Thursday, March 12, 2015

Gut Check: Are the Grizzlies who we thought they were?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 12, 2015 at 8:09 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

The Grizzlies lost again last night, and didn't look good while they were doing it. I feel like I've written that more often than I should have to lately.

The turning point was the All-Star break. The Grizzlies were winning games at a 70% rate before then, and since the break they're 6-5. Still a winning record, but look at the losses: by 12 at Sacramento. By 18 to the Clippers at home. By 11 to the Jazz at home. By 6 at New Orleans and now by 3 at Boston.

Their offense rating—top 10 in the league for much of the season—is now 13th. The defense, which had suffered a little while the offense was cooking, is up to 4th in the league. More tellingly, the Grizzlies started the season with a pace somewhere around the league average, and now they're down to 26th.

The Grizzlies aren't in good shape right now. They don't look good, they're not playing particularly well, and even when they win they don't look like the same unstoppable wrecking force that they were earlier in the year. So what's wrong? Should Griz fans be worried? Are they reverting to the old Grizzlies?

What's Wrong

So what's wrong with the Grizzlies since the break? What're they doing that's making them look so rough? Here are a few things that are happening on the court, in no particular order.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Joerger has been messing with the rotation. Rightly so, too. A coach has to know what he has to work with come playoff time, and there are guys on the team right now—JaMychal Green, especially, but also the newly returned from injury Vince Carter and to an extent even Jeff Green—who need to be evaluated more seriously before the regular season is over and it's too late to experiment and see what guys can do. In messing with the rotations (and also in refusing to try other starting lineups even though the Conley/Lee/Green/Randolph/Gasol unit has performed very poorly together since, well, January) the "flow" of the team has been disrupted a little.

That's not to say the only problems with the rotation are because Joerger is intentionally trying new things; there are other issues. The wing rotation still needs to be straightened out and Joerger needs to figure out what he's going to do with Jeff Green and stick to it. Tony Allen needs to either (1) start or (2) play "starter's minutes"1. Courtney Lee has been playing pretty poorly on the offensive end and Joerger needs to figure out what to do with him. The "wing logjam" from the beginning of the season is no longer a logjam, but that doesn't make it any less of a mess.

Marc Gasol has reverted to "Old Passive Marc". After playing so well that he got himself voted a starter on the All-Star team, Marc Gasol returned from the break thinking it was 2013 and he needs to pass more. The games where Gasol has taken over in the same manner as he did earlier in the season—exemplified by his domination of his older brother against the Bulls on Monday night—have been games where the Grizzlies still look like world-beaters. He seemed to have figured out that his aggression actually made his teammates' jobs easier, and for a guy who looks for "the right play" to a fault, it's hard to understand why it's so difficult for him to understand that 8 times out of 10 him at least attempting to score is the right play, because even if he has to pass, the other guy's shot will be more open.

I think part of this was the hot streak that Zach Randolph went on once he returned from his knee injury. Having Randolph return to being "The Guy" made Gasol revert to his old ways, too, of just feeding the ball to Z-Bo or kicking it to an open guard. But what worked in the early season was Gasol being the aggressor and Randolph getting himself into position to clean up with a garbage bucket in case he missed. That had Gasol and Randolph both putting up great numbers, and now that's gone. For one of the indisputable best centers in the league, Gasol is (and has always been) frustrating to watch when he's doing stuff like he did against Boston and taking ZERO shots in the 4th quarter.

One hopes he'll snap out of it when the playoffs get here, and that Gasol and Randolph are just coasting since it's March and they're tired. While still frustrating, that's at least understandable and rational. But it doesn't put the Grizzlies in the best position to win basketball games.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Mike Conley has been declining since January. And now he added "ankle sprain" to the list of nagging injuries that have been piling on Conley since before the break. Instead of resting him on at least one game of the current East Coast road trip, Conley played last night, hurt his ankle (in what looked like a much worse knee injury initially), and then when he walked back to the bench, Joerger actually put him in the game. I'm all for winning, but I'd rather win in May than against an Eastern Conference team in March. Kudos to Conley for being tough, but that's the whole problem: he's so tough that he'll play through anything, and he does, and so it never gets better.

