With so much continuity from last season's 50-win team, it would seem to be an uneventful preseason for the Memphis Grizzlies. But there are still a few storylines to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks. A cheat sheet:
The New Guy: Most Grizzlies fans have probably never seen Brian Cardinal play. The 27-year-old forward played only 28 NBA games over three seasons (scoring a total 52 points) as a journeyman before finding a niche for the Golden State Warriors last season as one of the league's most effective role players. Cardinal's rep is basically "Bo Outlaw with a jump shot." He'll fit in with the hard-nosed style of the team's second unit but will also provide a needed scoring boost. His game is not pretty, but it is effective. As Hubie Brown said at Sunday's open practice after a fan heckled Cardinal's floor-bound style: "When you're Brian Cardinal and you shoot 48 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three and 86 percent from the free-throw line, you don't have to dunk."
Backcourt Battles: The Grizzlies' draft-day déjà vu sets up the preseason's most direct battles for playing time with second-year guards Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones competing with rookies Antonio Burks and Andre Emmett. Admittedly, none of these four players is likely to be in the 10-man rotation on opening day. On the other hand, with 17 players competing for 15 spots, there's a decent chance at least one of these four players won't be here at all.
So far, swingmen Jones and Emmett are ahead of point guards Bell and Burks. Both Bell and Burks have had injuries that have forced them to miss time in either the summer league or training camp. Bell shot the ball great in drills at Sunday's open practice but struggled running the team in scrimmages. Burks has sat out all of camp so far with a hip injury. It tends to take point guards longer to settle in than players at other positions, but right now the notion that either player would be ready to step into the rotation if injuries or a trade opened up a spot seems sketchy at best.
At the other position, the Jones-vs.-Emmett battle is a study in contrasts. Jones established himself as a big-time athlete as a rookie but still struggled out on the court. His poor jump shot seems to have improved over the offseason. Emmett, on the other hand, seems to be an ordinary athlete, at best, by NBA standards but has a knack for making plays. He starred during Sunday's scrimmage, leading the "white" team to victory. In two quarters of action, Emmett showcased his ability to move without the ball. He picked up steals and converted in transition. He got to the foul line. He found creases in the defense and scored with mid-range jumpers and floaters. As Brown crowed to the audience: "You're gonna like this kid. He's got a lot of stuff."
Manning the Middle: The Grizzlies head into this preseason with the same trio of contenders for the center position as last season. But there is a difference. Last year, the team first paired Stromile Swift with Pau Gasol, then went with Jake Tsakalidis before finally settling on steady Lorenzen Wright. This year, Wright will start with the job, but it seems 50-50, at best, that he ends up there opening night. Swift is still the most talented of the bunch, but don't count out Tsakalidis. The only true center on the roster, Big Jake signed a three-year deal over the offseason and has reported to camp in much better shape than last season. In Sunday's practice, he had better lift off the floor than last season and was shooting the mid-range shot with confidence. With Cardinal seemingly entrenched behind Gasol, these three players are competing for two spots in the rotation.
The Magic Number: The Grizzlies have 17 players in camp right now, all under contract, but they have to cut the roster down to 15 by the regular season. It would be a shame to outright waive players with actual NBA value, so a minor trade à la last season's deal that brought Tsakalidis and Bo Outlaw is a decent bet. If not, and the team is forced to make cuts, there are only a few players who might figure in.
Third-year forward Ryan Humphrey, injured in camp and with little hope of playing time, is the obvious choice, especially because he only has one year remaining on a small-by-NBA-standards contract. The other cut would probably come among the four guards discussed above, with one of the point guards most likely to go. If Antonio Burks weren't a University of Memphis grad and a publicity coup, he'd be the best bet. A year overseas or in the developmental league might be best for him and the team. It could also be Bell. It would be surprising to see the team cut a mid-first-round draft pick after only one year, but the Grizzlies have to get down to 15 players one way or another. •
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