Here’s the good news for the Memphis Grizzlies: They just had their best season ever, both in terms of regular-season success (they won a franchise-high 56 games) and playoff success (they reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time). Also they have quite possibly the best center in the game in Marc Gasol, an emerging star in Mike Conley and a power forward no one in the right mind would ever want to mess with in Zach Randolph. All in all, not bad.
The problem is, in spite of all this, the Grizzlies will be still be fighting for respect next season. We’re only four days from the conclusion of 2012-13 season and we haven’t even had the draft yet, but that won’t stop our short-attention-span universe from making predictions about the following year. And for most people, the Grizzlies will be seen as the odd team out in the West. Everyone’s favorite team in the West will likely be the Oklahoma City Thunder. After all, they reached the Finals in 2012 and many suspect they would have done it again this season if not for Russell Westbrook‘s season-ending injury. The Grizzlies second-round defeat of the Thunder will likely not be taken seriously, written off as nothing more than a consequence of Westbrook’s injury. We’ll never know what the Grizzlies would have done if Westbrook had been playing, but their sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Finals makes it hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Also contributing to the doubt cast upon the Grizzlies is the departure of head coach Lionel Hollins. The decision to not offer him a new contract came as a shock to many since Hollins has been the most successful coach in Grizzlies history, as well as the only one to win a playoff game. Hollins built the team’s identity as a tough, defensive-minded team who forces every team to give their all. It’s not that the grizzlies couldn’t retain these qualities under the next coach; it’s just that seeing another guy on the bench will make people wonder if they’re watching the same team. Hiring a well-respected coach like George Karl would largely mitigate this, but if an assistant with no head-coaching experience is on the bench, you can bet there will be skepticism about his ability to match Hollins’ output.
So we’ve established that the Grizzlies will have their doubters going into next season, but is it justified? Are the Grizzlies still the same juggernaut they were last year or are they about to come crashing down to earth? It will largely depend on the performances of their best players. Mike Conley established himself as a key scoring threat in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. After years of being largely deferential, Conley began asserting himself more in the second half of the year, as well as in the playoffs. If he keeps that up and plays at the level of a top-10 point guard, the Grizzlies should be in decent shape. There’s also the matter of Zach Randolph, who is entering his 13th year in the league and will be turning 32 in January. Z-Bo played well last year, but his numbers were down from his peak years, giving the impression that he might be past his prime.
The Grizzlies don’t need Randolph to average 20 points per game again, but if his numbers take another nosedive, they may be in trouble, especially if he dips too far down to be attractive in a trade. For the Grizzlies to have a realistic shot at another Conference Finals trip, they’re gong to need a lot from Z-Bo. If you take a look at Z-Bo’s per 36 minute averages, however, the last two years are roughly identical and would suggest that he’s not going to be the player he was during his best years.
The Grizzlies have proven a lot and now they’re going to have to prove it again. If they get a new coach who understands how the team works and Conley and Randolph live up the expectations placed on them, this could be another scary team. If the team loses its identity and the biggest stars struggle to come through, it could be a very long season.