What a difference a weekend makes.
Late last week, in the midst of a dominating six-game win streak in which the Memphis Grizzlies had dispatched their opponents by an average margin of 17 points a game, the hoops question du jour was "How good can they be?"
Though I'd already demurred a little in a lengthy post on my Grizzlies blog, "Beyond the Arc," I went into the weekend preparing to write a column attempting to explain why the Grizzlies are so good defensively. Then the Grizzlies went out and not only lost both games but did so averaging a college-level 75 points per game on dreadful 34 percent shooting. Suddenly, instead of "THIRD BEST TEAM IN THE LEAGUE?!?," the Grizzlies were reduced to a more realistic "sixth seed in the Western Conference."
This relatively minor comeuppance shouldn't have been too surprising. As I had written on the blog prior to the weekend, the Grizzlies' then 13-5 record had been built on a schedule heavy with mediocre-to-bad teams. The Grizzlies had played 12 games (with a 10-2 record) against teams that would be counting lottery balls if the season ended early, while only facing six teams (3-3) that would be playoff-bound.
So, with quality opponents like the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers on deck, it was no surprise to see the Grizzlies' winning streak come to an end. But with the team's two most prolific scorers -- Pau Gasol and Bobby Jackson -- hampered by either ineffectiveness or injury, the extent of the Grizzlies' scoring struggles last weekend are a reminder of how profound this team's offensive limitations are.
This year's Grizzlies are capable of being a very good offensive team, but they have an extremely thin margin of error. To thrive, they must have pristine execution -- decisive play from Gasol, sharp ball movement when Gasol is double-teamed, and effective marksmanship from the team's phalanx of three-point shooters.
When any link in this chain is ruptured, the Grizzlies' offense can fall completely apart, because the team lacks a dynamic scorer on the perimeter to bail them out. In last weekend's games, Gasol shot 28 percent from the floor, with more turnovers (9) than field goals (7).
But having the team's offensive catalyst crumble doesn't entirely explain the team's offensive struggles. The Grizzlies were 17th in the league in points per possession heading into the weekend, already behind last season's injury-plagued squad. They had fallen to 20th by Sunday. Along the way, the offense has been hindered by a string of smaller problems:
Lorenzen Wright: Wright might be the worst offensive center in the NBA right now. Only two other starting centers -- Chicago's Tyson Chandler and Golden State's Adonal Foyle, both effective defensive specialists -- are scoring at a lower rate. And no other starting center has a lower shooting percentage. Factor in deplorable free-throw shooting (41 percent) and turnover-prone hands, and Wright has been a significant offensive liability. Wright remains the team's most effective rebounder and a needed defensive match-up against some teams. But the fact that the Grizzlies have been an elite defensive team and slightly improved on the boards despite playing smaller lineups suggests that they might need to go small even more, which would mean more Jackson and Mike Miller and less Wright.
Free-throw shooting: The Grizzlies are currently 29th out of 30 teams in the league in free-throw shooting percentage and might legitimately blame two of their losses -- at Boston in early November and against Dallas over the weekend -- on poor free-throw shooting. Wright has been terrible and both Jackson and Shane Battier are shooting below their career averages, but the real culprit here is Gasol, who gets to the line the most. At 65 percent, Gasol is shooting considerably less than his solid 77 percent foul shooting last year.
Lack of a pure point guard: It's fashionable now to treat departed Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams as a villain with no redeeming attributes, but, in truth, this team has missed him on the court in at least some ways. As a superior shooter, defender, and rebounder and as a locker-room plus rather than chemistry killer, replacement Damon Stoudamire is the better overall player for this team. And with the offense running through Gasol, the Grizzlies haven't missed Williams in the half-court game the team usually plays. But during the rare transition opportunity, they've really missed Williams' ability to set up teammates for good shots, either at the rim or trailing for three-point attempts.
No frontcourt bench scoring: Though rookie Hakim Warrick has had a couple of effective games off the bench, he's mostly been a non-factor. And that's left Gasol as the only frontcourt scorer on the roster. With Stromile Swift in a Rockets uniform and Brian Cardinal on the bench in street clothes, this team lacks a frontcourt scorer who can give a boost.
For more Grizzlies news and comment, see "Beyond the Arc," Chris Herrington's Memphis Grizzlies blog, at www.MemphisFlyer.com/grizblog. Herrington also co-hosts the Grizzlies post-game show on ESPN Radio 730-AM with Chris Vernon after weekday Grizzlies home games. And on Wednesdays at 5 p.m., he guests on The Chris Vernon Show.