Heading into the season, there was hope that the Memphis Grizzlies could be an above-average offensive team despite a lack of dynamic perimeter scorers. There was a post player in Pau Gasol who was capable of scoring on any defender one-on-one and was skilled enough and unselfish enough to find open teammates out of double-teams. Surrounding Gasol was potentially one of the deepest casts of three-point shooters in the league.
The reality has been that even when this inside-outside dynamic has functioned well, the Grizzlies have been a mediocre offensive team. When links in the chain rupture, as has been the case in the recent season-high four-game losing streak, the Grizzlies' scoring plummets.
The Grizzlies initially played well after losing starting point guard Damon Stoudamire to a season-ending knee injury in late December, but over the past week Stoudamire's loss has finally been felt. With three of the team's four remaining outside threats -- Bobby Jackson, Eddie Jones, and Shane Battier -- all slumping, the Grizzlies haven't been able to take defensive pressure off Gasol. And with the outside attack sputtering, Gasol hasn't made the necessary adjustments to increase his own scoring, even against constant double-teams.
Enter new point guard Chucky Atkins, and not a moment too soon. A journeyman (Atkins is now on his sixth team in a seven-year NBA career) who was averaging less than 20 minutes a game for the sub-.500 Washington Wizards, Atkins is no savior. He's not as talented a player as the one he's replacing (Stoudamire) or the one he'll join in the point-guard rotation (Jackson). But he should help a Grizzlies team in desperate need of reliable depth and outside shooting.
Like Stoudamire, Atkins is a small guard (he's one inch taller, one year younger) whose primary attribute is his outside shooting. He's a career 37 percent three-point shooter (compared to 36 percent for Stoudamire), coming off a career-year for the Los Angeles Lakers a season ago. But he's also a more one-dimensional player than Stoudamire. Though he's quick enough to get into the lane on occasion, over the past two seasons, more than half of Atkins' field-goal attempts have been from beyond the three-point arc. Atkins also isn't as strong as Stoudamire, which makes him less of a presence defensively or on the boards.
But despite these limitations, Atkins should be a much better fit for what the Grizzlies need than second-year player Antonio Burks. He'll provide two things Burks lacks: experience and deep shooting range. With his speed, strength, and defensive ability, Burks may be a more promising all-around player, but his inconsistent production and limited scoring ability have made Burks a net negative since Stoudamire went down. Were the team committed to pushing the ball when Burks is in the game, perhaps he would work out. But in lieu of that stylistic shift, Atkins will be a better fit.
Atkins will also take pressure off Jackson, who has been forced to play more minutes and in a different role. Jackson's surface statistics have looked good as a starter, but his marksmanship has fallen off considerably of late, even suffering through a dreadful 0-16 stretch from three-point range during last week's losing streak. Atkins could allow Jackson to play fewer minutes and spend more time off the ball, where he excels.
Of course, even if Atkins pans out, it might not be enough to fully correct the team's recent offensive downturn. And now that the Grizzlies have filled their empty point-guard slot, a new question emerges: With further improvement needed, can it come from within? If so, it'll depend on a continued expansion of Mike Miller's role (the team's record when Miller gets at least 35 minutes and 12 field-goal attempts: 7-2) and someone (either Lorenzen Wright, Hakim Warrick, or Brian Cardinal) stepping up to provide consistent frontcourt production.
If not, Jerry West might not be done. The best part of signing Atkins is that the Grizzlies didn't have to use any of their trade chips to get him. Which means West still has the tools to make something else happen before next month's trade deadline.