The story of this year’s Grizzlies has yet to be written. On one hand, you have a 33-18 basketball team, winners of 3 straight headed into the All Star break, and the best defensive team, and frontcourt, in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are likely the West’s 4th or 5th seed come playoff team, currently holding a 1.5-game advantage on the Denver Nuggets for homecourt advantage in the first round.
Success aside, owner Michael Heisley has made salary-dumping his top priority. And, as a fan, of course you want to see more guys like Dan Gilbert, Mikhail Prokhorov or Mark Cuban absorb bad contracts to bolster championship prospects, luxury taxes be damned, but that’s not Heisley, who’s net worth is around $1.9 billion, according to Forbes. Most notable, of course, is the Rudy Gay dump and the $37 million he’s owed in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but even more egregious, at least to me, is dropping Marreese Speights, your best frontcourt reserve, and Wayne Ellington, your best 3-point shooter, on Cleveland, as well as a first-round draft pick, for cap relief. That, to me, screams a team that may be interested in winning basketball games, but not at the cost of a few extra bucks.
The Grizzlies can win without Gay — their core of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol proved exactly that two years ago, when they upset the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs before taking the Thunder to 7 games in the conference semifinals. That team had the scoring of O.J. Mayo, now in Dallas, but still played a similar bruising style of play, reliant on bullying teams in the post, a dying NBA art, and then, led by Tony Allen, harassing offenses on the other end. These Grizzlies are 2nd in the NBA in points allowed, giving up 90.2 a game, easily good enough for best in the West. Memphis is 14th in total rebounding, but due to a slower pace of play, has the second-best rebound differential, +4.0, trailing only Indiana. (To reiterate how slow of a game Memphis plays, Grizzlies’ opponents put up a league-low 77.2 field goal attempts per game.)
From an efficiency perspective, no one on this team jumps out at you. Gasol and Randolph are both enjoying productive seasons, but with the departure of Speights, are relied upon to each play around 35 minutes a night. Randolph is still not quite at his 2010-11 level, but is bouncing back from an injury-filled 2012-13 campaign that produced his lowest scoring numbers since 2002-03, his 2nd year in the league. And even though he can barely lift his feet six inches off the ground, he’s still somehow grabbing a team-high 11.5 rebounds a night. Gasol continues to round out his offensive game and remains an interior presence offenses need consider, at 1.7 blocks per game.
With Randolph’s 15.6 points per game, Gasol’s 13.8 and Conley’s 13.3, you have three capable scorers, but no one with Gay’s burst, or pre-trade, team-leading 17.2 points per game. Sure, Tayshaun Prince has jumped in and tallied over 10 points per game as the new starter at the 3, with more range than Gay, but there’s no perimeter player on this team you can give the ball to and say, ‘go get me buckets.’ Perhaps with the exception of Utah, no other playoff team in the West has that problem. Memphis attempts the fewest 3′s, 14.7, and also makes the fewest, 4.7.
Allen, the team’s starting 2-guard, is a defensive commodity and not much else. His 8.6 points per game is among the league’s worst for starters; oh, and he shoots sub-18% from distance. At 26.3 points per game, Memphis has the 28th-ranked scoring bench in the NBA. Darrell Arthur is a nice bruiser type off the bench with an OK mid-range game, though not comparable to Speights, and Jerryd Bayless, their backup point, has shown throughout his young career he’s capable of, here and there, putting up points in bunches; he averages 7.1 points per on the season, but has tallied 15.1 per in his last 10 games.
As for whether this team can advance in the postseason, it all comes down to matchups. Should they draw Denver in the quarterfinals, it will pit one of the league’s most dominant defenses with one of the game’s most prolific offenses. Memphis is 1-2 in 3 games against Denver this season; the 2 times they lost, Denver put up 97 and 99 points, respectively, but the time they won, Memphis held Denver to 72. High 90s are still below Denver’s 105.1 points per game, so Memphis has not completely lost control of the pace of those games, but the winning formula is clear: keep Denver in a halfcourt game, where they lack a true post threat and will be forced to rely on wing scoring over Allen’s aggressiveness and Prince’s length. (Should they advance, this season, Memphis is 1-2 against San Antonio, 1-1 against Oklahoma City and 0-2 against the L.A. Clippers.)
Memphis ducked the luxury tax with the Speights and Gay trades, but next year already has $60+ million on the books, above this year’s $58 million salary cap. Allen is the only free-agent-to-be worth noting, and I would guess he returns on a short-term bargain contract. Randolph and Gasol are due a combined $32.6 million in 2013-14, Conley $7.9 and Prince a head-scratching $7.2 (good one, Joe Dumars). Ed Davis, a first-round draft selection in 2010, is a promising young talent on a team that’s, well, older — Randolph’s 31, Prince 32, Allen 31 and Gasol 28. If Memphis is going to make a run, at least one with this nucleus, it needs to come soon. But I worry they’re at least a piece away, with an owner perhaps unwilling to go the extra mile.
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