Tonight's the night: a real Grizzlies basketball game against a real other team in a real arena in front of actual people. (And yes, to preclude the jokes, for this purpose, Thursday's game against Maccabi Haifa also qualifies as a "real other team.") The NBA preseason is upon us, and tonight brings us a Southwest Division matchup that is actually interesting; to the extent that the first game of the preseason can tell us anything about the season ahead, this one should actually be revealing.
"Layup Line," for what it's worth, is a random list of thoughts concerning an upcoming game. The part of the warmup that's mostly just goofing around. A preview, but in the most laid-back possible way. Something I'm trying out this preseason.
Here are some things to pay attention to in tonight's Grizzlies/Rockets game:
➭ How do the hurt guys look? Beno Udrih is still on the mend from offseason surgery, and Vince Carter came into last year with a hitch in his step that he was never quite able to get rid of. That's something the Grizzlies would do well to avoid this year: having to depend on guys who aren't 100% playing their way back into shape over the course of the season.
I'm not expecting anyone to be in mid-season form tomorrow night. After all, it was just last week at media day when Dave Joerger said the team's P3 injury scanning data showed that "some of our guys aren't in trememdous shape." But, y'know, if somebody can't run, or looks like they added 30 pounds of Häagen-Dazs to their prerequisite "20 pounds of muscle," that's going to be a problem, for the young guys just as much as the old guys. Seeing what the guys look like running the floor for the first time is always revelatory.
➭ Russ Smith, International Man of Mystery Russ Smith had a great Summer League performance, in which he appeared to be a much more fully-rounded point guard than he'd been during the season, when (as John Hollinger put it at media day) "the Russdiculous switch was always on." If he can translate that performance into a sustained, composed performance at the NBA level, Smith may challenge Beno Udrih (who, as mentioned above, is recovering from a surgery) for backup point guard minutes, especially early on as Udrih works his way back into playing shape.
I don't expect Smith to be a major part of the Grizzlies' rotation this season, but I don't think he has to—I just think he has to show that he can be that in a couple of years, and contribute in spots when he's needed. I'm hoping he gets enough run in the preseason to see what kind of Russdiculous is on the roster this season, and that starts against Houston.
➭ Are the Rockets going to be better? The Rockets made the Western Conference Finals last year before falling to the Warriors. Now that they've added Ty Lawson (after his fall from grace in Denver), all eyes are on Houston to see whether they can continue to develop into a perennial West power or whether they will take a step back trying to integrate Lawson into a mix that seems to be working pretty well. The Rockets needed a really lackluster second half from the Grizzlies to win the division last year, but they won it fair and square, and that means they're in the Grizzlies' way this season. An early look at Houston could be an early glance at what the Southwest's balance of power will be this year (until the Spurs show up and Force Choke the rest of the competition, anyway).
➭ Can Jeff Green start on this team without ruining everything? This was the subject of fierce debate for most of the stretch run and playoffs last year—does Jeff Green actually fit on this team, or is the situation here the same as it's been everywhere else for Green: that he's a "good player" who seems to be a net negative when he's on the floor with most of the 5-man units in which he finds himself on a regular basis?
One of the most tired Media Day tropes is that "Player X just needs a full training camp" to be able to correct all of the issues he had last year after being traded. Like most good clichés, though, it's a cliché because it has a basis in reality: it really is hard for these guys to show up in a new town on a team that runs a totally different scheme and just magically fit in with the style of play. My assumption is that it's even harder when that new team is a group like the Grizzlies who have been together for a long time.
But that's the thing we're going to find out pretty quickly—I think within the first 20-25 games of the season. Can Jeff Green start on this team without making the team worse in some meaningful capacity? We really don't know. This will be the test, and assuming he starts tonight—and I'm assuming he's starting until proven otherwise—it starts against the Rockets tonight. Green has got to fit in well with the Grizzlies' starting unit, or he's going to be re-relegated to bench duties.
➭ Are the snacks for the media going to be any good this year? OK, maybe I'm the only one thinking about this one.