We've already covered the Pelicans, Mavs and Rockets in this series looking at the Southwest Division. In this final installment, let's look at the team I believe will be the second best of the lot, behind the Spurs.
The Grizzlies have strung together back to back historic seasons for the franchise en route to a Western Conference Finals appearance and they did it by committing to a core and relying on internal development to make the jump from lottery team to contender. The strategy obviously paid dividends as the Grizzlies won 56 games last season and should achieve something similar in 2013/14 while continuing to be the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs.
Of course, it wasn't always smooth sailing. Like most small market teams, the Grizzlies treated the luxury tax line as a defacto hard cap and chose to trade away role players on cost cutting moves. Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights and Josh Selby were traded to Cleveland for Jon Leuer for purely financial reasons. That wasn't enough and on an even more controversial trade, the front office led by stats guru John Hollinger decided to send away the Grizzlies' leading scorer, Rudy Gay, on a trade that brought in the cheaper but older Tayshaun Prince and the talented but unpolished Ed Davis.
Despite the moves straining the front office's relationship with the coaching staff, the on-court results were encouraging. By running more of the offense through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies managed to offset the loss of Gay and despite never finding his outside shot, Prince did a good enough job overall to justify the move. The trade didn't improve Memphis, but it didn't hurt either and had Davis been given a chance to prove his worth it could have been a home run.
The Grizzlies finished fourth in the West and beat the Clippers for a second straight year in the playoffs, this time 4-2. After that, they went on to face the Westbrook-less Thunder. The Grizz did a good job on Durant and there was no one else that could step up for OKC, so the series ended faster than anticipated with a 4-1 Grizzlies' victory. Next up, the Spurs awaited in the finals. San Antonio exposed the Grizzlies' flaws for everyone to see. Their lack of shooting was made evident every time the Spurs played off Tony Allen and Prince to help down low, and the Grizzlies had a tough time scoring once the first option in the post was taken away. The individual games were relatively close, but the series ended in a sweep.
The Grizzlies traded away their first round pick, but they had two second rounders. With the 41st pick, they selected Jamaal Franklin out of San Diego State. Franklin projects to be a good defender and rebounder but his shooting is suspect, which makes him a poor fit in the short term. With the very last pick in the draft they selected Latvian swingman Janis Timma, who will stay abroad and might never make it to the league. On draft night, they traded power forward Darrell Arthur to the Nuggets for center Kosta Koufos.
The new front office seems to value actual production and cap flexibility ahead of potential at this point, as evidenced by the acquisitions of known commodities Mike Miller, who returns to where it all started after being amnestied by the Heat, and Nick Calathes, who has spent the past three years developing in Europe. Meanwhile, Tony Wroten was shipped out for a conditional second rounder and Donte Greene was traded to the Celtics for Fab Melo, who was then waived by Memphis.
Despite not making any big changes, the off-season went well for the Grizzlies. The only dark cloud was the parting of Lionel Hollins. Hollins and the front office were not seeing eye to eye, and the Grizzlies didn't want to make a big commitment to a coach that was not on board with the direction they were pursuing. A number of teams were linked to Hollins, but he has not found another head coaching job yet. Former assistant coach David Joerger will take his place next season.
Here's their depth chart:
PG: Conley - Calathes - Akognon
SG: Allen - Bayless
SF: Prince - Miller - Pondexter - Franklin
PF: Randolph - Davis - Leuer - Willie Reed
C: Gasol - Koufos
The Grizzlies should once again be very good. Their defense will continue to be among the league's best as long as they have Gasol anchoring it and at least on paper they have more options on offense. The Grizzlies have been looking for a back up PG for longer than even the Spurs and Calathes fits the bill as a steady floor general off the bench that can create for others. Mike Miller offers them another shooter and along with Pondexter and Leuer, could keep defenses honest and give the low post players room to operate.
How much those role players bring to the table, though, will come down to how willing Joerger is to risk disrupting team chemistry by going against some veterans. At this point, the team might be better served with one of Allen or preferably Prince coming off the bench in favor of a better shooter like Pondexter. Similarly, reducing Randolph's and Conley's minutes a bit could pay off later in the season by not only keeping them healthy, but also allowing Davis and Calathes room to grow.
The other big issue the Grizzlies might face is what to do with Zach Randolph. Z-Bo struggled a bit in the post-season, particularly against the Spurs, and is going to be 32 next season. He still has two years left on his contract and if the Grizzlies think they can't get over the hump as currently constructed, they might decide to shake things up. If that's the case, Randolph will surely be the one moved. What can he bring back is unknown at this point and there is a risk this potentially huge move on top of the other smaller ones finally kills team chemistry. But it wouldn't shock me to see rumors about a possible Randolph trade if Memphis starts slow.
How do they match up with the Spurs?
Poorly. The Grizzlies rely on post play to create scoring opportunities and the Spurs have the bodies to match them inside. Their lack of shooting shouldn't be as big a problem if their bench gets more run, but it's difficult to see their identity change dramatically, so it seems the Grizzlies will continue to be a low pace, offensively-challenged team and the Spurs should have the upper hand should they meet in the playoffs.
They still have no one other than Conley, and occasionally Bayless, to create for themselves off the dribble and their predilection for big lineups is both a strength and a weakness, as it makes them predictable. Davis could make a difference for the Grizzlies with his athleticism and aggression, but he will need to make a jump in terms of production and it won't be easy for him to get the minutes to do it, as the front court is crowded with the starters and Koufos.
The Spurs will face the Grizzlies on the first game of the season, then on two FIGABABAs in which Memphis will have rest before and after the games, and then finally in one of the last games of the season. The two SEGABABAs against the Cavaliers and Mavericks seem to be more winnable so I could definitely see Pop resting the guys against the Grizzlies at least once. So I'm going with the Spurs winning the first game of the season, then splitting the next two and losing late in the season for a 2-2 split.
For more on the Grizzlies visit Grizzly Bear Blues.
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- Spurs prepare for the future while rebuilding from recent front office and coaching losses
- Pathology of the Spurs - Part II: from Mr. Robinson to The Grouch