After three seasons of competing for a playoff spot, this year the Memphis Grizzlies find themselves competing for something more ignoble: the league's worst record and, thus, best chance of landing the top pick in this summer's rookie draft.
Grizzlies' games this season have largely been obscured by the more momentous happenings off the court. Questions about ownership, management, and coaching won't be resolved until the summer. But, in the meantime, there's still a lot to learn on the court.
As hard as it can be for fans to come to grips with, losing seasons are sometimes unavoidable. In fact, in rare circumstances -- and this sure looks like one of them -- they're beneficial. If ever a season were a case of taking a step back in order to set up a bigger leap forward, this could be it. And that means the questions being asked and answered this season -- on the court, in the locker room, and in the front office -- may be more important to the long-term future of the Grizzlies than those that confronted a team mired in mere respectability over the recent past. Here is an attempt to address some of those questions.
Was making Tony Barone the team's interim coach the right move?
The better question might be this: Once the organization determined that Mike Fratello needed to go, what was the alternative?
Sure, the Grizzlies could have promoted one of the team's assistant coaches, but there's no guarantee that any of those assistants will return when the Grizzlies hire a new coach this summer and he assembles his own staff. With this season clearly focused on the franchise's future, it made sense for the team to be guided by someone invested in that future, and director of player personnel Barone, who is likely to return to the front office after this interim coaching assignment ends in April, was the only viable candidate who clearly fit the bill.
Will the Grizzlies trade Pau Gasol during the season?
We'll find out soon, as the NBA's trade deadline is February 22nd. No one really knows if the Grizzlies will follow through on Gasol's trade request this season, but if it happens it will likely be close to the deadline and likely be with the Chicago Bulls, who seem to be the most serious suitor. My best guess is that nothing happens, at least until this summer. But it's only a guess.
Okay, should the Grizzlies trade Gasol before the deadline?
If the Grizzlies can get a young, proven player of comparable talent (rumored trade options such as Chicago's Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and Boston's Al Jefferson don't quite qualify) or an unprotected lottery pick in this summer's draft, then it might be worth it. But that isn't likely to happen.
Instead, a Gasol trade this month would more likely bring a combination of a lesser young player closer to free agency, cap space, and perhaps a lesser draft pick. Since the success of such a scenario would be packed with contingencies (resigning the acquired player to a reasonable contract and making smart use of the cap savings and draft pick) and since the team acquiring the best player almost always comes out ahead in NBA trades, the Grizzlies should be very reluctant to part with Gasol in such a deal, especially since, at age 26, he still seems to be improving.
Because his minutes were limited for several games after returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for most of the season's first two months, Gasol's per-game averages still give a misleading impression of his production. He's averaging 34.1 minutes per game so far this season, but if you translate his stats to the 39.1 minutes per game he averaged last season, his production looks like this: 23.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 blocks per game. Gasol's 54 percent shooting is a career best, aided by improved shooting mechanics that have him converting jump shots at a much higher rate.
After a shaky start on the boards, Gasol's rebound rate is up dramatically over his previous career norms, and his shot-blocking is also on the rise. Gasol's assist and turnover production is down from last season's stellar standards, but this seems to be a result of a shakier team setting.
Gasol's defensive and clutch-play deficiencies are very real but also worse this season than in the past. The bet here is that Gasol's improvements are more likely to carry over into next season than his regressions. As a versatile seven-footer just entering his prime, Gasol's on-court value trumps his trade value. At the very least, the Grizzlies should wait until this summer's draft lottery and reevaluate the situation based on the results.
Okay, enough about a player who might be traded. What about the player who was traded? Did the Grizzlies make a mistake trading Shane Battier?
It's too early to pass final judgment on the summer deal that sent the beloved Battier to Houston for rookie Rudy Gay (and, to make salaries match, the perpetually disappointing Stromile Swift). But based on what we've seen, I'd say the deal still looks good for the Grizzlies.
Gay is eight years younger than Battier and has far greater upside. Despite a rocky start to his rookie season, Gay has demonstrated what he's capable of: He can score all over the court and has the length and athleticism to be a disruptive force defensively. He's also exhibited subtle improvement, raising his shooting percentage every month of the season.
Reinserted into the starting lineup last week and likely to stay there, Gay's development will now take its rightful place as the most important Grizzlies story for the remainder of this season.
