Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Six Postscripts to the 2014-15 Season

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2015 at 9:24 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

I didn't really mean to take last week off once I posted the Marc Gasol piece about exit interviews but that's how it worked out. Because of that, I seem to have missed the window in which everyone in the Grizzlies world posted his or her postmortem on What The Season Means and The State Of The Grizzlies Going Forward. I have lots of thoughts about those topics, too, but I'm not sure four days after the whole thing wraps up is the best time to dissect months worth of basketball—speaking only for myself, I needed a little bit of room to breathe before I could start processing the end of the season.

Which is to say: I've got thoughts about the season overall, but these are six small(ish) ones that are on my mind right now. Postscripts. Small questions inspired by the regular season and playoffs.

Dave Joerger improved as a coach, but still replicates some things I didn't like about his predecessor. There's no longer any question that Dave Joerger is a good basketball coach. In two straight seasons, he's had the team playing at an extremely high level—especially last year after Marc Gasol returned and this year at the beginning of the regular season through to the All-Star break (and in the playoffs). He's great at drawing up plays out of time outs, he's slowly but surely diversified a Griz playbook that was almost entirely high Conley/Gasol pick and rolls and Randolph isolation postups (we're pretending Iso-Rudy never happened for the sake of this article) when he took over.

But. There are still things that he does that remind me of the most frustrating basketball aspects of the guy he refers to as his mentor, Lionel Hollins. What are they?

For one, the refusal to believe that rookie players have anything at all to offer. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't play them early in the season in games that don't matter, there's no way they're going to be ready to step up and give you something if you actually need them to later on. I have to think Jordan Adams could've contributed meaningful minutes in the playoffs... if he'd played more than 248 total minutes over the course of the season. There's nothing magical about rookies; they're just basketball players like everybody else on the team. If you use them, they learn how to do stuff.

Another is his weird in-game rotations. All season long (and all last season), Joerger rode the starters consistently for the first 9-ish minutes of the third quarter, running Gasol and Randolph until they were completely gassed before making substitutions and going to the bench, regardless of whether it was working or not. I get being in a rhythm, and wanting guys to be able to expect when they're going to play, but it seems like pulling those guys earlier and then playing them more, I don't know, down the stretch of the fourth quarter might be a better idea. We won't talk about how all year long Joerger acknowledged that he didn't have to play and all-bench unit and could leave a starter on the floor at all times... and then played all-bench units on a regular basis, sometimes to good results and sometimes to horrible ones.

I think Dave Joerger is a good basketball coach, and I think he's only going to improve. He's injected some new ways of doing things into a Grizzlies roster and system that's been pretty set in its ways for a long time. But there are still a few rough edges that I'd love to see sanded off this summer if the Grizzlies are going to continue to compete at a higher level.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

How many of these insane Tony Allen seasons does he have left? Tony Allen will turn 34 during the 2015-16 season. He's been playing incredible defense for the Grizzlies for many years now. One has to wonder when age is going to catch up with him and it's going to be impossible for him to fight through screens the way he does currently. It's an inevitability: no one whose game depends on athleticism and pure physical abandon the way Allen's does lasts forever.

Allen is currently on a 4-year deal. Can the Grizzlies depend on him to do the same thing next year that he did this year? Probably. But the year after that? When Allen starts to hit the wall in terms of what he can do on the court, it's going to happen fast. What's the backup plan? How many more years of this Tony Allen are there to be had, and can the Grizzlies capitalize on them?

The guys who were rookies this year are all going to be asked to contribute next year. Jordan Adams is clearly a guy in whom the Grizzlies front office has placed a lot of hope and a lot of trust. Of the rookie guys I'm talking about—Adams, Jarnell Stokes, Russ Smith, and JaMychal Green—Adams is probably the one on whom the team's future hopes depend the most. But can he really develop his game from "shows flashes of being a poor man's Harden" to "is a poor man's Harden" in the course of one basketball season? Can he keep his conditioning up for a whole season? (Hint: he kinda didn't this year.) The others will also be asked to fill positions of need. Nick Calathes is probably gone; can Russ Smith step up into the "playmaking third point guard" role that his absence will create (to say nothing of Calathes' excellent on-ball defense)? Looking at the bigs on the bench (assuming Marc Gasol returns or, if he doesn't, Kosta Koufos is the starting center), Stokes and Green will probably both be asked to shoulder reserve minutes.

