If you watch the Grizzlies' local television broadcasts, one thing you can count on is seeing a graphic showing the top five teams in the league in bench scoring. This reason is obvious: The Grizzlies have been among the league leaders in this category all season, often at the very top. This statistic gives the impression that the Grizzlies' bench is among the league's most effective on offense. Unfortunately, this is more a case study in how statistics can be manipulated to back up faulty assertions.
In truth, the Grizzlies' bench is among the league's highest-scoring only because the Grizzlies play more players off the bench for more minutes than perhaps any other team in the NBA. In reality, the Grizzlies' bench production has been erratic this season, suffering through many stretches where the reserves have struggled to put the ball in the basket.
Part of the problem was alluded to in last week's column about the team's point-guard play: With back-up Earl Watson pushing the tempo less frequently and less successfully than starter Jason Williams, the bench has been forced to play mostly half-court basketball.
In these sets, Wesley Person had been the unit's first option, yet Person, one of the planet's most talented pure shooters, shot the ball horribly. And it's not hard to see a connection. As a secondary scorer on the Grizzlies' fast-breaking first team last season, Person got easier looks (Williams had a real penchant for finding him spotting up for open threes as a trailer on the break). As the first-option on a half-court-oriented second team this season, Person and his teammates had to work a lot harder to get him looks, often running him (ragged) off a series of screens, á la vintage Reggie Miller. With defenses able to key on him, Person became much easier to defend.
And this is but one reason why last week's trade of Person and a conditional first-round pick to the Portland Trailblazers for swing-man Bonzi Wells should dramatically improve the Grizzlies.
Stepping directly into Person's role as bench scorer in his first two Griz games last week, Wells averaged 14 points on 45 percent shooting, which is a huge step up from Person's season averages of 5 points on 31 percent shooting. Wells' career performances provide no reason to expect that production to diminish. Though Wells may not remain in this role after he gets more comfortable with the Grizzlies' playbook, adding him to a core of Pau Gasol and Mike Miller should result in the team going through far fewer stretches without an effective scorer on the floor.
Unlike Person, Wells doesn't need help to get his points. He may not boast Person's pure stroke from the perimeter, but Wells' outside shot is solid enough to keep defenders honest. And it bolsters what is an otherwise fabulously well-rounded offensive game. Wells is one of the best post-up players in the league at his position, his strength and explosiveness making him a beast around the basket, where he's also one of the league's best rebounding guards. He's effective on the break and off-the-dribble, which fans saw at the end of the Portland game, when Coach Hubie Brown let Wells handle the ball at the top of the key and create shots for himself and others.
There are risks in this deal, of course. Wells' reputation is troubled to say the least, though fans may take some solace in the fact that, by all accounts, Wells' problems have been with fans, coaches, and opponents rather than with his teammates and with Portland's overworked (by the Trailblazers) cops.
A bigger concern may be on-court chemistry. The addition of Wells to a team that already includes Battier, Miller, and James Posey gives the team four swingmen who are all deserving of starter's minutes and has understandably (and, one suspects, correctly) fueled further trade speculation. Can Brown and his staff find enough minutes to keep everyone happy?
The other issue is whether the coaches can meld Wells' shot-happy temperament into the team's unselfish, share-the-ball style of play. But the truth is that the Grizzlies can be too unselfish at times, and Wells' scorer's mentality may well lend the team a much-needed edge.
If Brown and the coaching staff can mesh Wells' talents with that of the nucleus already in place (and this staff's record in Memphis certainly suggests they can), the Grizzlies have a chance to become one of the league's best offensive teams --and will turn this season's mild playoff hopes into a very realistic goal.