A week ago, it looked like the Grizzlies' season was headed into the dumpster. The offense looked terrible, the defense looked terrible, and the team's three most important players — Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph — looked out of shape and out of motivation. The bench units couldn't play defense, Brandan Wright looked lost, and Dave Joerger looked like a man who was quickly headed for the NBA unemployment office.
Playing the Clippers, their most hated rival, with a determination not to get embarrassed seemed to rekindle the old Grit 'n Grind ways, and now this team looks familiar to Grizz fans as the team they've come to know and love.
The problem with that, of course, is that the Grizz team fans know and love has some serious limitations — limitations we've been talking about in these pages since their first brush with playoff success five years ago — and the rest of the league is only getting better at exploiting them. The offense is still an issue, most obviously with perimeter scoring to space the floor. The trade of Beno Udrih to Miami for Mario Chalmers immediately improves the backup point guard position, especially defensively, but with Brandan Wright missing an undetermined number of games due to a lingering knee issue, the second unit is still undefined.
Jeff Green continues to get minutes with the starters, even though he's shown all season that he plays better with the second unit. His 21 points against Minnesota on Sunday only served as further proof of his ability to contribute when he has room to improvise, away from the clogged-up floor of the starting unit.
Most seriously for the Grizzlies, and hardest to fix, are the offensive issues with the starters. It's no secret that Tony Allen can't shoot, but teams have finally started to force the Grizzlies to use Allen as a scorer, and while he's still contributing this year, he's posting a negative net rating (which is, while Allen is on the floor, the number of points scored per 100 possessions minus the number of opponent points scored per 100 possessions). For a player so integral to the Grizzlies' defense for the past few years, the fact that he's a net negative on the floor so far should be concerning.
The bad news is that's not really what was to blame for the Grizzlies' slow start. For one thing, Gasol was told to take the summer off, and apparently took it way off. He's clearly out of shape, has trouble moving the way he wants to, appears mostly disengaged from what's going on on the floor (even in his 31-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers). Conley hasn't looked much better until recently, finally starting to turn the corner against Portland and Minnesota, two teams not exactly known for being able to defend point guards with any sort of skill. Randolph has struggled to guard stretch fours (which isn't a new development, but there are more 3-point shooting forwards now) and has looked slow and tired on offense from being worn out on defense.
When those three guys don't look right, nothing looks right.
There are signs that things are improving. After a brutal West Coast road trip, the Grizz have several games at home, and while they're divisional games against tough teams, the way they're playing now, they at least have a shot to win them, whereas the 50-point-blowout Grizzlies of the first week of the season would only be looking at digging themselves a deeper hole.
I think this year is going to be a bit of a slog. The Grizzlies are crowded at several positions — especially in the wing rotation — and should be looking to make more moves to get playing time for Jordan Adams, who should be returning from injury before too much longer. The Grizzlies are in "reload" mode this year, in a Western Conference that is heavy at the top but a little light in the middle, and the bar to make the playoffs is probably a couple of games lower than it was last year — 43 to 45 wins, instead of 48 to 50. While it is encouraging that they're starting to play like "themselves" again, the simple truth is that "themselves" needs improvement to contend for an NBA title.
The trade deadline is in February. I would expect the Grizzlies to be active between now and then — both in small ways, like the Udrih-for-Chalmers flip we saw last week, and in big ways, maybe ways bigger than fans will be comfortable with. They can't afford to continue to "Grit 'n Grind" past the point at which it's relevant, even if that point isn't here yet. And while they've certainly improved in the last week, the endpoint of that evolution is still a ways away.