by Kevin Lipe
After a week of having a lot of things to talk about, the Grizzlies responded by giving us even more to talk about (and this post doesn't even really cover the Grizzlies' horrifying loss to the Hornets on Friday night, in which they blew a double-digit lead to lose a 24 point game to a Charlotte team that pick-and-rolled them to death in front of the whole world.
So, here we go, with the first Monday Three Pointer in a while, and we're going to talk about the new look starting lineup the Grizzlies rolled out last night in Miami, we're going to (briefly) talk about Joe Abadi and the Grizzlies' front office, and we're going to talk about the Grizzlies' last-second loss to the Miami Heat last night.
Last night against the Miami Heat, Dave Joerger tried something that had probably been brewing in some form or another for a while now: a change to the starting lineup. On the floor for the opening tip for the Grizzlies? Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, and Marc Gasol. That's right—for the first time in a long time1, Zach Randolph came off the bench for the Grizzlies, and Tony Allen was moved out of the starting lineup, too. Allen ended up sitting out the game with a knee injury suffered during warmups (after the lineup change).
Situationally—that is, whether it was intended to be a long-term move or not—the move made sense against the Miami Heat. Z-Bo would've had bad matchups on both ends of the floor against Miami's starting unit, being guarded by Hassan Whiteside on the offensive end (and probably paying for it by getting his shot blocked early and often) and then having to guard Chris Bosh all the way out to the three point line on the defensive end. Randolph has still been an effective player this year, but he's clearly diminished a little bit, and lining up his minutes so they came against Justise Winslow and Udonis Haslem instead of Whiteside and Bosh was pretty indisputably the right move.
For Allen's part, it's easy to see that Courtney Lee (generally) does better offensively as a starter, and early offense has been a struggle with the Allen/Green matchup. What Joerger ended up doing was inserting Matt Barnes into Zach Randolph's place in the lineup, playing Green as a power forward on offense but then having Barnes guard Bosh on the other end. A smart lineup decision that paid off in spades early, as the Grizzlies put on a solid performance through the first three quarters.
Joerger said postgame that the Grizzlies are "going to play this way for a while." The league is trending smaller right now, in general, and when Gasol and Randolph are in top form that usually works to the Grizzlies' advantage. But as Randolph ages, his defense has suffered mightily against stretchy 4's who can pull him away from the basket, and allowing Barnes to take some of those matchups is a step in the right direction.
The guy who benefited the most from the change was Jeff Green, who operates much better when he has that much space to work in. Green had 26 points, shot 50% from the floor, and made 2 3-pointers, whereas he generally looks lost when he's on the floor with Randolph/Gasol and doesn't have room to roam. Whether this is a bid to showcase Green as a trade asset—look guys! He's a stretch four!—or a permanent installment of Green as the starting power forward is anybody's guess, but even if it were Barnes in this spot, it would make sense for the Grizzlies to try going smaller. It certainly helps their pick and roll defense to have Barnes in with the starters instead of Randolph, and those are the sets where the Grizzlies have gotten run into the ground in their big blowout losses recently.
The NBA continues to evolve, and it's ruthless. If teams know you have a weakness they can exploit, they will pick at it until you unravel. That's the name of the game. The book was obviously out on how to beat the Grizzlies with a decent offense, thanks to the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs. This lineup change is one of the few tools left in the tool belt that the Grizzlies have to combat that evolution, short of retooling the entire rotation. And we're not to that point... yet.
ESPN's Marc Stein dropped a bit of a bomb on Grizzlies fans on Saturday, and maybe didn't even know he was doing it, with these two tweets:
Keep your eye, meantime, on Grizz. Latest run of blowout Ls can only heat up simmering tension between bench & lead decision-maker Joe Abadi— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 12, 2015
Abadi is main shot-caller & driving force behind Jeff Green/Vince Carter moves. More thinly veiled shots at roster last nite from D. Joerger— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 12, 2015
Once these tweets were out there, I saw a lot of Grizzlies fans saying they didn't even know who Joe Abadi was, or that he existed, so let me calm the "wait there's some random guy running the Grizzlies?" rumors down a bit and fill in some gaps with my knowledge of the Grizzlies' admittedly murky (despite insistence from within that things are really very straightforward) power structure.
Who is Joe Abadi? He's Robert Pera's attorney, and from what I can tell, his whole job is to be Pera's eyes and ears when Pera isn't around. "Lead decision-maker" is not how I would characterize him, though just given the nature of what his role is I'm sure he has influence on what's going on. From what I can tell, at least as far as basketball matters are concerned, he's far from "lead decision-maker," and wasn't a "driving force behind the Jeff Green/Vince Carter moves."
But who was? What's really going on here is a public relations problem. The Grizzlies have Pera, they have Abadi—who is out of the public eye as far as his involvement in front office affairs, but it's not like he's hidden; the guy sits courtside by the Grizzlies' bench on a regular basis—they have General Manager Chris Wallace, and they have Ed Stefanski and John Hollinger, too, and Dave Joerger clearly has a voice in roster decisions, too (though he didn't get to keep Ryan Hollins, he did get a new and better backup point guard really quickly into the season). While Wallace is the face of the management group, the guy who addresses the public when moves are made, and a guy with lots of relationships with other front offices and with agents, I don't think anybody actually thinks he has sole control over the moves the Grizzlies are making—there are simply too many other visible people in the organization with basketball titles to think their voices aren't being heard, at least in part.
