Thursday, July 31, 2014

Can Memphis Contend in the Loaded West?

From left to right: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley hope to play together more next season.
By Bennett Corcoran (@CorcoranNBA)

After achieving significant playoff success under former coach Lionel Hollins, the Memphis Grizzlies took a step back in 2014 under new coach David Joerger. While many expected them to duplicate their previous performance as a middle of the pack, fringe-contender, the Grizz were instead fighting for a playoff spot in the last week of the season.

Memphis started just 10-15 to begin the season, as the team struggled to adjust to a slightly different defensive system under Joerger. Much of this stretch can be attributed to the loss of Marc Gasol, who sprained the MCL in his left knee just 13 games into the season. Without their former Defensive Player of the Year anchoring the middle, the Grizzlies were exposed, left to learn a new system without a defining piece of the puzzle. Kosta Koufos is a serviceable big man, but the Grizz lean heavily on their front line, making the loss of Gasol difficult to overcome.

After Gasol finally returned in mid-January, point guard Mike Conley tweaked his ankle just a few weeks later. The injury forced Conley to sit the first seven games in February.

Because of this untimely string of injuries, the foundational players did not share nearly as much time together on the floor last season. The trio of Conley-Gasol-Randolph logged just under 1,200 minutes together last season, about 550 minutes less than in 2013.

But even with injuries to their key contributors, the Grizzlies flourished for the latter part of 2014, enjoying a 44-17 record to end the season. This equates to a .721 winning percentage, a number slightly better than what Oklahoma City achieved last season. If Memphis played at this rate for a full season, they would’ve finished with right around 60 wins.

Despite having to deal with injuries to some of the main cogs, the Grizzlies benefited from their improved supporting cast, and now possess the necessary depth to cause fits in the playoffs.

Last year's midseason trade of Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee worked marvelously for the Grizz, who acquired an additional wing defender capable of hitting the open three. While he is very much a journeyman, it seems Lee has finally found a home in Memphis, where his defensive prowess fits the team’s culture and principles. Lee started all but two games for Memphis after the trade, and was dialed in after barely seeing 500 minutes in his 30 games with Boston last season. His streaky stroke can be frustrating, and this was on display in their first round playoff matchup against OKC. Although he is limited offensively, Lee adds another feisty wing to a team that already has Tony Allen.

In his stint with Memphis, Bayless simply couldn’t prove that he could make shots (37.7% from the field last season). His lack of three point shooting (30.1% from beyond the arc) and inability to make plays limited the potential of the Grizzlie offense.

To fill this void, Beno Udrih was scooped off waivers shortly before the playoffs began. Although he only registered ten games during the regular season, his shooting stroke proved to be a valuable weapon against the Thunder. With Udrih back in the fold, Memphis will have a sturdy veteran behind Conley to run the second unit.

In a year where few rookies were relevant, Nick Calathes showed promise as a backup point guard. However, the Grizzlies will be without him for the start of the season as he faces a suspension for violating the NBA’s drug policy.

Although sharpshooter Mike Miller left the Grizz for LeBron and the Cavs, Memphis did sign Vince Carter. He’s not Vinsanity anymore, but is still a savvy veteran capable of hitting the three (39.4% from three on 4.6 attempts per game).

A stress fracture in his foot cost Quincy Pondexter most of last season, and there will likely be an adjustment period before he returns to form.  Despite registering just 15 games last season (and not playing particularly well), Pondexter shot 39.5% from three in 2013 and was one of the only Grizzlies to show up against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. 

With Ed Davis headed to the Lakers in free agency, Jon Leuer is the likely recipient of an uptick in minutes. In his limited time on the floor last season, he showed his ability to knock down the three as a stretch-four.

The revamped supporting cast in Memphis is well stocked with shooters after last year’s squad took just 4.9 three point attempts per game, the lowest in the NBA (just for reference, Miller accounted for 2.8 of those). An increase in the number of shooters, even if they are not of Miller’s caliber, will spread defenses thin. If this group can stay consistent, the Grizz should get plenty of open looks from deep generated by Conley pick-and-rolls or Gasol passes from the high post.

The sheer amount of depth at the wing is another crucial element. With Lee, Allen, Carter, and Pondexter looking to earn time, hopefully Tayshaun Prince’s minutes will begin to dwindle. He was dreadful from the field last season, doesn’t stretch the floor, and has clearly lost a step since his time with Detroit. Unlike Allen, who has similar shooting woes, Prince cannot defend well enough to log 25 minutes a night.

With two bigs, the Grizzlies will still operate primarily down low, pounding the ball down low at the slowest pace in the league. Memphis should still clean the glass (52.0% rebounding rate last season) and probably won’t get to the free throw line (20.3 attempts per game). Defense will always be this team’s calling card, and they finished seventh in defensive efficiency in 2014 despite their atrocious start to the season on that end of the floor. Next year, Memphis will likely return to the top five, familiar territory for a gritty team.

In a stacked Western Conference, there are some very good teams that will be fighting for playoff spots just like Memphis last year. But this season, the Grizzlies will establish themselves as a notch above teams like Dallas, Phoenix and Portland because of their defensive prowess and enhanced depth chart. A slightly more efficient offense could be what separates them from other teams cluttering the Western Conference and elevates them to a three or four seed.

With more health and continuity in a second season working under Joerger, there is plenty of reason to “Believe Memphis."

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