The Grizzlies take on the Atlanta Hawks tonight in a road game that starts at 6 p.m. Three quick thoughts:
1. The Truest Template: As the Grizzlies finally begin their ascent to respectability, the two teams most often used as comparisons are the two young Western Conference teams ahead of the Grizzlies on the developmental ladder — the Portland Trailblazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But I'd like to nominate the Atlanta Hawks as the best current model for how the Grizzlies are being built.
The Hawks, at 17-6, are the best team in the NBA without a first-tier star player. Like the Grizzlies, there's no one on their roster with the alpha-dog upside of OKC's Kevin Durant or Portland's Brandon Roy (or Theoretical Greg Oden). Like the Grizzlies, they've suffered some poor draft decisions, mismanagement, and shaky ownership issues, but by virtue of being bad-to-mediocre for several years, still built up a good talent base in the draft (Horford/Smith/Williams = Gay/Mayo/Conley/Thabeet) and nabbed a couple of key but not overwhelming pieces via trade/free agency (Johnson/Bibby/Crawford = Randolph/Gasol). After marinating for a few years, the young players developed into significant players and some chemistry emerged and suddenly Atlanta found themselves with a contender. This team may not win a title, but they'll win a lot of games and likely have a decent bit of post-season success. And they'll be fun to watch while doing so.
Talented balanced teams without superstars have a hard time breaking through to win titles, but like the Hawks this season, can still become elite teams if the pieces fit. And that's a model the Grizzlies can look toward.
2. Frontcourt Match-Up Problems: Tonight's game could hinge in large part on which team is better able to dictate and exploit frontcourt mismatches. The Grizzlies have a big edge in size at both center (Marc Gasol vs. Al Horford) and power forward (Zach Randolph and Josh Smith). But the Hawks are quicker and more dynamic. In the preseason, the Hawks got the best of this match-up. Can the Grizzlies turn that around run tonight's game through the post? If not, will we see less Hasheem Thabeet and more DeMarre Carroll for match-up purposes.
3. Turnover Differential: If you're looking for a big difference between these two teams, this is it. The Hawks are second in the league in turnover differential (+2.5) and the Grizzlies are the second worst (-1.9). Can't afford that can of disparity tonight if the Griz want to steal one in Atlanta.