistent defensive play from the point-guard position despite having four different players get meaningful minutes there.
But it isn't just on the perimeter that the Grizzlies have received improved defensive play. One of the most under-recognized elements of the season is the modest yet tangible defensive improvement from Gasol. Gasol isn't necessarily a good defender yet, but he's far from the obvious liability he was a couple of seasons ago. In this breakout season, Gasol has become a more consistent shot-blocking threat, gets manhandled less in the paint, and is more aggressive guarding the pick-and-roll. He's also bounced back on the boards after a poor rebounding performance a season ago, and the teamwide improvement in defensive rebounding is another aspect of the team's defensive improvement that hasn't been acknowledged enough.
The Grizzlies are still a bad rebounding team, of course, but they've been better than they were a season ago despite a terrible performance from starting center Lorenzen Wright and more reliance on small lineups.
After finishing 26th in defensive rebounding percentage a year ago, the Grizzlies have moved up to 23rd. Part of that improvement has come from Gasol and from better boardwork from the team's frontcourt reserves. (Rookie Hakim Warrick has rebounded the ball slightly better than Stromile Swift did a year ago, and back-up center Jake Tsakalidis has significantly improved his performance.) But a lot of it is the result of a teamwide commitment from the perimeter players. The addition of Stoudamire (before his season-ending injury in late December) and Jackson has given the team much more rebounding help from the point-guard slot, and sixth-man Mike Miller has done an outstanding job on the boards.
The result of this group effort is that the Grizzlies have been able to get away with a lot of smaller lineups, with Battier often playing power forward. This has allowed Coach Mike Fratello to find more minutes for his best players and has also given the Grizzlies more quickness at the defensive end. Combine that quickness with a commitment to team defense among the coaching staff and players, and you have the amoeba-like defensive coverage that's marked Grizzlies basketball at its best this season.
3. That's great, but can they keep it up?
Barring serious injuries, you'd think so. But there are a couple of concerns. One is fatigue. Gasol, Battier, and Jackson are all averaging significantly more minutes per game than they did a year ago, while defensive stalwart Jones isn't getting any younger. Something else to worry about is that the team's offensive struggles will affect their defensive play, something that seemed to become an issue on the Grizzlies' recent road trip, when the normally reliable team defense seemed to come and go on almost a quarter-to-quarter basis. There were times on the road trip when missed assignments and bad body language suggested a strain on the teamwork and trust that has fueled the defense. One thing is certain: Unless the Grizzlies can fix their faltering offense, they can't afford to lose any of their defensive edge.
4. Why has the offense been so bad?
The Grizzlies boasted the 18th most productive offense in the 30-team NBA a season ago, when Gasol missed 26 games with a foot injury and a bunch of erratic shooters (Williams, Earl Watson, Bonzi Wells, etc.) all slumped at the same time. With their seven-foot star back and with a new, ostensibly steadier group of shooters to surround him, the Grizzlies seemed poised to make a major improvement on the offensive end. Instead they've slid down to 22nd in the league in points scored per possession, a major disappointment.
The preseason assumption that the Grizzlies' offense would be heavily dependent on the relationship between Gasol and the team's phalanx of outside shooters was correct. When the Grizzlies hit 38 percent or better from three-point range (a number that indicates good, not great, outside shooting), the team has gone 19-5. When Gasol's assist-turnover differential has exceeded +2 (an indicator of both the quality of Gasol's decision-making and his teammates' ability to knock down shots), the Grizzlies are 18-6. But when there's any break in the chain that starts with Gasol and extends around the perimeter, the Grizzlies' offense falls apart.
Despite a couple of mini-slumps and still-lingering questions about his ability to respond in crunch-time situations, Gasol has done the job this season. With his assists up and his turnovers down, Gasol has emerged as one of the two or three best-passing big men in basketball, but the three-point shooters who surround him have underachieved.
For starters, this Grizzlies team has never had the depth of shooters that they seemed to have when the season began. After hitting 38 percent from three last year, Dahntay Jones' outside shot has disappeared. (Jones hit only two of 14 long-range attempts in November and basically stopped shooting after that, taking only six three-point attempts since.) Brian Cardinal has shot the ball fine, but his rehabilitation from off-season knee surgery has been so slow he hasn't been able to establish himself in the rotation. So that immediately cut the Grizzlies' potential seven shooters down to five.
Another blow came from losing Stoudamire, whose clutch shooting (from behind the arc and from the free-throw line) was an underrated factor in the team's good start. The Grizzlies replaced Stoudamire with another three-point specialist in free agent Chucky Atkins, but at 28 percent three-point shooting in a Grizzlies uniform, Atkins hasn't been able to match Stoudamire's production.