Losing Battier was a big factor (but not the only one) in the disintegration of the team defense this season, but if this short-term decline nets the Grizzlies not only Gay but also a better chance at landing Kevin Durant or Greg Oden this summer, it will be a coup.
Was the team's other first-round pick, Kyle Lowry, an early-season mirage or is he really that good?
Sadly, we'll have to wait until next fall to find out. Lowry's left wrist -- broken in three places early in the season -- hasn't healed as quickly as hoped, and he will not play again this season. On the bright side, Lowry has been shooting and working out with the team, and there's no reason to think he won't be fully healed in time for training camp this fall. If you saw Lowry play this season and care about basketball, much less the Grizzlies, it has to break your heart a little bit every time you see him at a game wearing street clothes.
In his brief, pre-injury audition, Lowry proved to be better than could have been imagined. His jumper looked shaky, but he got to the rim and to the foul line with such ease (and shot so well from the line) that he was an efficient scorer anyway. More impressive was his defense, rebounding from the backcourt, and leadership/charisma potential, all of which were elite from day one. If his offense develops -- a surer jump shot, an ability to turn those drives into lay-ups and open jumpers for teammates, an expanded arsenal of finishing shots in the lane -- he's got a chance not just to be a starter but a star.
What are we learning about the young frontcourt players?
With vets Jake Tsakalidis, Brian Cardinal, and Stromile Swift seeing increasingly limited minutes, Barone has mostly been rotating rookie Alexander Johnson and second-year forwards Hakim Warrick and Lawrence Roberts through the frontcourt alongside Gasol. And, after Rudy Gay, evaluating these players will be a big story during the season's final months.
Warrick is the most talented of the trio and has made impressive strides in his second season. Last year, he struggled to finish plays he couldn't dunk and displayed a knuckleball jumper that would scare small children. This year, Warrick has been far less dependent on dunks for his scoring. He's finishing plays around the rim and knocking down mid-range jumpers at a much higher percentage than during his rookie season. He's also improved from the free-throw line.
But, at a slender 6'9", 220 pounds, Warrick's defense and rebounding deficiencies have been glaring at times. Can he play with Gasol? If not, is he trade bait? Or if Gasol is dealt, does Warrick have a chance to be a legit starter? With Warrick's minutes likely on the rise for the remainder of the season, he'll have a chance to answer some of these questions.
Johnson and Roberts have alternated as the starter at power forward since Gasol's return, though neither really has much business being an NBA starter at this point in their careers. Roberts is a more skilled rebounder than Johnson, but his production in this area is only modestly superior. Johnson is the better athlete and has better potential as a scorer, even if he's been too willing to launch his funky, high-release jump shot.
Johnson explodes to the rim and dunks, whereas Roberts is weaker going to the rim and is much more likely to have his shots rejected. (A whopping 20 percent of Roberts' dunk attempts have been blocked this year, compared to 4 percent for Johnson.) Johnson, unlike Roberts, is already under contract for next season and seems to have more potential. For those reasons, look for him to win out in the long term.
Is Mike Miller having a breakout season?
Yes and no. Despite some outlandish shooting exploits, Miller hasn't really been any better this year than he's been before. The difference is that he's playing more and is being better used.
Miller's minutes are way up (39.6 a game this season compared to 30.6 last season), but his scoring per minute is virtually identical to what it's been the past two years. And his 43 percent three-point shooting is above his career average but is not quite a career high.
But, this season, Miller's great three-point stroke is being exploited more than ever before. No Grizzlies player has benefited more from the wide-open style of "Barone Ball" than Miller. In 30 games under Fratello, Miller's three-point attempts reached double figures only three times. In 22 games thus far under Barone, Miller's taken double-digit three-pointers nine times. Miller's average of seven threes a game smashes his previous career high (4.8), and this is the first season in Miller's career in which three-point shooting has accounted for more than 50 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Miller is still young at 26 and, like Gasol, just entering his prime. He shouldn't be the second option on a true contender but would be a dynamite fourth option on a title contender. If Rudy Gay develops and the Griz get lucky in the lottery, Miller could become the Grizzlies' fourth best player pronto.
The remaining question would be: Will he fit? Neither Miller nor Gay is a classic scoring guard. But if Gay develops into a good enough defender to handle the assignment and the Griz can acquire (or develop) a more dynamic point guard, it might work.
