Saturday night at FedExForum was a troubling and likely costly bump in what has otherwise been a strong regular-season finish for this year's Memphis Grizzlies. At 55 wins and counting heading into Wednesday's season finale against the Utah Jazz, the Grizzlies have enjoyed, by a decent margin, the best regular season in franchise history. But they've had the misfortune of doing so amidst a brutally tough Western Conference landscape, which makes the record both more impressive and less effective.
The Grizzlies — the only Western Conference team located east of the Mississippi River — would have been the second seed in the East, but with Saturday's home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the team will only be fifth in the West and, pending an unexpected development in the season's final two nights, will likely begin their postseason on the road.
That's disappointing, but according to many observers around the league, the Grizzlies never should have gotten even this far, not after trading Rudy Gay at midseason.
The Gay trade became something of a Rorschach test around the league. NBA traditionalists — invested in reputation, narrative, per-game stats, and highlights — were apoplectic and dismissive. The most notorious response came from ace Yahoo! Sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, who took a gratuitous shot at new executive John Hollinger, called new controlling owner Robert Pera a "freeloader" for whom "winning isn't a priority," and concluded that the team had intentionally "bailed" on a chance at a playoff run.
Others followed. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix wrote that Pera "now wears the black hat of an owner who prioritized profits over winning, a scarlet letter players won't soon forget." On broadcasts, former players such as Magic Johnson bemoaned the deal while describing an imaginary Rudy Gay.
Meanwhile, commentators attuned to statistical analysis and the league's complex salary rules were more sanguine, seeing Gay as a player making Lebron James money and getting touches and shots commensurate with that comparison, but actually performing as the team's fourth best player. And they deemed this a bad allocation of resources, especially in the context of a small-market franchise. In this quarter of the NBA cosmos, the deal was seen as a lateral short-term move that averted long-term disaster.
At first, the trade did seem to have the potential to derail the season, with the team and its coach in a funk for several days, but sometime between a road loss to Atlanta and a home win against Golden State, there was an attitude adjustment. Holding court outside the locker room before the Warriors game, head coach Lionel Hollins asserted that he had moved past his displeasure over the deal and expected his team to do so as well. The Grizzlies proceeded to win eight games in a row and 14 of their next 15.
The Grizzlies stood at 30-18 (a .625 winning percentage) at the moment of Hollins' "calming the waters" address. They've gone 25-8 (.758) since, pending the regular-season finale.
Rather than being shackled by the absence of Gay's one-on-one shot creation, as critics suspected, the team's offense has instead been freed. Despite a wildly anachronistic paucity of three-point shooting and the seemingly accelerating decline of leading scorer Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies offense has improved.
At the time of the trade, the team's offense was 22nd out of 30 NBA teams in scoring per possession — the most accurate measure of offense — and trending down. An ecstatic November had been revealed as a mirage, driven by unsustainable individual shooting performances, and in December and January the offense had collapsed.
But from the moment of Hollins' acquiescence, things began to turn around. With the new roster, the team has settled into a league-average offensive performance while holding ground as an elite defense.
There hasn't been much change in the kind of shots the team's taken since the roster shake-up — they still take roughly a third of their attempts from mid-range, they're still the league's least prolific three-point shooting team, etc. — but they have redistributed who's taking and creating those shots, with strongly positive results. And most notably, the fourth-quarter struggles against the Clippers notwithstanding, the team's improvement has been most dramatic in exactly the kinds of situations where critics assumed the team would miss Gay most.
With Gay, the Grizzlies had ranked 26th in "clutch" offense, per NBA.com. (Clutch defined as the final five minutes of a game or in overtime when the score is within five points.) Since then — and, admittedly, a sliver of game time taken from less than half a season is not a very reliable sample size — the team has ranked fifth in clutch scoring.
It's remarkable just how much the team's shifting style of play has reflected the styles of Gay and his replacement, veteran Tayshaun Prince.
Prince is not the stat generator Gay was, but the Grizzlies have happily sacrificed some individual shot creation, rebounds, blocks, and steals for surer ball handling, quicker and smarter ball movement, and more consistently attentive defense. The team doesn't feast off turnovers the way it once did but executes its offense better in the halfcourt and guards the three-point line better. And redistributing some of Gay's team-high touches to other players has helped Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and sixth-man Jerryd Bayless all bloom.
