Grizzlies vice president John Hollinger had been on the job only a couple of days back in December when he observed, with his new team down at halftime and in a mini-slump after a blockbuster November, "We've got to get more out of [Mike] Conley and [Marc] Gasol."
The future of the franchise once seemed to rest on the wing scoring potential of O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay, which gave way to the all-NBA work of recent past and present star Zach Randolph. But the new regime placed its bets on the former fourth and fifth options, who just happened to also be the team's most versatile players — able to score and create on the offensive end and also high-level contributors on the defensive end.
With Gay traded for a lower-usage replacement in Tayshaun Prince, the onus of the team's offense shifted to Conley and Gasol and the duo responded in a major way, not only boosting their usage rates, shot attempts, scoring, and assists — which was to be expected. But doing so with better shooting percentages and an even greater positive impact on the team's overall play, which was not a given.
Happily for the Grizzlies, this post-trade performance has carried over into the postseason, where the Grizzlies are, through Sunday's loss to San Antonio, 8-4 and into the conference finals for the first time, with Conley and Gasol carrying a heavy load. Soaking up close to 78 minutes a game between them, Conley has responded with 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists a game. Gasol's produced 18 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. Conley and Gasol have played together for 390 of 581 playoff minutes, during which the Grizzlies have outscored their opposition by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Without both players on the floor, the Grizzlies have been outscored by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, and almost all of that difference has come on the defensive end, where the Grizzlies have gone from elite to shaky very quickly when either takes the bench.
This speaks, in part, to the defensive inadequacies of Conley and Gasol's back-ups. But a couple of weeks ago, Conley and Gasol (already named Defensive Player of the Year) joined teammate Tony Allen on the NBA's All-Defensive Team.
There are four kinds of players you'll find on the all-defensive team: superstars (this year, Lebron James, Chris Paul, emeritus member Tim Duncan), defensive specialists (Tyson Chandler, Avery Bradley, Allen), offensive role players (Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah), and offensive building blocks (Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Paul George).
Everybody in the NBA wants a superstar, of course. But absent that, what the Conley/Gasol tandem provides is pretty rare: an all-defense combo — one in the backcourt, one in the frontcourt — that you can build a functional offense around. Over the past 20 years, there have been five other point guard/big man all-defense combos in the NBA, but most have featured either superstars (Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal) or a true defensive specialist (Kirk Hinrich/Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups/Ben Wallace, Mookie Blaylock/Dikembe Mutombo).
The only combo truly akin to what the Grizzlies have is Boston's Rajon Rondo/Kevin Garnett, where Garnett is a former superstar reduced to mere role player by the ravages of time. There's a 10-year age difference there, and the clock is ticking. Gasol and Conley are 28 and 25, respectively, under contract together for at least two more seasons and with a potentially longer, fruitful future beyond that.
This is now the Grizzlies' foundation, with Zach Randolph at the moment, perhaps with some other third musketeer in the future. Twenty-point scorers on the wing are nice, but two elite defenders who can run a pick-and-roll together are both harder to get and, perhaps, easier to keep. Whatever happens now against the Spurs, the Grizzlies are betting that this two-man, two-way foundation can keep the team in the playoffs even when the roster is ultimately rebuilt around them.