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The Beasts and the Bench

How the Grizzlies can make good on Michael Heisley’s playoff promise.

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Last Friday night in suburban Detroit, the Memphis Grizzlies rallied from six points down with three minutes to go to defeat the Pistons. Reserve Sam Young scored seven points in this stretch, with an assist and game-saving block. Back-ups Darrell Arthur and Xavier Henry scored. Deep reserve DeMarre Carroll notched two assists. And free agent acquisition Tony Allen, a key bench player for the championship-contending Boston Celtics in recent seasons, blocked a shot that could have tied the game for Detroit. The win completed a perfect 8-0 preseason for the Grizzlies.

Meaningless, right?

Maybe not. The games may not count, but the Grizzlies' perfect preseason record — and how it was achieved — may actually bode very well for the coming season, the team's 10th in Memphis.

By now, if you follow the Grizzlies, you've probably been made familiar with the fact that each of the past 11 NBA teams to go through preseason with one or fewer losses has gone on to make the playoffs. But the correlation is even deeper and more meaningful than that statistical sound bite indicates. In a piece in the NBA preview edition of ESPN the Magazine, writer Peter Keating puts a finer point on what is generally a very strong relationship between preseason and regular season performance in the NBA, pointing out that the correlation is strongest for teams coming off mediocre seasons.

"Extreme preseason results often indicate breakouts or breakdowns looming ahead," Keating writes, pointing out that, over the past 20 seasons, there have been 21 teams that have followed mediocre regular seasons with strong preseasons. Those 21 teams were, on average, 10.3 games better the following season, with 15 of them making the playoffs. Keating cites a couple of examples: the 04-05 Phoenix Suns, whose leap from 29 to 62 wins was preceded by a 7-1 preseason, and the 07-08 Orlando Magic, whose improvement from 40 to 52 wins was suggested by a 6-1 preseason. But there's another example that hits home: the 03-04 Grizzlies, whose journey from 28 to 50 wins included a 6-1 preseason record.

Is history about to repeat itself for the Grizzlies, who were 40-42 a year ago? If so, the team will make good on a playoff promise that's been in place since owner Michael Heisley announced a "three-year plan" in the summer of 2008 and which he hasn't been shy about repeating in the months leading up to this season. But to make this leap, the Grizzlies will need to not only duplicate what went right last season — an effective style of play and good health from key players — but significantly improve the areas that held them back — a shaky defense and a terrible bench.

The Beasts

Since the Grizzlies have been in Memphis, the franchise's good teams have tended to have clear identities. Hubie Brown's playoff team was about the 10-man rotation and a scrappy, opportunistic defense leading to uptempo offense. Mike Fratello's playoff teams were defined by surrounding Pau Gasol with three-point shooters and running a halfcourt offense through him.

After three years in the wilderness, Lionel Hollins' team seemed to establish an identity last season: Led by power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies became an offensive power team, leading the NBA in points in the paint and offensive rebounding. The team still ran — 8th in pace — but downplayed three-point shooting, where they launched fewer attempts than any other team.

In combining for 35 points and 21 rebounds a game, the burly tandem of Randolph and Gasol were the league's most productive frontcourt duo, transforming both themselves and their team via their palpable oncourt chemistry and beastly interior exploits. The well-traveled and oft-troubled Randolph had a charmed season, fitting his skills into a team context better than ever before en route to his first All-Star appearance. The once chubby Gasol slimmed down. His individual numbers ticked up across the board, but the most important part of Gasol's improvement came on the defensive end, where his increased mobility allowed him to guard either frontcourt position and become a better help defender.

Can Randolph and Gasol repeat their magic? Fatigue and potential injury loom as major concerns. The Grizzlies fell apart at the end of last season when Gasol was lost to injury. Now, Gasol is coming off a summer spent playing for the Spanish national team, has appeared sluggish at times in the preseason, and suffered an apparently minor ankle injury in a recent practice. Can he hold up? As for Randolph, he's come into camp in what appears to be the best shape of his career, but there is a track record. Though he only missed one game last season, Randolph had averaged 17 missed games the previous four seasons.

