A Visit from the Goon Squad: Two Games with the New-Look Grizzlies

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LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

At the trade deadline, the Grizzlies made a bet that they could move players on expiring contracts who were unlikely to be re-signed this summer—namely Courtney Lee and Jeff Green—in exchange for draft picks and other players on expiring deals and still make the postseason, even without an injured Marc Gasol. In doing so, they assembled a team with even more castoffs from other franchises, even more guys with a reputation for being tough while also being a little bit nuts, and upgraded themselves from "The Island of Misfit Toys" to something you'd expect to run into on a stoop about halfway through The Warriors.

They've only played two games so far with this new lineup, featuring a returned-from-injury Brandan Wright and the newly-acquired Lance Stephenson, PJ Hairston, and Chris "Birdman" Andersen. It's too early to make any sort of judgment about how successful these moves will be (in the short term, anyway—long term the collection of one first and four second round picks for no additional salary beyond this season is an unqualified success), but here are some early observations about this group, followed by a little bit of premature prognostication:

The Good

★ Lance Stephenson's shot creation, for better or for worse, could be a big boost to the Grizzlies if he can figure out how to function in these personnel groups. He's got every incentive to play at the highest level he knows how—if he doesn't, he might end up playing in China next year—and though he's had a couple of bad seasons, he was well-liked in LA and put up great numbers for the Pacers before that team self-destructed. Tapping Lance's offensive capabilities could go a long way towards helping the Grizzlies find some scoring punch the rest of the season, which they'll need without Lee and Green, two players whose benefits were mostly on offense (though Lee is also a very tough defender).

★ The new guys have already increased the Grizzlies' defensive effort on the perimeter. Stephenson and Hairston are both known to be active on that end, and though Hairston has struggled, he's had good stretches of play on defense so far. Jeff Green was always better guarding smaller guys than guarding other players at his position, so replacing him with guys who can defend out on the perimeter was a good move to shore up a defense with a long reputation for toughness.

★ The new players and the absence of Gasol force the Grizzlies to play smaller, which means they're using more of Conley and Chalmers together, and I think that's a really dangerous offensive lineup. Joerger has always seemed to do well with two-PG lineups, starting with the legendary ("legendary") Conley/Calathes duo a couple years ago, and Chalmers is far and away the best second PG the Grizzlies have had to put next to Conley in recent memory.

The Bad

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

★ PJ Hairston is clearly pretty lost on the floor, to the point that Joerger is (rightfully) hesitant to play him for more than a few minutes at a time. The problem there—given Joerger's reluctance to play mistake-prone young players, especially in situations like this one where the Grizzlies need every possible win if they're going to make the playoffs—is that without minutes, Hairston will probably never find his way. If he continues to play poorly, and gets his minutes cut as a result, that means he'll probably just end up being dead weight on the roster, especially if/when Jordan Adams returns from injury.

★ Brandan Wright missed a lot of time with his knee injury, and before that, he only played about 100 regular season minutes as a Grizzly. So not only has he not had a lot of on-court time with his teammates, he's been out of action long enough that his timing—especially on jumps for rebounds and putbacks—and his stamina are out of whack. That will come with time, of course, and it's not a permanent thing, but it is an issue that's worth monitoring in the short term.

★ The Grizzlies' interior defense is a bit of a train wreck at the moment. This isn't a surprise, since Gasol has long been the anchor of the Grizzlies' defense, even in this, the worst overall season of his career. But the fact that it's not a surprising problem doesn't mean it's a not a problem. Last night against Toronto, the Raptors were able to get to the rim at will

The Ugly

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

★ Tony Allen suffered a knee injury in the Grizzlies' win over Minnesota on Friday night. With Gasol already out, an Allen injury doesn't bode well for the Griz over the long haul. They were fine to beat the Wolves based pretty much totally on energy and effort, but against a much better team like the Raptors the limitations of the current Gasol- and Allen-less roster shone through pretty clearly. Some of that will change as guys get more time playing together, but Allen's absence also shortens the rotation by one more player.

★ The ugliest thing is the Grizzlies' schedule the rest of the way. They've got a stretch of very winnable games for the next two weeks, and then names like "Cavaliers" and "Celtics" and "Spurs" start popping up, and they don't go away, until finally the regular season ends with two games against the Warriors with a road game against the Clippers in the middle. It's not going to be pretty, especially for a team that already hasn't beaten an "elite" team this year, and now lacks their best player and has three new rotation pieces.

The Prognosis

Even with all of this stuff in play, I still think the Grizzlies make the playoffs. In the weakened Western Conference and with a 4.5 game lead on the 8th-place Rockets, I figure they need to get to 43 wins to make it (which means 11 more wins this season). That's reasonable, if optimistic, even with the difficult schedule remaining.

The question is, of course, whether things go south in the locker room, given that this year's Grizzlies was already a pretty intense group that has now added several more intense personalities. I don't see issues coming, but at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised. You can only press your luck by adding crazies for so long before one of them finally blows up in your face, and if it's going to happen, it's going to happen with this group of players once they're playing great teams on a nightly basis at the end of the year.

That's one possible outcome, but I still think it's more likely that they hang on by the skin of their teeth and make the playoffs as a 7 or 8 seed.

The Grizzlies were reported nationally to be tanking the season in order to collect draft picks when they traded Lee and Green. I disagree with that assessment—they players they got back, though flawed, are all going to be rotation players from here on out, especially if Allen's knee causes him to miss a lot of time. There's an elevated risk that the Grizzlies' long-running chemistry experiment goes horribly wrong, the basketball equivalent of DeLillo's Airborne Toxic Event, but this is the risk taken to get those draft picks. And besides, even if that's how it goes down, all of the guys acquired at the deadline are gone at the end of the year anyway. We'll see whether they can patch up some of these early issues, get used to playing together, and bully their way into the playoffs, or if the foundation was eroded just enough to make the Grizzlies' house fall in on itself this season.


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