And while the team's four remaining shooters (Miller, Jackson, Battier, and Eddie Jones) all are shooting fine on the season, they've all slumped in January and February, the primary factor in the 3-12 slide the Grizzlies experienced before their current three-game winning streak. Put it all together and the Grizzlies are 12th in the league in three-point shooting percentage (36 percent) while taking the fourth most attempts (19.4) per game. And that's not good enough.
That the Grizzlies are so dependent on three-point shooting is the natural result of a roster heavy on ostensible three-point threats but light on dynamic athletes capable of creating shots off the dribble. Put simply, when the Grizzlies don't shoot the ball well from three-point range, they haven't been able to score.
Of course, there are a string of other factors that have hampered the offense this season, starting with some truly abysmal free-throw shooting. The Grizzlies are 29th in the league in free-throw percentage (69 percent, after hitting 76 percent last season) and poor foul shooting likely cost the team games at Boston and Philadelphia and at home against the Dallas Mavericks. And there's no real explanation for what has been a teamwide problem, with every veteran except Atkins and Miller shooting below their career averages.
Other problems have stemmed from a lack of consistent frontcourt scoring beyond Gasol and a lack of true point guards who can help set up teammates with open shots.
5. Can the Grizzlies do anything to improve their offense this season?
They need to either shoot the three-ball better or become less reliant on it, and the way this team is constructed, the former is probably the better bet. But there are a few other specifics worth addressing. For starters, the team could get more production from its two most talented offensive players, Gasol and Miller.
Gasol may be having his best season, but not because he's become more of a scorer. Gasol's improvement has been in his all-around game -- passing, ball-handling, defense, and rebounding. As a scorer, his point production and shooting percentage are both down a little this season. On a team with so few reliable scoring options, you'd like to see Gasol produce more points, even against the constant double-teams he draws.
Equally frustrating at times is Miller, who always seems to either fall into a slump and or get sidelined with a minor injury whenever it appears he's about to put it all together. Relegated to the bench with the addition of Eddie Jones, Miller struggled in November but seemed to find his groove off the bench a month into the season, averaging more than 15 points a game in December and January on 40 percent three-point shooting. But Miller hit a rough patch in the middle of the team's late January slide and was on a 7 of 28 shooting stretch from long-range when he twisted an ankle at Phoenix before the break. On this team, Miller needs to be a consistent 15-points-a-night scorer, but he's yet to show he can consistently do that.
The Grizzlies would also get a significant boost if either Warrick or Cardinal could emerge as a reliable bench scorer in the second half of the season. And, in terms of overall play, the Grizzlies could look at altering their style a little bit.
And their style is what, slow?
Pretty much. Like I mentioned earlier, they play the slowest pace in the league. Part of that comes from a defense that denies easy shots and forces opponents late into the shot clock. But a lot of it is the result of a very deliberate offense.
6. So the Grizzlies should run more?
Not necessarily. There are definitely some fans and some in the media clamoring for a more exciting run-and-gun style of play, but I'm not sure the Grizzlies have the personnel to play that way: Their rebounding deficiencies have necessitated guards crashing the boards rather than leaking out into transition. There's no pure point guard to run the break. And with a bunch of older guards (Jackson, Jones, Atkins) and below-average athletes in the frontcourt (Battier, Cardinal, Wright), the Grizzlies don't really have the horses to play fast-break basketball.
But that doesn't mean the Grizzlies wouldn't benefit from speeding up their offense. To get a sense of what impact the slow pace has on the team's offense, it helps to take a closer look at when the Grizzlies are taking their shots. So far this season, the Grizzlies have taken only 32 percent of their shots within the first 10 seconds of the 24-second shot clock, the third lowest such percentage in the league. They've taken 20 percent of their shots with four seconds or less left on the clock (up from 14 percent a year ago), tied for second highest percentage in the league.
This is meaningful because shooting percentages in basketball tend to decline the later a team gets into the clock. The only team more extreme than the Grizzlies on both early and late attempts is the Utah Jazz, one of the league's very worst offensive teams. The only other team to take a lower percentage early is the San Antonio Spurs and the only other team to take a higher percentage late is the Cleveland Cavaliers, both teams with offenses built around MVP candidates and with all-star-caliber second options that the Grizzlies don't have. But even in Cleveland, Coach Mike Brown has been getting grief all season for micromanaging possessions.
The Grizzlies may not have the personnel to run, but by getting into their offensive sets quicker, they could bring down that too-high 20 percent for attempts late in the shot clock. Earlier offense should equate to better shots and thus more scoring.
7. Have the new guys been disappointing?
Just Jackson. Stoudamire was a little erratic before getting hurt, but his clutch shooting and ability to balance his scoring with point-guard duties have been missed. Eddie Jones has been exactly what should have been expected: a quality defender and locker-room guy whose marginal offensive contribution comes largely from spot-up three-point shooting. Those who thought he'd be the team's clear-cut second option on offense apparently hadn't seen Jones play in years.
