I had a chance to catch up with NBA on TNT reporter David Aldridge on Wednesday in advance of tonight’s Grizzlies/Nuggets game, which he’ll be covering as part of TNT’s excellent broadcast team. Before the game, Griz fans may want to tune in to the pre-game show (TNT NBA Tip-Off presented by AutoTrader.com is the full name of the show, which is a mouthful and a half), when the 2015 All-Star reserves will be announced—I remain unconvinced that Mike Conley will actually get the All-Star nod he so richly deserves this year, simply because he plays in the Western Conference, but I would love to be proven wrong.
I’m a big fan of David’s work, and it was a treat to be able to pick his brain about where the Grizzlies are at and where they’re going, both this year and beyond.
Beyond the Arc: First things first: I know you’re a guy who watches a lot of basketball. What’s different about the Grizzlies this year? From your perspective, what are they doing differently that they haven’t done in years past that’s gotten them off to this start?
David Aldridge: I think the main thing I look at is that offensively, they’re just much better. I think they’re top ten in offensive rating now—they really have become a much more efficient offensive team. They’re in the top half in effective field goal percentage. They’re just doing a lot better in things like true shooting percentage and all of those advanced numbers, and they’re a much better offensive team than they’ve been in years past. I mean, you know. They had to really grind out 91–86 games the last few years. And the defense was up to it, they could do it, but they’re just a much better offense now.
I watched them last night (Note: when the Grizzlies defeated the Mavericks 109–90 in Dallas) and between Lee, and now they have Jeff Green, they just have a bunch of guys that can make shots, and that’s just totally different from what they’ve had in years past. And even though Vince has not played as well lately, you know, he’s still a capable guy offensively. He can still put the ball in the basket. So they’ve got a lot more options now than just throwing the ball down to Zach, and I think that makes them a much harder team to guard.
I guess this is kind of a follow-on question from that, but how much of that do you think has to do with the coaching change they made last summer?
You know, I don’t know. I always thought that Dave would continue the defensive philosophy and principles that Lionel did, but I didn’t know offensively what he would bring to the table, and it certainly seems to me that there’s more diversification of offense.
Now, some of that may be personnel. It’s a chicken and egg thing: do the players influence how you play, or does how you play influence the players, right? But I certainly think Mike Conley’s a lot better player than he was three years ago, and I think that’s had a lot to do with it. Marc Gasol, obviously, is an MVP candidate, so you’ve got three really talented offensive guys in the starting lineup now, and the other guys can fill in.
Getting Courtney Lee back helps, and I think Jeff Green is really going to help. On a good team, when Jeff’s a third or fourth option, he’s pretty good. The problem with Jeff has always been when teams want him to be the first or second option, and that’s just not really his game.
Were you surprised that they made that move of trading for Jeff Green when they did? It seems like sometimes teams that are making title runs, doing the “this is the year” thing, are scared to make big moves like that in season. Was that the kind of move you expected the Grizzlies to make this year?
I wasn’t surprised at all—I think it’s the exact opposite, actually: I think when you think you have a chance to win the whole thing is when you make a move like that. You make a move that you think is going to get you over the top.
Obviously at this stage of his career Jeff is a better all-around player than Tayshaun—he has a lot more tools in his bag right now in terms of offense, and he’s not great defensively, but he’s not bad, and I think he’ll fit right in to what they’re trying to do. He gives them some length, he can rebound—I think you make that move when you think you’re close. When you think you have a chance, and you put all your chips in the middle of the table and say “let’s take a shot at this thing.” I think that’s what they did.
And they made it early. That’s the other thing that was impressive to me. They didn’t wait until the deadline, they didn’t try to hold out and make a better deal, they said: “Look, this is a guy we think can help us now, and we want to get him acclimated as soon as possible so he can help us down the stretch” and that way they didn’t have to waste a lot of time trying to get him involved later rather than sooner. I like the move a lot.
I don’t know what Jeff’s going to do with the option (Note: Green has a player option for $9 million next season), but I would think he would opt in. I can’t see him opting out now that he’s there, so you’re actually taking on some money for next year as well by making this deal, so… I think it’s a move that teams that believe they have a real chance at this thing make.
You touched on the fact that they brought on money for next year. It seems like most people think it’s a foregone conclusion that the Grizzlies are going to re-sign Marc Gasol this summer. Do you see it that way? Do you see other teams entering that race, too?
