Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bears in Motion: Scattered Thoughts on Z-Bo and Pace

Posted By on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Since I'm unable to be in Nashville this week taking in the scene at Grizzlies training camp, I'm stuck back here in Memphis searching for something to write about clues that will tell us what to expect from this year's Griz squad. By all accounts (mostly from Pete Pranica and Ron Tillery on Twitter, here on the outside of The Great Paywall) coach Dave Joerger has the team doing fast-paced drills trying to reinforce decision-making on the fly, getting the team used to operating in an offense that doesn't wait until there are seven seconds left on the shot clock to get going.

I thought this note from Pranica was interesting:

Could this really be the end of watching the Grizzlies head into the last minutes of a close game and start every possession by having Mike Conley dribble at the top of the key for eight seconds while Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bludgeon their respective ways into position? Ball movement in the Griz offense improved by swapping Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince, even if Prince couldn't match Gay's scoring. He didn't have to; he's a good passer and an excellent facilitator. The missing piece was still the sense of urgency in the offense—how many possessions consisted of four guys standing around while Z-Bo posted someone up, and when the Grizzlies received the offensive rebound, they went right back to standing around while the post players got into position?

Obviously, even though the Grizzlies were 30th out of 30 teams in pace last year, they still won a lot of games. So it's not that the slow pace of play meant that they weren't able to score more points than the other team. But what that slow pace did mean is that every possession was vital: they couldn't afford too many empty trips to the hoop. The Grizzlies' molasses-like pace trapped opposing teams like bugs in amber, taking even the most run-and-gun teams in the league—the James Harden-led Houston Rockets, for example, first in pace and 6th in offensive efficiency—and grinding them down to nothing.

What it couldn't do against a better team, as we saw against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals1, was score enough points to make up for all those missed shots. When you can't shoot the ball well, and you don't get that many opportunities to shoot the ball to begin with, it's a recipe for disaster against a locked-in good team that knows how to shut down your high-percentage post players. It becomes an even bigger problem when your "high percentage post players" stop being so high-percentage, as was the case with the potentially-declining Zach Randolph.

So even if the Grizzlies come into this season with a pace somewhere in the middle of the pack, it'll still be a noticeable change from the old Lionel Hollins/Henry Bibby way of doing business. This Griz squad, even with an average pace, is going to look like those old Paul Westhead Loyola Marymount teams compared to last year's model.

Which brings me back to Zach Randolph. When asked about the pace of play at Grizzlies Media Day on Monday, Randolph reminded everyone that he's played for Mike D'Antoni before (Joerger would add that "D'Antoni loved him, too") and that it's "all just basketball," and "running is just about conditioning." Randolph, though, has struggled with injuries the last two years, with a severe MCL injury in 2012 and last year missing two weeks after severely spraining his ankle against the Heat and then playing 37 minutes on it.

The biggest question for me, then, about the Grizzlies and pace of play is not whether Randolph will be able to adapt to a more uptempo system. I don't doubt that at all: he's a great basketball player, and too skilled not to be useful no matter what sort of an offense he's operating in. What I worry about is age, and wear and tear. When Zach played for Mike D'Antoni's Knicks teams, he wasn't 32 years old. Health has been an issue for him for stretches of the last two years, and that sort of stuff doesn't tend to get better as players get older, does it? I worry about the mileage on the big fella. A stretch without Randolph could be good, in that it would let Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Leuer soak up some minutes that could help them come playoff time, but ultimately, the West is too close this year for the Grizzlies to operate at less than 100% for very long.

Randolph will be fine operating in the new uptempo Griz system. I just wonder if it's going to mean the Grizzlies have to spend some time without him in February or March. I worry that this might be the year that age starts to catch up to Randolph in a way that starts to change his game, and I hope for the Grizzlies' sake that he adapts to it as well as he can. I have no reason to doubt that he will, but it's too big of a question mark right now, sitting around waiting for something to write about basketball to get underway.

  1. I don't know about you all, but it's still supremely weird to me to be talking about the Memphis Grizzlies as having played in a Western Conference Finals. If you'd asked me during the Dark Days of Marc Iavaroni if I thought the Grizzlies would be four wins away from going to the NBA Finals, and that Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo wouldn't even be on the roster, I would've (1) spit whatever I was drinking all over you from laughing or (2) choked on it. Or (3) asked you what sort of hallucinogenics you'd overdosed on so I could call Poison Control. 


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