by Kevin Lipe
Last night’s game (“game”) against the Oklahoma City Thunder was probably a done deal when Mike Conley was ruled out with an Achilles issue and Kevin Durant was cleared to play, but the Grizzlies sure helped that along by playing like it. With Conley out, coach Dave Joerger opted to start a lineup without a point guard (well, unless you consider Courtney Lee a point guard) and save Mario Chalmers for the second unit, and honestly, even though the Grizzlies weren’t really out of it until much later, you could tell right off the bat, even just from Marc Gasol’s body language, that it wasn’t happening.
I’m not even sure what else to say about last night from a basketball standpoint. Chalmers, though he didn’t actually start, ended up playing 40 minutes and scoring 23 points on 8 of 19 shooting, a standout performance on a night when nobody else was really having them. Nothing else really worked for the Grizzlies, who found themselves right back in the position of defending a team they couldn’t defend (Russell Westbrook was in rare form last night, with some drives to the basket that I don’t think the Griz would’ve stopped at full strength).
In the end, the Grizzlies managed to get the Thunder lead back under 20, but it never got any closer than “under 20,” and the game was even more lopsided than its 18-point margin would suggest. In other words, par for the course against the best teams in the league this year.
★ Jeff Green went 3–12 from the field. Marc Gasol went 2–11 from the field, when he could be bothered to shoot the ball instead of passing into a worse play. Z-Bo went 5–13, hounded by Oklahoma City’s interior defense (well, Steven Adams and Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, anyway) the same way he always is. Mike Conley was 0–0 because he wasn’t playing. Tony Allen played some solid defense, hit a few shots, and generally Did Tony Things, but those things are always difference-makers in a close game, not the thing that guarantees a Griz win from the word go.
★ I’m not sure how many seasons in a row this is where Mike Conley starts picking up little nagging injuries after the New Year that will probably follow him all season long, but it feels like several. At 29, maybe—and I might be run out of town for saying this—the Grizzlies should take that into consideration during his contract negotiations this summer. He’s a great player. He’s tough as nails. But playing hurt all the time puts him at a disadvantage.
★ The offense is terrible lately, and trying to run it without a point guard when Mario Chalmers is on the team seemed like a particularly weird decision. As I already said, Chalmers played almost 40 minutes, so that experiment was quickly abandoned, but still—by the time he entered the game the damage was done, and the Grizzlies, who have quit on more games this season than they have in the last five, already looked like they’d decided they couldn’t win. (Which, in truth, was probably accurate.)
★ I don’t even know what else to say about the actual game. I checked out pretty early, as did most of the starters.
This about summed up last night’s proceedings, except for when I was accused of picking on white NBA players because I pointed out that the Thunder’s Kyle Singler—one of the worst players in the league getting regular minutes by any statistical measure, with a 2.1 PER on the season—also had a hair cut in the style of a late 90’s school shooter (yes, that was a real thing that happened):
Sometimes the Griz stand around on offense & end up clanking a bad shot. Other times the Griz run a good set & end up clanking an open shot.— Chase Lucas (@deepfriedcouch) January 7, 2016
No one won on Twitter last night. Last night’s game had me reading the Wikipedia article about Marat/Sade looking for good jokes. I couldn’t come up with one.
In games like this, I’m not sure where the blame falls. Clearly the Grizzlies aren’t great this season, and last night they were dealt a worse hand by Conley’s injury situation. But… this can’t be all the players’ fault, can it?
What I mean is this: there’s obviously—very obviously—some kind of motivation issue against the better teams of the league. The Grizzlies, collectively, know they’re limited offensively, and since Christmas, they’ve been even more so. When they get down double-digits to a team they know can score a lot, the defense falls off a cliff. At one point this year the Grizzlies’ opponents started shooting 50% from 3-point range once the Grizzlies were down 15 or more. That’s a clear indication that the effort just isn’t there once they get down big.
My point is this: who can blame them? Sure, they might pull off one or two comebacks and be one or two more games above .500, but for the most part, they really just can’t hang with the league’s top tier of teams right now. But they could, with almost exactly the same personnel, towards the end of last season and into the playoffs.
This is all a downward spiral—interrupted by a couple glorious weeks where it looked like they might actually be able to take out the Warriors based on sheer determination—that started in this game against the Thunder right before last year’s All-Star Break. Things have never been the same since. Are these guys ever going to reach a point where they’re playing on the same page again?
And what about the coach? I think everyone agrees that Dave Joerger is a good basketball coach, but when his team switches from one of the best in the league to a .500 group after a trade, and then continues the downward trend into the next season, there’s no way he’s blameless in this. He’s clearly got guys he likes and guys he doesn’t—the old Lionel Hollins effect—but isn’t what makes a great coach the ability to adapt what the team is doing to the players available, and the ability to be the kind of coach that a certain group of guys needs? Is it Joerger’s fault that these guys give up? I don’t think so. But eventually the fact that they’re not playing together is his fault. He’s the guy in charge of the X’s and O’s. If things aren’t connecting, eventually that’s his problem, no matter how much he complains about the roster he’s been given.
And that’s really what I mean: for a guy who has said time and again to the media that other teams are better and that the Grizzlies’ roster and injuries are the source of their problems—which is 100% true, at least on some level—are the decisions he’s made maximizing what the Grizzlies can do with this group of players?
And finally, obviously injuries have hampered the Grizzlies ever since Brandan Wright started missing games after playing only 100 minutes. But that’s two or three guys, two of whom are still rookies who basically haven’t played at all—Jordan Adams and Jarell Martin. They take up roster spots, so they limit some of the moves that can be made, but who thought this was decent wing rotation? What’s the plan moving forward? Has Robert Pera even watched a Grizzlies game this year? Because he sure hasn’t been seen at one in a long time. Who is making these decisions, about which direction the team is headed? What are they thinking? Is there a plan in place? If the coach hates the roster and the players on the roster don’t think they’re good enough, clearly something has to change. The radio silence from the Grizzlies—other than counteracting the fallout whenever Marc Stein tweets out rumors that paint an inaccurate picture of the inner workings of the organization—is understandable, but it doesn’t engender a sense of trust that the leadership in place knows where they’re going with this thing.
And for a solid 12 months now, this group of Grizzlies has been in some form of decline. They’re 35–32 since that OKC game, not counting playoff games. Barely above .500. And in that stretch they’ve had some bad losses to good teams, some slight losses to bad teams, and no real wins over great teams outside of the second round of last year’s playoffs. And… At some level, everyone involved is to blame. Players, coaches, front office. They’ve gotten the Grizzlies into this mess. Now they’ve got to get the Grizzlies out, and at least make it out of this season with some assets and flexibility to move forward. If the plan really is to build a new core around Conley and Gasol, they’ve got a lot of expiring deals to get rid of. If the plan is to “blow it up” and trade everyone on the roster for whatever they can get, I guess that’s fine, too, but that’s probably not the right path to take. If the plan is to hunker down and make it work with the group of players on the team now, that’s been a bad plan at least as long as the Grizzlies have been playing .500 ball. It’s time for the Grizzlies—on the court, and in the offices—to start demonstrating that they have some idea what’s happening to them.
Unless they just enjoy watching occasional blowout losses to the top five or six teams in the league. Those are a given at this point.