The Grizzlies made official a worst-case scenario that had been feared for a while: That Rudy Gay will have to have surgery to repair the shoulder he injured against the Philadelphia 76ers last month. This will end Gay's season and put him on a 4-6 month rehab stint could inch uncomfortably close to the start of next season. (Though a potential lockout might give Gay plenty of time to get ready for next season.)
But what does it mean for the Grizzlies?
Putting the Loss in Perspective:
I think we have to be careful with comparing this team pre- and post- Rudy Gay's injury. While the body of games — 14, in which the team as gone 8-6 — the team has played since Gay's injury are easy to generalize from, the 57 games — in which the team went 31-26 — the Grizzlies played before losing Gay for the season are not. The Grizzlies have evolved into a better team over the course of the season and that process was happening — had happened, really — before Gay was injured.
The NBA regular season is a long one, but fans who have been paying attention from the beginning will remember that this team had lots of problems early on that were entirely unrelated to Gay. The Grizzlies started the season 8-14, dealing with season-starting injuries to big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. More so, the team wasn't utilizing its backcourt rotation well, playing the wrong veterans over the wrong rookies, and vice versa.
Behind Mike Conley at point guard, the Grizzlies went with vet journeyman Acie Law over rookie Greivis Vasquez to start. In that opening 22-game stretch, Law appeared in half the games, dragging the bench down with a scary 0.4 player efficiency rating. Vasquez, who has played most of the back-up PG minutes since the team jettisoned Law, has provided a modest but vastly better 9.4 PER. But the starker difference was on the wing, where the team spent the first quarter of the season playing rookie Xavier Henry over free agent signee Tony Allen.
In that opening 22-game stretch, Henry's games with double-digit minutes outpaced Allen's 18-13 and his number of games playing 20+ minutes dwarfed Allen's 8-2. Allen had 5 DNPs in the stretch. Meanwhile, Henry, as a rookie, has notched a 7.1 PER. Allen is now up to second on the team, behind Zach Randolph, at 18.2.
But between that 8-14 opening stumble on December 6th and Rudy Gay's injury on February 15th — with Zach Randolph well over his opening night injury, Tony Allen finally getting consistent rotation minutes, and the Acie Law era over — the Grizzlies went 23-12, including a 9-4 record against probable playoff teams. That .657 winning percentage would be 8th best in the league over the full season.
That 23-12 record is, I'd argue, a better indication of what this team was at the moment Rudy Gay was injured. One of the unfortunate things about this generally positive season is that the Grizzlies would seem to be at their best with when utilizing both Rudy Gay and Tony Allen — arguably their second and third best players this season — in significant roles. But, with Allen small role early on and Gay's injury late, this duo has only gotten 20+ minutes each in 13 games this season. The Grizzlies have gone 9-4 in those games.
I suggested at the time that the Grizzlies would play .500 without Gay. That they've done a little better than that — 8-6 — against a pretty tough schedule is encouraging. Though Gay is, this season at least, a better player, the team was in better position to cope with his loss than if Mike Conley or Marc Gasol had gone down. This team's best depth was on the wing, even before the trade for Shane Battier. But the Grizzlies are not just as good without Rudy Gay.
The Way They Play:
John Schuhmann of NBA.com had a piece yesterday about how the Grizzlies' style of play has changed since the Gay injury, with the basic takeaway being that, perhaps counter intuitively, the team has gotten better offensively and worse defensively.
As I suggested in the previous section, I think the before-and-after comparison is a little unreliable because of how the "before" is impacted by early-season problems unrelated to Gay, but I think the general trend is relevant. While I think there are some connections related to Gay's penchant for isolation play that are relevant to the team's offensive success since he's been injured, I suspect the team's upward trend offensively has less to do with not having Gay than with the in-season improvements of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Darrell Arthur.
As for the other end of the floor, I had written when Gay first went down that the team would likely miss him more on the defensive end. In the month before Gay's injury, his scoring was already down and players such as Conley, Arthur, and Allen were already asserting themselves more offensively. Defensively, Gay has actually become underrated and his length, athleticism, and versatility have been missed.
As CNNSI's Zach Lowe notes in a piece somewhat similar to Schuhmann's, the Grizzlies have been better defensively with Rudy Gay on the floor all season.
Can They Still Make the Post-Season?
Of course they can. I'm a little bewildered by the questions about whether this team will fall apart now that Gay is having season-ending surgery. Gay didn't go down yesterday. They've been playing without him for more than a month and holding their own in a competitive playoff race. Why is that supposed to change now?
This team can obviously still make the playoffs, but "can" isn't "will." As of today, John Hollinger's playoff odds for the West's final two spots (you can probably forget about catching Denver or Portland for 6th or 7th) look like this:
New Orleans Hornets 81.7%
Memphis Grizzlies 73.8%
Houston Rockets 39.7%
Phoenix Suns 8.8%
Utah Jazz 1.5%
The Grizzlies are three games up on the Suns and the Jazz with 11 games (for the Grizzlies) to play and own a tiebreaker over the Suns and would probably win a tiebreaker over the Jazz. I agree that those teams are basically done. So I think we're looking at a three-team race for two playoff spots.
However, I think that 39.7% might undersell the Rockets a little bit. Houston is two games back but has the tiebreaker over the Grizzlies. The two teams have similar schedule going forward — both with six of 11 at home and six of 11 against playoff teams — but the Rockets are the hotter team, having won 11 of their past 14. And this is why the Hornets bear watching: They're vulnerable enough that the Grizzlies and Rockets could both slip into the post season.
The Hornets are only one game ahead of the Grizzlies and three games ahead of the Rockets, but have three games left against those two teams. The Hornets also have six of 11 at home, and while only four of their remaining games are against teams that would be in the playoffs today, every game is against a playoff contender. Unlike the Grizzlies and Rockets, the Hornets don't get to play any low-level teams down the stretch. And, unlike their playoff-race rivals, the Hornets have been on the slide, going 9-13 since February 1st and only 3-3 over their past six games.
Can They Still Make Some Noise if They Get There?
Even though the analysis shows the Grizzlies holding up offensively without Gay, I would argue that his value on that end of the floor would increase in the post-season, when the game slows down and defenses tighten up. The ability to create good shots against a declining shot-clock and strong defense is going to be crucial, and no one on this roster does this as well as Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies have played good team basketball without Gay — getting strong play from Mike Conley and Darrell Arthur and feasting of forced turnovers — but they simply don't have the halfcourt scoring dimension Gay could provide. And they're going to miss it.
Defensively, I worry that the fall-off without Gay could get worse as the team faces better and more veteran offenses putting more emphasis on taking care of the ball. For this reason, I suspect the team would be smart to work Shane Battier into the main lineup ahead of Sam Young, giving them more size and less gambling on the wings.
With a healthy Rudy Gay? The Grizzlies would have some upset potential. Without him, the team has less upside, but I certainly wouldn't expect them to fold. This team is deep, tough, and is playing well together. I would fear a sweep against the Lakers, with their imposing size. But against the Mavericks or the Spurs, I think the Grizzlies would win at least a game, maybe two, and make it a reasonably entertaining series. This is why, despite the vulnerability of the Hornets, the Grizzlies' best-case scenario right now is probably to stay right where they are, setting up a first-round match-up with a Spurs team that isn't particularly big up front and now has a suddenly hobbling Tim Duncan.
Regardless, the next three weeks should be a nail-biting good time. Those playoff beards may well come through, but they won't be getting shaved any time soon.