Fifty-four days late and 16 games short, the most anticipated season in Grizzlies franchise history has arrived.
Last year's Grizzlies squad barely missed the Western Conference Finals, causing many to anoint them as a sleeper title contender this season — a notion that the team's players have embraced. And yet that same team also barely made the playoffs, squeaking in as the final seed.
This season, the range of what's possible feels even wider. Catch the right breaks and this team seems capable of advancing even further in a conference where the balance of power could be shifting from old to new. Catch some bad breaks — and the team was just hit with a major one in losing reserve forward Darrell Arthur to a season-ending injury — and the Grizzlies could miss the playoffs entirely in a conference still deep with playoff-caliber teams.
Securing the Core
In signing center Marc Gasol to a four-year, nearly $58 million contract on the eve of the season, the Grizzlies put the final piece in place of a four-man core now under contract together for the next four seasons.
This group — Gasol, point guard Mike Conley, small forward Rudy Gay, and power forward Zach Randolph — doesn't represent the most well-trod path to contention in the NBA. The proven competitive model is to obtain a "superstar" — or, preferably, two — and surround them with good role players. Or, in this era of so-called super teams, to surround your superstar base with another glory-seeking semi-star or two. But absent lottery luck (see: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls) or the allure of a major market (see: Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers), superstars are difficult to obtain and, of late, even more difficult to keep.
Having missed their chance at a transformational talent via either poor luck or bad draft decisions, the Grizzlies have, in the Memphis tradition, put their team together the hard way and will now proceed to try to make it better each and every day.
The Randolph-Gasol-Conley-Gay core may lack that one dominant celebrity baller, but it boasts coherence and quality: A potentially dominant two-man post tandem flanked by a solid ballhandler/playmaker and a do-it-all wing scorer/defender, all in their prime at ages ranging from 24 to 30.
It starts with Randolph, who has notched an All-Star selection and an All-NBA selection in successive Grizzlies seasons before unleashing some dominant playoff performances this spring and now enters his third Memphis campaign in what seems to be — wait for it — "the best shape of his career." After watching another skill-over-athleticism power forward, Dallas' 33-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, lead his team to a title last summer, Griz fans have reason to expect they may yet see the best of 30-year-old Randolph. And while Nowitzki thrived with a true center — since-departed Tyson Chandler — beside him, Randolph gets similar support from Gasol, a rugged, versatile talent who rebounded from a slightly down regular season to arguably outplay Tim Duncan in the team's first-round series win over the Spurs.
At the helm, the previously erratic Conley finally solidified himself at point guard last season, following a consistent regular season with steady floor leadership in the playoffs. And tying it together is the returning Gay, who looks fully recovered from his April shoulder injury — there's one person the lockout helped — and is the only player on the roster who can both create shots and defend from the rim to the three-point line.
If no one in this group would be considered your typical alpha dog on a title contender, Gay, Gasol, and Randolph are all easily among the 10 best players in the league at their respective positions and arguably — and, with Randolph at least, it isn't much of an argument — among the top five. With "super team" Goliaths forming in major markets, this small-market David — led by a now playoff-proven, no-nonsense head coach in Lionel Hollins — has built a potential contender with an emphasis more on "team" than on "super."
The Importance of Cost-Efficient Contributors
This Grizzlies core is good, but it didn't come cheap. Those four players are on the team's salary sheet for close to $50 million this season, with raises taking the combined salary designations for the core up over $60 million by the 2014-2015 season. And that matters in competitive terms because the Grizzlies, as a small-market, low-revenue team, are likely to want to stay under the NBA's luxury tax limit, which is just over $70 million for this season. The Grizzlies will hope the tax limit rises in accordance with those salaries, but if not the math will get increasingly tricky in coming seasons.
In order to make the roster work with this core and those salary constraints, the Grizzlies, like other budget contenders (Spurs, Thunder), will need to surround their core with the right cost-efficient role players.