Conley's playing through nagging injuries is no different from any other point guard in the league; the abuse their bodies take on a nightly basis in the NBA is nothing short of stupefying. But for the Grizzlies to be their best at the end of the season, Conley has to be healthy. It's clearly affecting his game right now. As Mike Conley goes, so go the Grizzlies, and with Conley, Randolph, and Gasol all playing below par, there's just no way the Grizzlies can operate at their highest level.

There's still no one on this team who can shoot from outside consistently. Courtney Lee was The Shooter. And then Vince Carter was The Shooter. And then Beno Udrih was The Shooter, but from midrange. Some people thought Jeff Green was The Shooter because they'd never watched Jeff Green play basketball before. Well, guess what: none of those guys can consistently be an outside threat on a nightly basis. Not a one. And so the Grizzlies find themselves back in a familiar position: when the shooting goes away, the defense collapses on the interior, and nothing happens. We've been writing about this for years, and frankly, I'm sick of talking about it. We all know the problems. And with Lee, the best shooter on the team, still missing in action after a hot start to the year, we'll be talking about them a while longer. If Carter can play his way back into form and contribute, this may look like a dumb thing to be worried about in hindsight, but that's one of the biggest "if"s around the Grizzlies right now: whether he'll even be able to do much come playoffs time.

There are other issues, too: third quarter rotations that play the starters too long whether it's working or not. An Udrih/Calathes/Allen/Leuer/Koufos bench unit that was destroying everything in its path and now doesn't even play together. Speaking of Udrih, he looks out of shape and is playing like it. Et cetera.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

The Counterargument

"Chill out, Kevin," I hear you saying. "This is a veteran team—one of the oldest teams in the league, really—and this is what they do in March: they coast. They know they can be good in the playoffs, so who cares if they win every night?" There's definitely some truth to the counterargument. There's truth to the argument that playing hard in February and March only gets you too injured to win a title.

And the Grizzlies can still beat good teams. They beat the Bulls—albeit the injury-hampered version—in Chicago on Monday night in a very gutty win. They beat the Rockets in Houston and Courtney Lee turned James Harden's water off. They're still a good team, and they know it, and so why worry about every single game when what's coming up after the regular season is far more important, and is the bit that you've actually been preparing for since training camp?

The Endgame

So why worry? Because of a few things: bad habits form more easily than good habits. The Grizzlies should be using this time to straighten things out, not create new issues that'll have to be straightened out by mid-April when the playoffs start. The way they're playing right now, they wouldn't even resemble the "new and improved" Grizzlies of December—they'd look like the same Grizzlies that lost last year and got swept out of the Conference Finals by the Spurs the year before. All the same flaws, all the same tendencies, all the same weaknesses. They're rolling back a lot of the improvements they've already made, and that's a lot of stuff to re-learn in five weeks.

Besides that, these losses matter. The West playoff race is still very tight from top to bottom. The Grizzlies could theoretically catch Golden State for the 1 seed, or they could lose all the way down to the 6 seed or the 7 seed. The 7th-ranked Mavericks are only 5 games back. If they want to win a title, home court is imperative and winning the division is the best way to guarantee that, with the Rockets also currently in the top 4. These games matter. It's hard to balance wanting to rest guys with needed to win—both of those forces are at tension with each other even in this article.

Will they snap out of it? I think so, but this season I tend to be more optimistic in these pieces than is really warranted. I think Gasol and Randolph, especially, are probably just taking it easy right now, whether intentionally or not. I get that motivation can be hard to come by in the closing stages of the NBA season's grind. I get that they're tired, beaten up, tired of being on the road, tired of seeing each other, tired of running so many miles every night, up and down courts all over the country and then cramming themselves into an airplane.

But like I said: they're regressing, unquestionably. There are things that need to be straightened out if they're going to win a title, and the playoffs are approaching like a freight train. Time is of the essence, and even if this is just a motivation problem, those habits will probably be harder to break than the Griz think once the time comes to break them. It's painful to watch, because all season they've been different. They've been better, faster, more aggressive, incredible, resilient. And now they're the same Grizzlies we've been watching for years—and now we're all scared that that's really what they were all along: the same. They're going to have to prove that they aren't, and that's got to start soon.


  1. In fairness we've actually seen Allen start to spend more time in the "closing lineup" with Green as the two wing players. It's been a successful experiment overall, and hopefully it sticks.


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