But if Gasol and Randolph can manage a repeat of last season and the team's talented young trio of perimeter starters — Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, and Rudy Gay — continue to buy in to the team's inside-out philosophy, then the Grizzlies will return a starting lineup that can play with anyone.

The Bench

Last season, the Griz starting lineup outscored opponents by 7.3 points per 48 minutes when they were on the floor together, making them the league's 11th best primary lineup, better than their equivalents on 53-win teams in Denver, Utah, and Atlanta and 50-win Oklahoma City and much better than the primary lineups of other 40-something-win teams.

But with any lineup other than their starting five, the Grizzlies were terrible — -6.7 per 48. The only teams worse than the Grizzlies without their primary lineup on the floor were the New Jersey Nets (12 total wins), the Minnesota Timberwolves (15), and the Los Angeles Clippers (29).

Recognizing this, and fortunate in that his starters stayed healthy, coach Lionel Hollins played the bench as little as he could get away with. The Griz starting five played far more minutes together (1,475) than any five-man unit in the NBA last season, and those five players missed a combined total of only 18 games (13 of those from Gasol). But hoping for a repeat of those games and minutes played among the starters is not reasonable, and the Grizzlies will need significantly better bench play to maintain their ground, much less push toward the playoffs.

This group of reserves consists primarily of unproven young players, with only one player who's ever averaged double figures in scoring in the NBA (new signee Allen, who did it once, four years ago, and is unlikely to do so again). But there is some reason for hope.

Though new acquisitions Allen, point guard Acie Law, and rookie swingman Xavier Henry have gotten the most attention, it is a couple of returning players who have looked the best in the preseason. One is second-year swingman Sam Young, who was productive a year ago but also suffered from a particularly bad case of rookie-itis, looking to shoot — and most definitely not pass — whenever the ball touched his hands. But Young was one of the very best players in the Las Vegas Summer League a few months ago and has rather quietly followed that up with a strong preseason in which he shot 56 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the three-point line while doing a better job of fitting his game into the team context.

Even more impressive has been third-year forward Darrell Arthur, who missed 50 games to injury last season and never looked comfortable even after he returned for the final two months. This preseason, Arthur has looked like the player the Grizzlies expected to get when they drafted him out of Kansas. Though too undersized to play in the post or guard the rim, Arthur has rebounded well, been active and effective around the basket with quick face-up moves, and has been hitting mid-range jumpers.

If Young and Arthur can carry these performances over into the regular season, they should join veteran Allen — an explosive if limited offensive player but a terrific, proven defensive stopper — in giving the team the foundation of a functional bench for the first time in three years. But to be something more than functional, the Grizzlies will need useful contributions from two more dicey sources: rookie shooter Xavier Henry and second-year center Hasheem Thabeet.

Still only 19 and having missed summer league after an embarrassing (for the Grizzlies) contract impasse, Henry started training camp well behind his teammates. He struggled in the first six preseason games (12-38 shooting) but seemed to settle down in the final two games (11-24). There are plenty of questions about Henry's game, but his size, intelligence, and track record as a shooter all suggest that he has a good chance of helping the team this season. As for Thabeet, well ... it hasn't been pretty. After a dreadful rookie season, the overdrafted project center showed encouraging signs in summer play, improving in simple areas such as catching passes cleanly, making free-throws, and finding the open man. But after a strong first preseason game, Thabeet seems to have regressed. Given the fatigue and now-pressing injury concerns with Gasol, the Grizzlies desperately need Thabeet to take a step forward.

The Grizzlies have benefited somewhat from an exodus of talent that has seen several Western rivals lose key players to the Eastern Conference, but the middle ground in the West is still deep and highly competitive. Last season, it took 50 wins to make the playoffs. The Grizzlies, the league's second-most-improved team, only won 40. This season, a finish anywhere between 6th and 12th (eight teams make the playoffs) is feasible.

