The NBA is notorious for having a small number of teams with realistic championship expectations. While nearly half of the NFL can claim to be in the running, the NBA normally only has a handful of true contenders. The Heat, Thunder and Spurs have all established themselves as frontrunners to be playing into June, but there is another interesting group below them of teams that have shown the capability of playing with the elite.
Currently, Dime is separating the contenders from the pretenders. Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies.
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42-19 (4th in Western Conference)
3-4 vs Elite (vs Heat 1-1, vs Thunder 1-1, vs Spurs 1-2)
Key players: Zach Randolph, 15.8 ppg, 11.5 rpg; Marc Gasol, 14.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg; Mike Conley, 13.6 ppg, 6.3 apg
In spite of trading their leading scorer in January, the Grizzlies have won 14 of their last 15 games behind a bruising frontcourt and league-best scoring defense. While much of the league has transitioned to small-ball, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol provide the Grizzlies with an advantage in the paint every game. Defense is the team’s strength and the motto “Grit ‘n Grind” fits them perfectly.
Gasol’s development into the best all-around center in the league has elevated the play of the entire team. He dishes 3.9 dimes a night, second among centers to Joakim Noah, and he has averaged 4.7 since the Rudy Gay trade. On a team lacking shot creators, Gasol’s vision from the high post is pivotal to the offense. Unlike other centers, Gasol can actually make free throws too, and leads the Grizzlies at 85.8 percent. Dime-dropping, smooth-shooting big men are in short supply in the NBA. Actually, Gasol might be the only one.
Gasol is also the backbone of the league’s stingiest defense, which only allows 89.4 points per game. Outside of the ground-bound Randolph, the Grizzlies start four excellent defenders. Tony Allen will likely find himself on an All-Defense Team for a third-straight year and teams with Tayshaun Prince to slow opposing wings. Mike Conley is second in the league in steals while guarding one of the deepest positions in the NBA. Memphis is well-prepared for the slowed tempo of postseason play and has the pieces to slow down the potent offenses of the Spurs and Thunder.
By trading Gay, the Grizzlies cemented their identity. The team can now focus on the same formula that led to the 2011 upset of the Spurs. There is no power struggle about whose team it is: Randolph and Gasol are the catalysts. For all that Gay brought to the table, his departure allows them to focus on dumping the ball down low. The Grizzlies’ success without Gay supports that they traded the right player.
Yet for all their defensive prowess, the Grizzlies don’t have many weapons on offense. Gasol, Randolph and Conley are the three main playmakers and shot creators. What the team truly lacks is outside shooting. Ideally, they would have marksmen surrounding their standout big men to space the floor. Instead, the Grizzlies are last in the league in three-pointers made and attempted. Prince is shooting 38.9 percent from three since joining the team, but only attempts one each game. The Grizzlies biggest mistake in the Gay trade was not getting an elite three-point shooter in return.
In the playoffs, coach Lionel Hollins might need to find ways to get more shooters on the floor to prevent teams from overloading the paint to slow down Randolph and Gasol. One possible solution is to increase Quincy Pondexter’s minutes. Pondexter is shooting 31 for 63 from the corners and 11 for 22 from the right wing. He leads the team at 42.9 percent from three and could play a valuable role in the playoffs by taking some minutes away from either Allen or Prince.
Outside of Pondexter’s shooting, the bench is a mixed bag. Jerryd Bayless is a shooter, but more importantly isn’t always a shot maker. He is a low percentage shooter who can’t be trusted to play with consistency from game to game. Ed Davis, acquired from the Raptors, has been efficient (17.5 PER), but has struggled to find minutes behind Randolph and Gasol. With Darrell Arthur injured and having a poor season, Davis should find more minutes as Hollins decides his role.
Yes, the Grizzlies are a contender even without having a dominant perimeter scorer because of how well they know their identity. Hollins deserves credit for keeping the team engaged after the salary-dump Gay trade. A successful run since the trade validates the Grizzlies as a championship threat.
Although they don’t have a scorer above the 17.6 plateau, the Grizzlies have two players capable of reaching that mark during the postseason. Randolph and Gasol will see more touches and minutes in the playoffs and have the skills to capitalize on both. It will be difficult for Randolph to return to his 2011 form of 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, but he should be able to improve on his regular season averages.
The Grizzlies postseason fate will not be decided by Randolph and Gasol. Their supporting cast will ultimately determine how far they advance. The Grizzlies have proven they can get stops, but finding enough consistent offense will be their challenge.
Do the Grizzlies matchup well with OKC and San Antonio?
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