For this season, at least, the Grizzlies seemed to be in good shape in this regard: the assumed starting lineup completed by arguably the league's best perimeter defender and 2010's biggest free-agent bargain in Tony Allen ($3.2 million) and the bench anchored by O.J. Mayo ($5.6 million), a sweet-shooting guard due for a bounce-back season after a host of struggles last year, and Arthur ($2 million), a dynamic forward coming off a breakout season. Filling out the roster, so far, were several young players on relatively cheap deals who had either proven to be useful contributors (Sam Young, Greivis Vasquez) or who boasted the raw skills and resumes to suggest they could be (Xavier Henry, Josh Selby, promising new signee Jeremy Pargo).
But the Grizzlies' depth has taken a dangerous hit in the past couple of weeks. Second-year swingman Henry, hoping to rebound from an injury-marred rookie season, went down with a bad ankle sprain that could force him to miss the first few weeks of the season. Then the Grizzlies, sitting on a few million dollars under the tax line and desperately needing more frontcourt depth, watched a string of potential free-agent candidates sign elsewhere. Finally, on Sunday, the big blow: The Achilles injury that will cost Arthur the season.
Already the Grizzlies were facing dangerous depth problems in their frontcourt, where, minus Arthur, only starters Gay, Randolph, and Gasol stand taller than 6'-7". The Grizzlies may yet bring back Iranian center Hamed Haddadi, currently a restricted free agent and still trying to negotiate the travel process back to Memphis, and have veteran journeymen big-men Josh Davis and Brian Skinner on their training camp roster. But all three of these players are better suited as fifth men in a power forward/center rotation, players who would only see the floor occasionally. Now, already desperate for a fourth big — someone who might be asked to soak up 15 minutes of court-time a night — the team finds itself in dire need of a third — someone asked to play more like 25-30 minutes a game.
At this point, without good free-agent options left in the team's presumptive price range, the potential ripple effects are alarming. Gay can certainly swing to power forward in the kind of "small ball" lineups increasingly de rigueur in today's NBA, but Hollins has been disinclined to play him there and Gay's already the only true small forward on the roster, his back-ups all undersized swingmen (Young, Henry, Allen). It seems likely that the team will be forced to sacrifice some of its perimeter depth — if not Mayo, then at least Henry and/or Vasquez — in a trade to shore up its frontcourt. And no matter the resolution, the team's depth and shooting are probably going to be bigger problems when the season begins than they were a week ago.
Arthur's injury in conjunction with an already thin frontcourt could prove devastating to this team's hopes of serious contention. How effectively Grizzlies management addresses this problem under their salary constraints will be crucial. But this is the challenge the team will continue to face in the next few seasons.
Elements of Style
With most of last season's roster returning, the Grizzlies won't look to change what they had success with a season ago but instead try to build on a strong identity that combines a post-oriented power offense with an aggressive, ball-hawking defense.
With Randolph and Gasol as the foundation, the Grizzlies have been the most interior-oriented offense in the NBA the past two seasons, leading the NBA in points in paint both seasons while finishing first and sixth, respectively, in offensive rebounding. Yet, despite having such an imposing power game, the Grizzlies were pretty mediocre — 16th among 30 NBA teams — in overall offensive production last season. The team's orientation was so extreme that they were a distant last in three-point attempts (11.3 a game), but it was hard to complain about that when they only connected on long-range slots at a 33 percent clip (27th overall). And these struggles extended to the mid-range game, where the Grizzlies were 24th in the league (38 percent shooting) from 16 to 23 feet and 22nd (also 38 percent) from 10 to 15 feet, according to hoopdata.com.
This problem came home to roost in the team's second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when the Thunder increasingly collapsed onto Randolph and Gasol and let the team's perimeter players shoot — and miss. The Grizzlies shot worse than 40 percent in four of the series' final five games and never shot better than 33 percent from three-point range in that span.
Getting back Gay — the team's best perimeter shot-creator and mid-range threat and a 40 percent three-point shooter last season — should be a major boon. Gay will draw attention from the inside game and has the open-court talents to notch 20 points a contest even with the offense running through the team's post players. Perhaps, following Randolph's playoff heroics, there will be questions about the pecking order of Gay or Randolph in last-shot situations. But this is a minor issue relative to how badly the team will need both players to get loads of minutes, touches, and shots throughout the season.
