Even before Sunday night's spectacular blowout of the defending NBA champion Miami Heat moved the Grizzlies to 5-1 and cemented the best start in franchise history, the boys in Beale Street Blue were already showing signs of being a potentially elite team.
What was true before the opening tip on Sunday remained true when the final buzzer sounded: The Grizzlies were one of only two NBA teams — along with defending Western Conference champs and follow-up opponents the Oklahoma City Thunder — to rank among the league's 10 best in offense, defense, and rebounding.
The rebounding is not a mystery. The return of Zach Randolph, who currently leads the league at 14.5 boards a game, has taken care of that. Neither is the defense, which has been a constant since the Grizzlies put Tony Allen and Marc Gasol on the floor together two seasons ago.
But the offensive improvement — way up, from 20th to 9th, per possession — is a little more surprising, especially with each of the team's frontcourt stars — Randolph, Gasol, and leading scorer Rudy Gay — starting the season shooting below their career averages and with last season's top bench scorer, O.J. Mayo, enjoying a bit of a rebirth with the Dallas Mavericks. Rather than individual dominance, a lot of small team factors have conspired to make this year's Griz squad deeper, more dynamic, and more efficient on the offensive end of the floor.
The Grizzlies are playing faster, which head coach Lionel Hollins cited in the preseason and again before Sunday's game as a means of getting easier shots. But the Grizzlies are actually shooting slightly worse overall from the floor so far this season. That they're scoring better anyway is the result of adding more free throws and three-pointers to their offense.
Gay has been a major driver of the former. While his shooting has been off, he's been more aggressive than ever around the rim, leading to the best rebound and free-throw rates of his career. But the latter is largely a bench story, where the perimeter trio of Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, and Heat-game star Wayne Ellington have collectively more than made up for what the Grizzlies lost with Mayo's departure. After struggling with his shot in the preseason, Bayless has connected on a three-pointer in every regular-season game. Pondexter has built on his second-half last season by emerging as a solid spot-up option, especially from the corners. And Ellington, even before Sunday's career-high seven three-pointers, has — finally — been featuring his long-range shot more than he did in his pre-Griz career.
The team's current 39 percent three-point shooting (fifth in the NBA) is artificially inflated by an astounding team-wide shooting performance against the Heat and is likely a high-water mark, but this team was appreciably better from beyond the arc than the franchise's moribund recent norm even before Sunday and is likely to stay that way.
But as much focus as the bench play and the frontline gets, it has really been point guard Mike Conley who most embodies these changes and has been their catalyst.
Conley's percentages on three-pointers and free-throws are roughly the same as a year ago, but he's gotten more of each despite playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots overall. Through six games, Conley has all but abandoned his long-shaky mid-range game, either getting to the rim or, more often, staying behind the three-point arc. After taking 29 percent of his attempts from mid-range last season, Conley has cut that shot down to only 10 percent of his shot distribution so far this season, while three-pointers have risen from 23 percent of his attempts to 37 percent. With Conley also finishing more frequent attempts at the rim at an even higher percentage, his own true shooting percentage has taken a so far dramatic leap, from 52.3 percent to 62.5 percent. If he — and the team — can keep this up, he'll become more of a story.
If the Grizzlies are going to be a legitimate contender, they need a Top 10 offense to go with their more established defense and rebounding. Through six games, they've shown us — and themselves — the blueprint for how to get there. Now we'll find out if it's sustainable.
For more Grizzlies coverage throughout the season, see Chris Herrington's Grizzlies blog, Beyond the Arc, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.