Now, I think the real concern here is that fans see the struggles the Grizzlies are having on the court, know changes of some sort need to be made, and they don't know whether there's a plan or not, or whether than plan is a good one. There's some validity there, too, but as somebody who wrote that this was a rebuilding year on October 26th, I think it's easy to see the outlines of a plan that hasn't really worked out: with Jordan Adams and Brandan Wright in the rotation, and Jarell Martin recovering from his original injury (not the second one that has kept him sidelined up until now), it's easy to see the Grizzlies making these sorts of lineup and rotation changes already to clear up minutes for those guys, allowing Wright to find his place in the offense, and bringing Adams in to bolster the wing rotation with some youth and scoring, while figuring out what to do with the veterans—who should come off the bench, who to trade, et cetera. I think that was always the plan. The fact that Adams, Wright, and Martin are all still hurt, and not growing into roles on the team, makes that plan meaningless, because right now the Grizzlies can't really grow for next year, and can't avoid getting killed in these blowout losses without even "but Jordan Adams got to play 20 minutes" to show for it.
Given that lack of development, it's clear to see why people would be worried by reports of behind-the-scenes turmoil—reports that, again, don't really square with what people who watch this team closely have to say. It looks like nobody is steering the ship, and now Stein is reporting that the guy behind it all is some sort of shadow figure behind the scenes. The way the Grizzlies are playing, fans are (justifiably) freaked out, and so the front office rumor stuff is going to get a lot more play than it normally would.
So clearly, someone wants to portray the Grizzlies' front office as chaotic and being ruled by fiat by some guy who most fans weren't even aware of. There are political points being scored in those tweets, no two ways about it. NBA reportage at that level—the "who can tweet out draft picks faster" level—is a dirty business. But the reason the tweets resonated with fans and caused a little bit of a mini-panic has nothing to do with Joe Abadi, and has everything to do with what's happening on the court, and the future of this roster as a unit. In whatever moves the Grizzlies undertake—and I firmly believe they'll be making more moves as the trade deadline approaches—fans want to see that there's thought being given to the next 2-5 years, rather than just doubling down again and bolstering a "Grid & Grind" era that's already halfway out the door. Then it won't matter what sort of front office power politics are being played through the NBA's newsbreakers, or even who's making the decisions. Just that they're sensible ones.
Whatever happens with the Grizzlies' starting lineup, none of it is going to matter if Mike Conley can't be better than he was on Sunday night. It's not all his fault, far from it, but the Grizzlies didn't score a basket in the final 2:53 of the game, and Conley took some of the worst shots I've seen from him in years. And then, on the last possession of the game, trailing by a point with the clock running out, Conley badly missed on a pass to Marc Gasol that he normally makes five times a game. He was out of whack Sunday night, and most of what the Grizzlies were able to do was in spite of him, not because of him.
That gets at one of the biggest issues with the Grizzlies this year: the lackluster play from Conley and Gasol. Gasol has had some big offensive nights but his defense hasn't been great, and Conley hasn't been right since the first game—speculation is that he's still mentally spooked by his face injury, and I'm sure that's true, but that (1) is still just speculation at this point and (2) doesn't explain away everything he's been doing badly this year—and while most of the conversation about moves the Grizzlies can make are centered around the fringes of the roster, nothing they do will matter much if the two guys needed to lead the team—Conley and Gasol—can get it together.
Regardless, the New Look Starting Lineup led the Grizzlies to a solid offensive performance, and when Randolph joined the action (he'd end up playing 26 minutes, only 4 fewer than his season average) he did so against the Miami second unit, where he was freer to do Z-Bo things, going 6 of 9 from the floor for 12 points. It was a move in the right direction that fell apart when Miami went even smaller in the 4th, rolling out a lineup featuring Justise Winslow and Luol Deng as the forwards with Bosh at center. From there on out, the Heat closed the gap, and the Grizzlies choked it away.
Outside of the negative reaction to the endgame, though, it was a positive game overall for the Grizzlies, in which they actually looked like they knew how to play basketball—which hasn't always been the case in the last two weeks, especially in the second and third quarters.
The other interesting thing that happened Sunday evening? Rookie Jarell Martin was active for the first time ever, still recovering from a foot injury he suffered during workouts while recovering from a different foot injury. He's been working out before games, and I had heard they were targeting a D-League Showcase return for Martin, but in a season where the young guys and their injuries and lack of minutes has been a concern, even seeing him in warmups instead of a suit is a step in the right direction. Maybe we'll see Martin on the court soon? Who knows. With Jordan Adams and Brandan Wright still completely unaccounted for, any news is good news.
He came off the bench for one game in 2012-13, against Boston. The Grizzlies won. Before that, he came off the bench behind Marreese Speights while he was still coming back from his MCL sprain in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.↩