The team will also look toward internal shooting improvement from Conley and especially Mayo (provided he isn't dealt for frontcourt help), both of whom shot under their career averages last season. A sleeper? Try Vasquez. The second-year combo guard shot a dismal 37 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three-point range in 51 games before the all-star break last season but got more comfortable as the season progressed and shot 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent on threes in 32 games after the break, including the playoffs.
Randolph and Gasol are probably the best offensive frontcourt duo in the league. Conley, Allen, and Gay aren't the best defensive perimeter trio — Conley gets overpowered by big, athletic guards and Gay has to confirm last year's defensive advancements over a full season — but they might be the most disruptive.
The Grizzlies were the 8th best defense in the NBA last season despite being middle of the pack — 14th in opponent field-goal percentage — when it came to guarding shots. Instead, the Grizzlies thrived in preventing shots. With Allen's chaotic, aggressive defense infecting the entire team, the Grizzlies were best in the league in steals and forced turnovers. Allen had the highest steal rate in the NBA in 17 seasons, with Conley (5th) and Gay (6th) also boasting among the highest steal rates at their positions last season. Additionally, Allen (3rd) and Gay (5th) had among the best shot-block rates for scoring guards and small forwards last season.
Assuming Allen can repeat last season's effort and Gay continues his upward trend defensively, the Grizzlies could be even better this season. An interesting wrinkle to last season is that, because it took Allen more than a month to fully work himself into the rotation and because Gay went down with a season-ending injury about a month and a half after Allen had established himself, this potentially dynamic duo didn't actually play together that much. There were only 13 games last season in which Gay and Allen both played at least 20 minutes. The Grizzlies were 9-4 in those games, including 4-2 against eventual playoff teams, and the team's steal average in those games jumped from their overall league-leading 9.4 to a blistering 11.9.
In the face of losing Arthur, whose mid-range shooting, transition offense, and pick-and-roll defense, in particular, made him an impact player at both ends of the floor, this team's search for an extra gear could well come from a full season of Allen and Gay together.
A Sprint, Not a Marathon
Losing Arthur on the eve of the season's start has put a damper on this team's soaring expectations, but consider this: Two seasons ago, the Grizzlies won 40 games with a lineup of Conley-Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol backed by one of the worst benches in NBA history, with a rookie-year Sam Young the only even halfway viable contributor and with Conley playing terrible basketball for the first month.
Conley, Gay, and Young are all better players now than they were then, and the team now has defensive juggernaut Allen. Current backup point guards Vasquez and intriguing overseas-vet rookie Pargo are likely to be far more productive than that season's Jamaal Tinsley/Marcus Williams combo. And whoever the Grizzlies scrounge together in the frontcourt is certain to provide more help than that season's most used frontcourt reserves, rookies Hasheem Thabeet and DeMarre Carroll.
Of course, the Grizzlies were fortunate that season, with Conley/Mayo/Gay/Randolph missing a total of five games among them. That team's flickering playoff hopes were extinguished when Gasol missed the final 13 games to injury. The Grizzlies probably can't expect the same kind of workload from their top players this season, a compressed, lockout-shortened 66-game sprint rather than the usual 82-game marathon, with games coming far more frequently. This includes one stretch late in the season where the Grizzlies will play 17 games in 25 days. Managing starters' minutes against this schedule with a reduced bench will be a challenge for Hollins and his staff. And if a serious injury were to strike Randolph or Gasol, the season could take a decisive negative turn.
But despite these concerns, there's a window for contention opening for the Grizzlies, not just for this season but for the following three in which they have this four-man core in place. Traditional Western Conference powers in Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Antonio — who have represented the conference in each of the past 13 NBA Finals — are aging and could be ready to slide. The Grizzlies will likely be jockeying with the favorite Oklahoma City Thunder, the upstart Los Angeles Clippers, and the dismissed-at-your-peril Portland Trailblazers for pole position in a "New West" invasion that could shake up the conference pecking order.
Before the Arthur injury, the Grizzlies were well-positioned for a serious, deep run. But this might still be the most talented team in franchise history. The biggest looming question, assuming they can stay healthy and add more frontcourt depth: Is it also the hungriest?