The most anticipated season in franchise history — as we called this Grizzlies campaign in our season preview — did not get off to a good start. First, before a single game was played, the Grizzlies lost their best reserve from a year ago, forward Darrell Arthur, to a season-ending Achilles injury. Then, four games in and already heading toward a 1-3 start, the big blow: the team's best player last season, Zach Randolph, felled by a knee injury that promised to cost him two months, at least.
Many hoped for mere survival at that point. Try not to fall out of the playoff race completely and hope Randolph would return in time to rescue the season. But fans have happily gotten something more, as the Grizzlies begin the second half at 19-15 — 18-12 since Randolph's injury — and find themselves in 7th place in a tight Western Conference playoff race. (Only two games out of a top-four seed — and, thus, home-court advantage in the first round — but also only two games out of 10th.)
Resiliency is becoming mundane in Griz country: The team went 15-8 last season after Rudy Gay's injury, before all but throwing the final two games for playoff positioning by sitting key players. They also went 8-2 last season during O.J. Mayo's 10-game suspension. The lesson to draw from all of this: This is a good team with plenty of good players. They're talented enough and — at the demand of hard-nosed coach Lionel Hollins — play hard enough to overcome missing key players.
With Randolph likely back in the lineup within the next week, the Grizzlies are poised for a strong finish. But beyond their record, they've impressed in the season's first half by maintaining much of their effectiveness and style of play despite the loss of key players.
Like last season, the Grizzlies have sported an aggressive, high-level defense that forces lots of turnovers and a middling offense that's strong in the paint but weak beyond the arc.
Much of the focus early this season has been on the return of small forward Rudy Gay from last spring's season-ending shoulder surgery. And while some fans are disappointed that Gay hasn't been more dynamic in the absence of Randolph, he probably deserves a little more credit for maintaining his career norms while coming off his first major injury and a long layoff and into a lockout-compressed season — in the context of which scoring and shooting are down league-wide.
While Gay's 18.9 points per game is 15th in the league and he found consistency in February after a couple of noticeably bad games in January, it wasn't until the last couple of weeks that Gay started to show the kind of all-around play that marked his game at the time of last season's injury. In his last five games before the break, Gay's averages on rebounds, assists, blocks, and free-throw attempts were all significantly above his season averages. Is this increased activity a blip or a trend? The answer will have a lot to say about how good the Grizzlies can be going forward.
But while Gay has been under the microscope, perhaps more key to the Grizzlies' ability to stay afloat in the face of injuries have been the performances of first-time All-Star Marc Gasol and returning icon Tony Allen.
Gasol, abetted by a sharp decline in his foul rate and seemingly better conditioning, has been able to increase his minutes (from 31.9 last season to 38.1) without a decline in quality. While he's not quite the physical monster that fellow All-Star centers Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum are, Gasol's joined them as the only members of the 10 rebound/2 block club at the season's mid-point while showcasing a more developed all-around game — acting as a secondary playmaker, making more liberal use of his excellent mid-range touch, playing team defense like a bigger Shane Battier.
Now established in the starting lineup, Allen's minutes have also gone up (from 20.8 to 26.3), and fans should be very pleased with what they've seen from Allen. His breakout season a year ago, at age 29, had all the makings of a classic "fluke rule" season, with regression to the mean likely. But Allen has retained most of what made him an impact player in his first season with the team.
Together, Gasol and Allen have been the inside/outside anchors for a near-elite defense, one whose 10th overall ranking in defensive efficiency might sell them short given that the team's first-half schedule was heavy with games against elite offenses.
With Allen as catalyst, the Grizzlies again lead the NBA in both steals and opponent turnovers, and the starting perimeter trio of Allen, Gay, and Mike Conley has proven to be unusually deadly in this regard. The trio is first (Conley), sixth (Allen), and 11th (Gay) in steals per game, with Allen once again boasting the league's best per-minute rate among players averaging at least 20 minutes.
Despite struggling with his three-point shot so far this season, Conley has been steady again after several years of inconsistency to start his career. And as the only point guard in the NBA at the All-Star break with more steals than turnovers, he embodies the Grizzlies' rare combination of aggressive defense and controlled offense.
While the team's defense has maintained last season's excellence, the offense has understandably slipped, from 16th last season to 21st at the break. The good news is that this decline can be attributed almost entirely to the loss of Randolph and Arthur — although a contributing factor is the self-inflicted wound at back-up point guard, where the team foolishly jettisoned second-year playmaker Greivis Vasquez before knowing if rookies Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby were truly NBA-ready. (So far, they aren't.)
The Grizzlies have remained an elite offensive rebounding team (up from 6th to 4th) despite the loss of Randolph, getting improved offensive board work from Allen and Gay while newcomer Dante Cunningham has, perhaps surprisingly, outperformed Arthur on the offensive glass. And they're once again the league's least-prolific three-point shooting team (an area that's arguably been underemphasized despite a paucity of reliable long-range threats).
The difference this season is that the team's paint-oriented attack has shifted slightly but meaningfully toward mid-range shooting, with the exchange of Randolph (who took 24 percent of his attempts from mid-range last season) for Marreese Speights (43 percent of his attempts from mid-range this season) as the primary reason.
Speights, acquired for the little-used and oft-injured Xavier Henry, and Cunningham, signed as a free agent to a lower-level multi-year contract, were great finds given the team's dire front-court needs. Speights has been a good-not-great rebounder and viable scoring threat while responding well to the on-court tutelage of post partner Gasol. Cunningham's mid-range shooting has been a disappointment so far, but he's ably replaced Arthur's energy, defensive coverage, and transition play. But the return of Randolph — assuming he's anywhere close to his old self — and the shift of Speights to a reserve role should have a significant impact on the team's offense while only helping a defense that was terrific last season with Randolph as a neutral factor. (The Grizzlies have been significantly better defensively without Speights on the floor this season.)
Reinserting Randolph into a lineup winning without him will require some adjustment, but it should be minor. Randolph's replacement, Speights, plays a roughly similar game and shoots the ball nearly as often as Randolph relative to his playing time, so the Grizzlies haven't really altered the way they play all that much. Gasol is likely to see fewer low-post touches, but he's proven that he can help the offense in a variety of ways and isn't concerned about his own shots. And the constant question about "whether Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay can play together" is a silly one given that the duo has played more than a hundred games together and the team has been successful as long as Gasol wasn't injured or Allen wasn't getting DNPs behind multiple marginal pros.
Add it up, and there's plenty of reason for excitement heading into a two-month sprint toward the playoffs. If Randolph can make a successful return from injury — and signs are good — this team has the potential to again be a dark-horse contender in a loaded Western Conference. And perhaps from a higher seed this time.
For more Grizzlies coverage, including expanded mid-season player breakdowns this week, see Chris Herrington's "Beyond the Arc" blog at memphisflyer.com.