May 1, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 104-84. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Have We Seen The Best Of The Memphis Grizzlies?

May 1, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 104-84. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

After beating the 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round and pushing Kevin Durant and company to seven games in the conference semifinals of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the league fell in love with the Memphis Grizzlies and their “grit and grind” style of play. It was the first time the Grizzlies franchise had ever made it past the first round or even won a playoff game. The next year they faced Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers in an epic seven-game series in the first round and lost, but in the 2013 NBA Playoffs the Grizzlies managed to exact their revenge, beating the Clips in six games and advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Spurs. When the 2013-14 season came along, we weren’t surprised by how good the Grizzlies were. Everyone around the NBA knew that they were for real and here to stay.

But are they really that good? When they made the conference finals, Blake Griffin was suffering from a sprained ankle and only played 14 minutes in the final game of Memphis’ first round match up against the Clippers. In the second round, the Oklahoma City Thunder had just lost Russell Westbrook and looked like they hadn’t gotten over it. And when the Grizzlies finally made it to the conference finals and met a healthy opponent, they got swept.

The Spurs defended them brilliantly and completely took Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen out of the series. They basically didn’t care if either of them were open, packed the paint and made life tough for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The knee-jerk reaction was: “Oh wow, they can’t space the floor at all. The Spurs showed everyone how easy it is to guard them,” a view was reinforced when they re-signed Allen to a reported four-year $20 million deal.

Memphis decided against extending head coach Lionel Hollins‘ contract, despite the team coming off of their best year in franchise history. The Grizzlies new Vice President of Basketball Operations was ESPN’s “stat-guru” John Hollinger, and Hollins had made some remarks in a radio interview criticizing analytics and statistically minded thinking. Obviously this spawned more than a few anti-analytics articles on the interwebs, leading to ridiculous caricatures about what a “stat guy” is and what a “basketball person” is. None of it was particularly insightful or accurate, but the perception became that there was a divide between the front office and the coaching staff, and that Memphis with all of its analytics was not in a good place.

Apr 26, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger reacts to a call during game four of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedExForum. Thunder defeated the Grizzlies 92-89. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time assistant coach Dave Joerger was hired as head coach, and he immediately tried to make the Grizzlies increase their pace and instituted a more motion-based offense for the team. The players had a tough time adapting to the sudden change and the season didn’t start off particularly well. On Nov. 22 Gasol went down with an MCL injury and the Grizzlies started plummeting. By mid-January they were 15-19 and losing ground in the playoffs race. Funnily enough, Hollinger’s own odds on ESPN only gave the Grizzlies a 0.2 percent chance of making the playoffs at that point.

Then it all started turning around. The Grizzlies traded the struggling Jerryd Bayless for Courtney Lee and Gasol returned to the lineup, helping Memphis finish the season on a tear to end up with the seventh seed and 50 wins despite the harsh start. Over the last 52 games, they went a combined 37-15 for a winning percentage of .711, which would have ranked third in the entire league behind the Spurs and the Thunder over a full season. They got back to their ways on defense and adjusted the offense to make it easier. The Grizzlies were back, better than ever.

For the first time, the Grizzlies had enough shooting on the floor in Mike Miller and Lee to keep defenses honest, as one of them was almost always on the floor to make up for the lack of shooting of Allen and Prince. The offense was better, more creative and balanced, and had more movement than ever before. They were by no means an offensive powerhouse, but an average offense mixed with a great defense usually means you are at least a fringe title contender. The script had officially flipped and people went from wanting Dave Joerger’s head to realizing he had done a darn good job.

Memphis took Oklahoma City to the brink of elimination in the first round, and who knows what would’ve happened if Randolph hadn’t been suspended and Conley wasn’t injured in Game 7? Despite losing in the first round, there’s no doubt that this Grizzlies team was one of the absolute heavyweights in the league.