These four guys were all added to the team last year, after years and years of the Grizzlies not having any rookies because they didn't play the ones they got and then traded them away for nothing. Now that they have young guys around, the Griz find themselves needing those young guys to develop—something the Grizzlies really haven't done that well since Shane Battier and Pau Gasol (with Mike Conley being the obvious exception). It's going to be interesting to see if the organization can learn how to develop players as quickly as it needs to.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Mike Conley is always hurt at the end of the year. Everybody's always hurt at the end of the year in the NBA, but it seems like Conley's game puts him in a position where he's always barely making it to the end of the season. He played fewer minutes this year than he ever has before, because in Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes, the team finally had some real depth at the point guard spot. But that didn't save him from going into the postseason with a litany of lingering issues and then rapidly acquiring some new ones at the business end of CJ McCollum's elbow.

Is that sustainable? If the Grizzlies get to the playoffs and then get there with 65-75% of their most important player (I'm stating that as a fact because it is one), what good does that do? Conley, and the Griz training staff, have some pondering to do this summer: how to get through the season with Mike Conley physically intact and playing at full strength in the playoffs.

We're not going to know much about what Marc Gasol wants to do until he announces his decision. We're just not. Gasol has a lot to think about, and a lot to decide. If he wants to be in Memphis for the next few years (and probably the rest of his career), that door is certainly open to him. If he wants to live somewhere else for a while, experience some new things, play with other people while he's got the chance, then he's going to have that option, and there's nothing anyone can do that will change his mind. No one in the Grizzlies organization has a good read one what Gasol's decision will be, except maybe the players closest to him (Mike Conley, for sure, and probably Zach Randolph as well). Those guys seemed pretty optimistic that Gasol was staying, but of course they did. But I don't think they know, either. I don't think Gasol knows. I think he's starting to think about it now, sitting somewhere in Spain listening to records and eating his new diet he started last summer and resting up. But I don't think anyone at all knows.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

We may never know why the team fell apart so rapidly after the All-Star Break. Those paying close attention to Dave Joerger's exit interview noticed that he referred to the team going through a "really, really tough time" while they were struggling so mightily after the All-Star break. They came back and immediately started playing .500 ball for the rest of the regular season. The random spurts of losing never really abated until they got to the playoffs, because by the time they reached that point Conley and Allen were sitting on the bench resting injuries.

They lost road games, they lost home games. They beat good teams, they lost to good teams, and they almost always struggled to beat bad ones, more often than not losing to teams they should've been handling. When they lost, it often looked like they couldn't care less—especially Team Psychic Bellwethers Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol looked like he was on another planet thinking about Coltrane's Ascension instead of being engaged in what was happening in the court. Z-Bo looked like he packed it in and started resting for the playoffs sometime around March 3, when the Grizzlies lost home game to the Jazz by ten points because they couldn't figure out how to play offense. It was like the whole team showed up for some games having ingested hallucinogens and spent 48 minutes trying to remember how to tie their shoes and speak English normally.

It culminated in the closest thing to an on-court nervous breakdown I've ever seen—two of them. The first was a loss on the road to the Detroit Pistons, in which Marc Gasol committed an intentional foul, his sixth of the night, and then sat on the floor with a blank look on his face, trying to understand what was happening. The echo of this, the aftershock, was at home against Sacramento, when Gasol missed a shot and was so frustrated by his struggles that he ripped open the front of his jersey and then, realizing what he did, tried to stick the loose ends back together before taking it off and heading to the bench to get a new one. I'll never forget the postgame after that one—in the locker room, Gasol said Darko Milicic (another Grizzly who had done the same thing in 2008 or '09) was "my guy" and "I miss him a lot."

Things were in a very dark and frustrating place for most of the stretch run. No one knew why the Grizzlies couldn't play good basketball, or if they knew, they weren't telling. Guys were frustrated on the court and frustrated off of it. There were no good stories leaking out about who was mad a who, or what the problem was, or when it was all going to be corrected—total radio silence, while the whole thing spun out of control and the Grizzlies slipped from second place in the West all the way to sixth (before the last night of the regular season ended up with them in fifth).

We may never know what happened, or why things got so weird. I certainly haven't found anybody willing to talk about it yet, and usually those kinds of things are out there somewhere. Maybe, in the fullness of time, someone will piece together the locker room strife that was so clearly happening and we'll all understand why the Grizzlies collapsed in on themselves down the stretch after playing the best first half of the season in the history of the franchise. Maybe. I hope so. But for now, I don't know that we'll ever find out. We'll just have to whisper about it and wonder why things got so sideways. It's a Tootsie Pop commercial. "The world may never know."


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