Dubbed "The Custodian" and embodying the stereotype of his counterpart in Woody Harrelson's basketball movie, White Men Can't Jump, Memphis Grizzlies forward Brian Cardinal is one of the most unlikely players in the NBA.
But Cardinal has proven that surface impressions can be deceiving: Last year, as a member of the Golden State Warriors, the unassuming Cardinal ranked 15th in the league in plus/minus rating (a measure of how teams fare with and without individual players). This season, despite injuries and the acclimation process with the Grizzlies, Cardinal ranks third among the Griz in plus/minus (behind Shane Battier and Earl Watson).
When the Grizzlies needed him most, Cardinal stepped up: In the 13 games between losing Stromile Swift to injury and getting Pau Gasol back, the Grizzlies went 8-5 with Cardinal at power forward. He scored in double digits in 12 straight games, pushed his three-point shooting above 40 percent, and seized the team lead for steals per game.
But as important as Cardinal has been to the Grizzlies this season, the limitations of his game were exposed in dramatic fashion over the weekend. Cardinal was simply terrible as the Grizzlies split home games with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns, putting up calamitous plus/minus numbers (-27 and 26) in each game.
Cardinal is a peculiar player. At power forward, he is both smaller and less athletic than the player he's matched against almost every game, but he can be effective on offense due to his deadly three-point stroke and deft passing. On defense, Cardinal's penchant for picking up steals and drawing fouls has limited his opponents' opportunities.
All of that has added up to a productive stretch for Cardinal, but over the weekend he ran into two impossible match-ups in Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Phoenix's Shawn Marion, athletes of such rare, freakish gifts that they are capable of dominating the boards while still playing suffocating perimeter defense. Garnett and Marion were able to deny all of Cardinal's strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.
Against Minnesota, Cardinal was outscored 19-3 and out-rebounded 16-5 by opposing power forwards during his 31 minutes. Midway through the third quarter, the Grizzlies switched Cardinal to center, but he gave up so much size that he made the Wolves' underachieving big man, Michael Olowokandi, look like an all-star for a few minutes. So Cardinal sat the entire fourth quarter.
Against Phoenix, Cardinal was brilliant in the first quarter, passing the ball from the top of the key, and setting up Battier for three baskets. But in the second half, Marion started batting Cardinal's passes back at him. The rest of the game was even uglier. Matched up with Marion for all of his 24 minutes, Cardinal was outscored 8-2 and out-rebounded 9-1. Cardinal was shuttled in and out of the lineup in the third quarter and again sat for almost all of the final period.
Ideally, Cardinal would never have to take on players such as Garnett and Marion. But with injuries to power forwards Gasol and Swift, the Grizzlies didn't have much choice. The good news is that the cavalry is on the way. Gasol made an unexpectedly early return to the court Sunday, and there's a decent chance Swift could be back by Thursday's game against New Jersey.
It'll be tricky for Coach Mike Fratello to work Gasol and Swift back into the rotation without upsetting the level of play that has the team on track for a return to the postseason, but it has to be done. And someone's minutes will have to take a hit. Cardinal will probably be first in line for a reduced role. But if that means spotting him against favorable opponents rather than asking him to take on a primary role his skills don't warrant, then that should be good for both Cardinal and Grizzlies.