But Jackson has clearly been a disappointment. His 37 percent shooting is by far the worst of his career, and he hasn't been able to find a consistent groove all season. He struggled mightily at the start but seemed to settle into his standard instant-offense role in late November, only to miss three weeks in December with a minor injury. Upon his return, Stoudamire went down and Jackson was forced into an unfamiliar starting role. He put up numbers as a starter but also put up an awful lot of shots. When the team signed Atkins and moved Jackson back to his bench role, he seemed to fall into a funk rather than embrace it. Along the way, his propensity for forcing shots on the break and his struggle to finish at the rim have been perhaps more frustrating than his erratic outside shooting.
8. What about the kids?
Antonio Burks and Dahntay Jones certainly haven't taken the steps this season you would have hoped, which is disappointing since their athleticism and defensive ability could really give this team a boost. Keep an eye on those guys in the second half.
But more important has been the development -- or lack thereof -- of first-round pick Warrick. The jury's still out on the rail-thin but explosive forward, who has demonstrated an ability to score in the paint and rebound but not do much of anything else. In order to play consistent minutes for this team, Warrick will have to be able to guard in the halfcourt, but right now he seems too light to defend in the paint and too stiff to guard small forwards on the perimeter. He also needs to increase his shooting range and work on his ability to put the ball on the floor.
Warrick did get double-digit minutes in five of the last six games heading into the break. He'll have the chance to establish himself as a regular in the rotation down the stretch, and his scoring ability could give the offense a boost.
9. What's wrong with Lorenzen Wright?
What isn't? If Warrick's minutes increase, it'll likely be at the expense of Wright, who is having by far his worst season as a pro, shooting career lows from the floor and the free-throw line and bobbling passes with regularity. Wright's been such an offensive burden that his minutes have plummeted in recent weeks. Wright is still capable of helping this team defensively and on the boards, but if he doesn't turn it around soon, this offensively challenged team may not be able to afford to give him significant minutes.
10. Did Pau Gasol deserve to be an All-Star?
Absolutely. Ostensible all-star snub Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets may score more points than Gasol and may be a bigger celebrity, but Gasol has done more things while leading his team to a better record with a less impressive supporting cast. And Gasol's selection as backup center isn't just defensible, it's accurate. Gasol may have a "PF" next to his name on the line-up sheet, but watch the team play and that designation seems arbitrary: Gasol is a post player on the offensive end, a shot-blocker on the defensive end, and is taller than frontcourt mate Wright. There's no particular reason why Wright should be considered the center and Gasol the power forward in the Grizzlies' lineup.
11. Will the Grizzlies make the playoffs?
Yes. Fans shouldn't get too concerned about the team's late-January/early-February struggles considering how loaded the schedule was with road games and games against elite teams. Based on opponent winning percentage, the Grizzlies have built their current 29-23 record against the toughest schedule in the NBA. But things will get a lot easier after the break.
The Grizzlies have already played seven of their 10 games against the league's three primary title contenders (Pistons, Spurs, Mavs). By contrast, the Grizzlies have played only one of six scheduled games against the league's three worst teams (Knicks, Bobcats, Hawks) and also have games left against such lottery-bound squads as the Raptors, Sonics (twice), and Celtics. Last season, the Grizzlies needed to build up a cushion in order to survive a murderer's row of an April schedule. This year, the rough stuff is already out of the way. Barring injuries, look for the Grizzlies, currently seventh place in the Western Conference, to move up to sixth in time for the playoffs.
12. Can they finally do some damage when they get there?
Now that's a tougher question. Gasol has proven himself a viable post-season scorer in past playoff series and should be even better this time around. And the Grizzlies brought in playoff-tested veterans like Jones and Jackson expressly for a shot at better playoff success. But the biggest reason for optimism has less to do with the Grizzlies than their potential opponent. After playing sacrificial lamb to the defending champion Spurs and conference-leading Phoenix Suns the past two seasons, the Grizzlies will likely go into the playoffs this year with a match-up against either a less explosive Suns team or (if they settle in at the sixth seed) an underperforming Denver Nuggets squad that could even yield home-court advantage to the Grizzlies. There's no reason the Grizzlies couldn't be competitive against those match-ups.
13. So, Jerry West's off-season makeover has been a success?
That remains to be seen. The Grizzlies may have a shot at better post-season success this season, but the 2005-2006 Memphis Grizzlies still feel like a transitional team. The old guards West brought in (ridding the team of Jason Williams' long-term contract in the process) may only be bridging the gap from Hubie Brown's 10-man-rotation squad Mike Fratello inherited a year ago to a bigger makeover to come in the next year or two. And if the Grizzlies can't win at least a couple of games come playoff time, you have to wonder if the franchise would have been better served starting the real rebuilding immediately -- with more young talent to grow alongside Gasol -- than in taking a short-term stab at a limited playoff run.