For various reasons — some connected to the mid-season deals and some not — this Grizzlies team seems better equipped for the playoffs than last year's model. The offense, while still problematic, is more functional. Gasol and Conley have improved. Tony Allen, whose knee was bothering him a year ago, seems at least a little healthier. Quincy Pondexter has become a more assertive three-point shooter since last spring. Prince won't force bad shots or lose track of shooters the way Gay did. Bayless has matched O.J. Mayo's scoring in the sixth-man role but with more solid ball handling. And there seems to be no way he won't improve on Mayo's disastrous postseason play. Off the bench, forwards Ed Davis and Darrell Arthur, while both inconsistent, are likely to give the team more than Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham did last season (which wasn't much).
And while Randolph's poor play down the stretch is a significant concern, he was limited last spring too. If his heroics from two years ago seem to be gone for good, he should at least be able to match his play from last season, when he had just come back from a serious knee injury.
If there are reasons for optimism, there are also signs of concern. The Clippers are, again, the probable opponent, and this time they are likely to have homecourt advantage. They've had a better season as well and enter the playoffs healthier after having their two best players — Chris Paul and Blake Griffin — banged up last spring. The Clippers have won three straight games at FedExForum and have beaten the Grizzlies in seven of 11 contests between the two teams since last April.
These two teams will enter the postseason with potentially the widest range possible of any teams in the NBA. Either could make a run to the NBA Finals with the right breaks, but if they face off in the first round, as expected, one will be going home early.
What would an early exit mean for the Grizzlies? The team's new ownership and front office — vindicated with the Gay deal — will face a decision this summer: Keep much of this core together for two more seasons (the amount of time veterans Randolph and Prince are still under contract) or embark on a more aggressive overhaul around the fulcrum of Conley and Gasol. What happens over the next couple of weeks could well determine which course to chart.
For a detailed breakdown of the Grizzlies' first-round playoff matchup and other coverage throughout the postseason, see "Beyond the Arc," Chris Herrington's Grizzlies blog, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.
Five specifics that could determine the Grizzlies' playoff fate.
1. A More Gluttonous Gasol: Two years ago, when the Grizzlies made their deep playoff run, Marc Gasol was Zach Randolph's sidekick. This time, the roles need to be reversed. But that requires a team-wide recognition: from the coaching staff, from Gasol's teammates, and, perhaps most of all, from the unselfish-to-a-fault Gasol himself. While Gasol's usage rate has shot up since Gay's departure, it still lags behind both Randolph and Jerryd Bayless. Gasol is the Grizzlies' best matchup advantage against the Clippers, the team's likely first-round opponent, where he averaged 17-9-4 on 54% shooting in the season series while still taking fewer shots than Randolph, who shot 37%. Last Saturday night, with homecourt likely on the line, Gasol led the team in points, rebounds, and assists — yet had only one field-goal attempt and zero assists in a stagnant 14-point fourth quarter. This should now be Gasol's team. It's time for him to claim it.
2. Z-Bo's Bully Ball: While it's unfair to expect Randolph to be the offensive force he was two springs ago, and unwise to funnel him the ball as if he is, the Grizzlies still need him to impose his physicality. While Randolph's shooting and scoring have declined, his elite rebounding has held steady. And his penchant for close-quarters combat doesn't seem to suit Clippers star forward Blake Griffin, who averaged only 14 points and seven rebounds on 44% shooting against the Grizzlies this season, well short of his All-Star averages. Griffin topped 20 points only twice in seven games against the Grizzlies last spring.
3. The Conley Correlation: All season long, the Grizzlies' fate has tended to align with Mike Conley's performance. And with Conley having a career-best season, that connection has worked in the Grizzlies' favor. But it could be a problem if the Clippers' matchup holds. A bulked-up Conley's big finish will get a stern postseason test from probably the best defensive point-guard tandem in the NBA: Chris Paul and rugged reserve Eric Bledsoe. The latter, in particular, has been Conley kryptonite, with the Grizzlies' lead guard shooting 30% in the season series with the Clippers but even worse when Bledsoe has been on the floor. In last year's postseason series, per NBA.com, Conley shot 25% when Bledsoe was in the game and 48% when he wasn't.
