The Grizzlies had a pair of road games over the weekend (a back-to-back at Oklahoma City and Milwaukee) that didn’t exactly go according to script. After a blazing hot 5-game win to start the season, these two road games were essentially the culmination of all the flaws that shone through the wins that piled up at the season’s start. Every silver lining has a touch of grey—somebody said that, right?—and that touch of grey happened to be the reserves. The Grizzlies’ offensive issues showed up in force Friday and Saturday, and it ended up costing them their perfect record.
First things first: Marc Gasol was not good in either game. In OKC he looked out of sorts, committing turnovers and being uncharacteristically flummoxed by Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison (who, unlike the rest of the Thunder’s good players, aren’t injured). Zach Randolph also struggled, especially against the Thunder. He put up 16 points and 7 rebounds but was only 6 of 16 from the floor. Against the Bucks he had better luck, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the weaknesses of the rest of the team.
The bench has been an issue all season long so far. Seven games in, they’ve yet to string together a good performance as a second unit. Of course, this raises the question of whether there should even be a second unit, or whether there should always be a starter on the floor (hint: there should always be a starter on the floor), but assuming there’s going to be a true second unit that plays with no starters, they’ve got to be better than they’ve been.
After struggling early, Beno Udrih has picked up his game a bit. He’s still not shooting well, but the offense runs just a bit more smoothly with him in, and he’s able to do some good pick and roll things with Koufos and Gasol. The real struggles off the bench—from the two guys who were supposed to step up into increased roles this year—are from Jon Leuer and Quincy Pondexter.
Pondexter hasn’t been shooting well, and his year away from playing pro basketball is showing through in his decision making. Pondexter is still overthinking what he’s doing on the floor, much like he was in the precious few games he played last season, hesitating and driving to the basket instead of shooting open jumpers, missing a lot of said open jumpers when he decides to take them. His defense has been okay, but his offense is what the Grizzlies really need, and that’s what has yet to start working. With Vince Carter still unable to run (more on that later) and a bench that desperately needs scoring, Pondexter needs to get into some sort of a rhythm sooner rather than later.
The other guy who has yet to play up to the role he’s been given is Jon Leuer. It’s strange, because if you watch Leuer when he’s not trying to shoot, he’s playing well—his defense is okay, he’s making smart passes, he’s putting himself in the right places at the right times. But he cannot hit a shot to save his life. All season long so far Leuer has been generating good looks at the basket and failing to convert them into Grizzlies points. Seven games in, I’m not going to say it’s time to explore other options at the backup power forward spot. If the shots he’s getting start falling, this conversation isn’t happening. Unlike Pondexter, it’s not Leuer’s decision-making that’s troublesome; he’s just not hitting open shots. Even though that’s the case, he’s still got to get it going if this second unit is going to be able to help the team instead of hurting it.
Another factor in the second unit that’s not turning out the way the team planned (so far) is Vince Carter. His recovery from offseason ankle surgery appears to be progressing slowly, and he runs around the court (well, “runs”) like a robot with some sort of gait malfunction. Supposedly Chris Wallace told somebody who asked about it that he’s always had a funny hitch in his running motion, but if you believe that’s all that’s going on, I’d love to sell you a barely-used Hernando DeSoto Bridge. Carter is clearly not 100%, and he’s just chucking shots at the rim as a result. His usage rate against OKC (according to Basketball Reference) was 28.3%, and he was 3 of 9 from the floor. His eFG% was slightly better (38.9%) but it’s still not great in terms of effeciency. If Carter’s issues linger and he doesn’t reach the form he was in for Dallas the past few seasons, his signing won’t be as big of a positive as it looked this summer. I don’t think it’s time to panic about his health yet, but 8.5% of the way through the season, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
My last issue with the second unit isn’t really an issue with the second unit per se, so much as it’s an issue with the Grizzlies’ entire organizational philosophy about player development. On the second night of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, the Grizzlies’ two promising rookies, Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes, were in Memphis playing for the Iowa Energy. Now, given the way the game turned out, it seems unlikely that they would’ve played actual minutes, but sending them to the D-League to keep the rust off instead of carving out five minutes a piece for them to play, given that reserve wing play and reserve power forward play are both issues for this team right now, seems like a poor decision. Everything I’ve heard from folks with the team suggests that they think Adams and Stokes can contribute and can contribute this year. When does that start? At what point do they put their money where their mouths are and start actually playing them?
Sure, inexperience is a factor. Rookies make mistakes, sometimes dumb ones. Playing them enough for them to actually learn the game means letting them play through dumb mistakes instead of yanking them to the bench for a week every time they mess up. (Remember how much Nick Calathes improved last year when there was no one else to sub in for him when he turned the ball over?) If the Grizzlies make it another 7 games and Pondexter and Leuer are still not contributing much of anything, it’s time for these guys to get a serious look. Both of them were very highly regarded coming into last year’s draft—one of the more loaded drafts in recent history, remember? We’re not talking the Jamaal Franklin draft, or even the Tony Wroten draft—and if they’re going to capitalize on that potential, they have to play.
Now, I’m not sure why I just wasted effort writing those two paragraphs. The Grizzlies don’t play rookies much, unless they’re Xavier Henry (still trying to figure that one out). It’s more likely that Adams and Stokes spend all year bouncing between Memphis and Des Moines, playing two minutes at a time in NBA games and sitting on the bench every time they make a mistake. That seems to be the way things go for the Grizzlies. But I think it’s a mistake not to let these guys develop, especially since bench play is becoming an issue. I’d hate to see both of these guys sit on the bench and then end up as trade bait (or, worse, given to the 76ers for almost nothing).
The good news in all of this is that it’s only 7 games in, and the team is 6–1. There are no unbeaten teams in the league anymore, so now that there’s one L in the record, the pressure to remain unbeaten is off. The bad news is that in all six of those wins, the bench didn’t do well. The starters (Conley, Lee, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol) can’t carry this team all 82 nights this season. The bench, and especially Pondexter and Leuer, need to figure out what they’re doing and get it going, or else this team is going to struggle to reach their full potential. It’s not time to start making drastic changes to the rotation yet, but that time is probably closer than Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies would like to admit.
Tweet(s) of the Night
From Friday’s OKC game, the Flyer’s own Bruce VanWyngarden on the Thunder’s acquisition of Ish Smith:
Ish never starts because everyone knows if you don’t want no Ish, you don't start no Ish.— Bruce VanWyngarden (@sylamore1) November 8, 2014
From Saturday against Milwaukee, presaging most of what you just read (unless you skipped all the wordy words up there):
I'd say let the bench play even if you take the L but the guys we need to learn something about aren't present.— Chase Lucas (@deepfriedcouch) November 9, 2014
Odds and Ends