I have learned, Kevin, never to say never, because you can paint yourself into a corner, but my strong suspicion is that he’s going to stay in Memphis. I think it’s a perfect place for him. He’s very comfortable there—he’s been there a decade now—they love him down there… I just can’t imagine someone leaving a championship contending team to go to a bad team, and really, when you look at the teams who can afford to pay what Marc has earned, in terms of a new contract, they’d be bad teams. If you ask yourself, “would Marc Gasol leave a 50-win team to go play for the Knicks? or the Lakers?” I mean, I don’t think so. I think he likes winning. I think he’s a pretty competitive guy.
If we were hearing stories that he really doesn’t like Memphis, and he doesn’t want to be there… but you don’t hear that. You hear how much he loves it. So if he loves it, and they’re a good team, and they can pay him more than anybody else, why would he leave? I just don’t see a plausible scenario at this moment for him leaving.
Now. Could San Antonio get in it? Yeah. Sure. And that’s a different question—that’s a different animal. I’m sure that would cause him to think some. But we don’t know what San Antonio’s going to do, so until I’m sure that they’re making that move, I would rest easy if I were a Grizzlies fan.
It’s interesting. I think the fact that he was able to make the All-Star team as a starter is a sign that, really, there’s not anything that he can’t do in Memphis that he could do somewhere else. I thought that it was huge that he was voted a starter. That’s something that no Grizzlies player has ever done before.
You know, I think that’s changed over the last five or seven years. I’m not sure that argument even applies anymore, the notion that fans don’t know where you are if you’re in a small market. Kevin Durant seems to do pretty well with endorsements, and he’s in Oklahoma City last time I checked. So they’ll find you. That’s kind of an old argument, I think. I think the success of the Spurs has kind of laid waste to that notion. Good players get recognition no matter where they are now, and that’s a good sign for the league. Granted, it wasn’t always that way, but I really think it’s been that way the last few years.
What do you see as the Grizzlies’ biggest challenge in getting out of the West? Is it the Spurs? the Warriors? Is it Oklahoma City? If you’re the Grizzlies, who don’t you want to play?
I don’t think anybody ever wants to play San Antonio. There’s just too much institutional memory in that organization, you know? And too much good coaching. They know how to find your weaknesses and exploit them. So I think anybody with a brain does not want to play San Antonio seven times.
I know they’ve gone back and forth with the Clippers. It’s a good matchup. I think Memphis has more weapons now to be able to go after the Clippers than they did before, so it may not be quite as daunting of a matchup as it’s been before.
Golden State—they’re playing so well, but we will have to see. It’s all about Bogut’s status to me. If he’s healthy, I think they have a great shot, and if he’s not, I think they’re vulnerable. So you’d have to tell me if he’s going to be healthy in April. And I don’t just mean playing—he’s played the last few years in the playoffs and he wasn’t really healthy. So he’s got to be healthy for them to make a run, and until he’s healthy in April, I don’t want to place a judgment on Golden State.
That’s kind of the thing for me. I feel like the Grizzlies have played them pretty well over the last few years. Like you said, a lot of it has to do with where Bogut is at—whether he’s playing, where he’s at. You don’t really want to guard Marc Gasol with Marreese Speights.
Shifting gears a little bit, do you have any places you really like to hang out when you’re in Memphis?
Oh, you know. I usually wander down Beale Street and find an emporium or two that may serve some barbecue and a beverage and have a nice time. The great thing about Beale Street is that there are lots of places like that. I enjoy it very much. Normally I try to get to the Civil Rights Museum whenever I can when I’m in Memphis. I think this trip, just because I’ve got so much work to do—to get ready for the game and other stuff I’m working on—I may have to take a pass, because I want to spend several hours there when I go.
But I love the fact that that city has embraced the team. I think it’s great. I think it’s terrific. I think it’s a great matching of the team’s character with the city’s character, and I really enjoy the fact that the Grizzlies have taken root down there. I like the way they play, and I like the fact that the fans are responding to that.
I can’t remember who it was, but someone recently described the relationship between the fans and the city and the team as “Portland Trail Blazers East.”
I think there are a lot of similarities there. The Blazers also have a team that reflects their city’s sensibility, and also wins.
I like the fact that there are different ways to skin a cat: you can win with three superstars, but you can also win with a really good team. I’m not saying there aren’t any stars down there, but it’s a good team. You don’t have to have name superstars to succeed if your organization is good, and I’m so glad to see that Chris Wallace is there, and empowered to do the job that he was doing already. I’ve known Chris a long time, and he knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s just good to see.
Many thanks to David Aldridge for taking the time to talk to Beyond the Arc. You can follow him on Twitter, and you can also catch him in action tonight when the Grizzlies take on the Nuggets at FedExForum on TNT.