4. 3-D: The Grizzlies were an average team in terms of defending against three-point shooting before the Rudy Gay trade but have been the NBA's best in that department since. A more attentive Tayshaun Prince is less likely to surrender the kind of long-range barrage that helped the Clippers steal Game 1 last spring. Meanwhile, the Clippers struggle to defend the three. If Prince and reserve Quincy Pondexter (a combined 8-15 from three against the Clippers this season) find the range, this usual disadvantage could swing in the Grizzlies' direction.
5. The Thirsty Dog & 4th Quarter Chris: As frustrating as his offense can be at times, Tony Allen defends, in his own words, like "a thirsty dog," and that key weapon can't be underexploited. This will be particularly interesting in a Clippers rematch, where Clips star Paul tends to involve teammates early and look for his own offense late. In the final seven minutes Saturday night, Allen got the assignment and held Paul to only one basket (a difficult step-back jumper) and zero assists.
Five in the Spotlight
For a handful of Griz figures, postseason performance could impact their future with the team.
Lionel Hollins: Hollins is not under contract for next season — maybe you've heard — and management has insisted it would wait until the conclusion of the season to deal with this issue. Hollins' traditionalist approach and the new front office's more progressive bent made for a bumpy fit initially, and, for much of the season, Hollins' return seemed like an even-money proposition. It looks more likely now, but there's still a negotiation to be made, and how far Hollins can take this team can't help but impact his leverage. Could a first-round flameout — something worse than a mere series loss — cause the organization to second-guess Hollins' return? I took a deep dive into the coaching issue at "Beyond the Arc," the Flyer's Grizzlies blog, last week. You can find it at memphisflyer.com/blogs/beyondthearc.
Jerryd Bayless: Bayless has a player option next season for roughly $3 million. Early in the season, when he was struggling as a backup point guard, there seemed to be a good chance Bayless might take the option and return. But after the trades of Wayne Ellington and Rudy Gay opened up more minutes at scoring guard and more touches and shots generally, Bayless bloomed as a classic "sixth man," playing both guard spots, sometimes finishing games, and essentially equalling the production O.J. Mayo had given the team in a similar role. Now, it's looking more likely that Bayless will opt out. Because Bayless would have only played one year with the team, the Grizzlies would not have "Bird Rights" on him — meaning it could not exceed the salary cap to resign him without using the team's free-agency exception. Bayless has been erratic in his career, but a couple of big playoff games could raise his profile and value this summer. That's the catch for the Grizzlies: The better Bayless plays, the more likely he'll be to leave. But the Grizzlies would accept the risk of that trade-off.
Tony Allen: Could we really be seeing Tony Allen's final games as a Griz? It's possible. Allen will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and looking for a substantial raise over his current $3.3 million salary. The bet here is that the Grizzlies are willing to give him one, but exactly how much and — perhaps more crucially — for how long could be sticking points. A two-year deal for around the mid-level exception or just under (say, $5 million) makes the most sense for the Grizzlies, but a strong postseason performance could convince another suitor to offer something bigger or lengthier, which would force the team into a tough decision. Is there life after Grit and Grind?
Zach Randolph: Unlike Hollins, Bayless, and Allen, Randolph is under contract for next season, but he may still be — once the Hollins situation is resolved — the team's biggest question mark going into the summer. Randolph has two more years and more than $34 million on the books. (The final year is a player option but one he would be likely to take.) With Randolph's soft decline seeming to accelerate, the Grizzlies will no doubt be taking a long look at their options if Randolph struggles in the playoffs — or maybe even if he doesn't.
Ed Davis: Davis is an interesting case. He's under contract for $3.2 million next season but is eligible for an extension this summer. There's reason to believe the 23-year-old acquired in the Gay trade could be the starting power forward of the future, but the team hasn't done much to find out, with Davis topping 20 minutes in only nine games for the Griz after averaging 34 minutes a night in Toronto in the month before the deal. Davis is a limited scorer but grades out as a better defender than Randolph or Darrell Arthur, and in those nine games he averaged 10 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks (in only 25 minutes) on 61% shooting, and the team was 8-1, including 4-0 with Davis as a starter. And yet Davis played only eight minutes in two crucial games last weekend. How significantly he'll figure in the postseason is a mystery, as are the prospects for an extension this summer.