One looming issue for the team that no one can really predict is what the impact will be of having four starters (minus Gay) essentially in contract seasons: These four players will all be able to negotiate new contracts next summer, with varying levels of restriction. Some see this as a positive — extra motivation. Others see it as a threat to team chemistry. But that aside, the Grizzlies' ability to make good on Michael Heisley's playoff promise rests on two big questions: Can the beasts stay healthy? Can the bench be better? Answers begin this week.

For Grizzlies coverage throughout the season, see Beyond the Arc, Chris Herrington's basketball blog, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.

Coach talk: Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins on the upcoming season.

On the team's power game:

"We were first in offensive rebounding and first in points in the paint and first in second-chance points. So I think that's definitely our identity. We want to play hard-nosed defense, rebound the ball, and run. But we want to get it inside to our post people in our halfcourt offense and even in early offense."

On reducing the starters' workload:

"We didn't have many options last season, and all the starters played way too many minutes. I think that Rudy Gay will probably still play a lot of minutes. He's young and athletic, and those kinds of guys tend to play more. I'd like to rest [Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol] more. The added depth gives us options. If guys aren't playing well or get in foul trouble, you don't have to leave them in the game [now]. If there's a bad mismatch, you don't have to leave them in the game. Last year, we just had so many young guys who weren't ready to play, so we did what we had to do."

On the need for Rudy Gay to round out his game:

"I saw Rudy at USA Basketball in Las Vegas, and he made that team with his ability to defend, and it's shown also in preseason. He has the athleticism to do it all, and I think playing in the World Championships helped him. It's not just about offense. He had to play a role and saw how role players still have to be effective when they're not asked to score. That showed him that [he can play that way] — that it isn't a bad thing and can be necessary. So I think that he's had a growth spurt. He's more mature. I think we get in a hurry for guys to be who we want them to be."

On being undersized in the backcourt:

"[Defensively], I think O.J. [Mayo] is usually mismatched from the start, and it's just a question of whether his offense outweighs the liabilities he has on defense. With Mike Conley, not a lot of point guards are posting as much as they used to. It's his job to guard these guys out on the perimeter and then go create havoc on the offensive end. He's learning how to do that and how to be aggressive. If you have to score 25 points, you have to score 25 points. You don't have to feel guilty about it, like you're taking away from the team. You're helping the team win."

On veteran free agent Tony Allen's role:

"Tony Allen is going to be a utility player. I think he's a 15-minute player on most nights. There will be some nights when I need him in there to cool off a player at the two, and there will be times when I need him to play at the point. If Xavier [Henry] is able to handle the load, he'll back up O.J., and if he's not, we'll look to Sam [Young] in that role. And Tony will be the wild card we'll play in certain situations where we need energy. He's a very dynamic personality on the court, so we're looking for that — and looking forward to it."

On Michael Heisley's playoff promise:

"It doesn't matter what he says. All I can do is go out and do my job and handle my team. Get them to play the game as hard as they can and to the best of their abilities. And if we're good enough, we'll make the playoffs. If we're not, we won't. We just want to go out and be better than we were last year."

Take 5: A handful of predictions for this Griz season.

1. Rudy Gay goes where only Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph have gone before among Grizzlies players: to the All-Star Game.

2. Mike Conley overcomes the slow starts that have plagued his past two seasons en route to career-highs across the board and a few down-ballot Most Improved Player votes.

3. O.J. Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet show up in trade rumors but are not dealt. The Griz stand pat, aside from adding a minor frontcourt free agent as a 15th player later in the season.

4. New back-up point guards Acie Law and Greivis Vasquez take a back seat to free agent Tony Allen and even Mayo, who eventually soak up the majority of the minutes behind Conley.

5. Despite losing more starter games to injury, the Grizzlies' modestly improved bench and defense leads to a small step forward that proves just enough: The team finishes 46-36, secures the final playoff seed, and breaks the franchise's postseason drought by taking one game from the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game opening-round playoff series.

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