What about the rest of the roster?
You had to ask? It's been a mix of the raw and the cooked. Point guard has been a big problem since Lowry went down. Backup Chucky Atkins is having his best season as a scorer off the bench but isn't a true point. And starter Damon Stoudamire has missed games with knee soreness after returning from a season-ending injury in December 2005, although, honestly, Stoudamire's up-and-down production hasn't been much of a drop-off from what he was doing last season before he got hurt.
The one possible bit of intrigue here is that Atkins and Stoudamire, as proven veterans but definite role players, may be more valuable to other teams than to the Grizzlies. With all the talk of a potential Gasol deal, look for Atkins and/or Stoudamire to emerge as the subject of more trade rumors as the deadline approaches. Either would be useful to a contender (such as San Antonio or Miami) in need of point-guard depth or a shooter off the bench.
The other roster spot worth watching as the season closes out is on the wings, where incumbent Dahntay Jones and rookie Tarence Kinsey could share playing time. Jones has flashed some value as a defensive stopper this season, but his offensive limitations and poor decision-making seem to be a poor fit for the wide-open offense Barone has tried to install. Heading into restricted free-agency, Jones has shown enough to suggest he has an NBA future beyond his rookie contract, but it may not be in Memphis. For that reason, Grizzlies fans may see more of Kinsey as the season progresses.
Can the Grizzlies keep pace with the Celtics in the race for the league's worst record?
It will be difficult, as Boston seems to be putting an awful lot of effort into losing lately. The Celtics have recently gotten their best player, Paul Pierce, back from injury, but don't count on an easier Eastern Conference schedule to work in the Grizzlies' favor. Like the Grizzlies, the Celtics have a fairly even spread of home and road games left to play and many more games against Finals contenders the rest of the way than against fellow bottom-feeders.
Does it even matter? Having the worst record is no guarantee of getting the top pick.
This is true. The team with the worst record in the league will have only a 25 percent chance of winning the NBA lottery. But there are a couple of things to consider: First, the big prize this year -- provided both top prospects, Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant, declare for the draft as expected -- isn't the number-one pick but to have one of the top-two picks. And finishing with the worst record in the league will give a team an almost 50 percent chance at one of those picks. Second, because teams cannot pick more than three spots lower than where their record would put them, having the worst record would guarantee a team a pick in the top four. In other words, if you're a Grizzlies fan, you might want to openly hope for losing at this point.
What happens if the Grizzlies don't get a top-two pick?
After that, who knows? As it stands, it's almost unimaginable that the Grizzlies won't be picking in the top six of this summer's draft, which means if they miss out on Oden and Durant, there will still be a lot of prospects on the board with star potential in the NBA. Depending on who comes out and where the pick lands in that 3-6 range, you're looking at a selection of power forwards and centers -- Joakim Noah and Al Horford of Florida, Brandon Wright of North Carolina, Spencer Hawes of Washington. All of these players (and several other potential draftees) could, theoretically, be an improvement over what the Grizzlies currently have playing alongside Gasol. Dealing Gasol, unless another center comes back in the deal (which is unlikely), could make seven-footers such as Noah and Hawes more attractive. Regardless, not getting a top-two pick could turn the Grizzlies situation into a true rebuilding plan instead of the quick fix Oden or Durant might signify.
Is this a rebuilding year?
Jerry West claimed otherwise in his press conference after Mike Fratello was fired. But, to a degree, of course it is. The Grizzlies were 6-24 at the time. If you're not rebuilding at that point, what are you doing?
But here's the thing: It doesn't need to be the kind of long-term -- sometimes permanent -- rebuilding that tends to keep teams in the lottery year after year. The Grizzlies may be facing big questions right now, especially off the court. But the roster, despite the team's terrible record this season, is actually in pretty good shape. Factor in talent level, upside, cap situation, and draft status, and this team has better raw materials heading into this summer than perhaps in any season since the move to Memphis.
And that's a big reason why the Grizzlies should be reluctant to trade Gasol in a deal that would net a combination of younger, less proven players, cap space, and draft picks. Despite having one of the league's worst records, this team is not that far from getting back to the post-season. Get lucky in the draft and smart in free-agency and this team could be a real contender.