Looking Towards the Future

The Grizzlies are a great team, and can probably be considered at least a fringe contender next season. Going from that to being one of the frontrunners in the title race next year is what they are aiming for, but of course, that’s easier said than done. They are pretty close to being capped out, and don’t have any obviously juicy trade assets unless they are willing to part with a pick, something you have to be really careful about if you’re a small market team that doesn’t have a pension of attracting free agents. The league is currently hoarding and probably overvaluing late first round picks, so they might be able extract value from another team, perhaps flipping the last year of Prince’s contract plus a first rounder for a solid contributor . It’s really difficult to see major improvement coming from within unless Ed Davis makes an unlikely leap, and that’s assuming he isn’t gone during the summer.

Memphis has four unrestricted free agents this summer: Mike Miller, Beno Udrih, James Johnson and Zach Randolph (assuming he declines his player option, which he probably will), and one restricted free agent in Ed Davis. Miller and Randolph have already indicated that they would like to return, and with James Johnson’s great success the Grizzlies would surely like to keep him. Beno Udrih will be relegated back to being a third string point guard once Nick Calathes comes back, and retaining him should be cheap enough if Memphis decided they want to do so. If Randolph does re-sign, they will probably be squeezed out of the Ed Davis hunt as his next salary is likely going to be too much for the Grizzlies to swallow.

Both Miller and Randolph are interesting cases to bring back, as Miller is already 34 and Randolph will turn 33 before the start of next season. How much do either of them have left in the tank? And is it really a safe assumption that Miller can play another full year without getting hurt? This was his first time in the past five seasons that he managed to play over 75 percent of the schedule. Z-Bo has never been a great athlete, which can be viewed in two different ways:

1. His game will age well because he doesn’t rely on athletic ability.

2. He is an inch away from not being athletic enough to do all the things we expect Randolph to do.

Apr 29, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) shoots the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) defends during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to say which one of these is the case, but if the Grizzlies decide to extend him for another 3+ years, they are running a major risk of horrible regression from Z-Bo, and perhaps Memphis will look to make a deal that is only partially guaranteed in the third year.

The Grizzlies have a bit of a logjam at shooting guard with Lee, Allen, Jamaal Franklin and Quincy Pondexter. Franklin didn’t play much in his rookie season, while Pondexter was out with a stress fracture for a whole year and is owed close to $14 million over the next four years, a weirdly long contract for a player of his stature. Neither of them is a particularly coveted trade asset and Memphis is likely stuck with their current rotation.

If Davis isn’t re-signed, there’s an interesting opening at the back up power forward position. Jon Leuer hasn’t gotten much run in his first four seasons in the NBA, but he’s a nice player and can shoot the lights out. The Grizz might also look to play James Johnson as a small ball four quite a bit next season. This is the one area where Memphis can get a bit more dynamic, as playing Leuer and Johnson at the floor should give Gasol and Randolph more to operate down low and this team really needs spacing wherever it can get it. Whether or not that is trustworthy course of action in the postseason is a different story. The Grizzlies do have their draft pick and it will be interesting to see what they do with it.

It’s going to be tough for the Grizzlies to take that leap to the next level. They are not perennial favorites to come out of the West like Oklahoma City, but they’re probably closer than most people would imagine. One lucky break here or there and an injury to an opposing player and the Grizzlies could find themselves in the NBA Finals. It’s always possible they find a guy from Europe or the D-League who can come in and help the team, or win a ridiculously lopsided trade, but both of these scenarios are highly unlikely.

Memphis has to focus on just getting better. Mike Conley hasn’t even been mentioned yet but he is a guy who has the potential improve his game another level. Memphis should focus on improving in small, tangible ways every day, because those things can decide how a playoff series swings, especially in what is likely to be again an absolutely brutal Western Conference race next year. It’s the NBA and weird stuff happens, all you can do is put yourself in a position to succeed and you could be only a couple of breaks away from giving yourself a real opportunity to battle for the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Tags: Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies Zach Randolph

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