“We have to get another playmaker on the floor,” Joerger said. “We’re going to have to start playing multiple point guards (at the same time). We’ve got to be able to get inside of defenses.”
It doesn’t matter that the Grizzlies have been at or near the top of the league for most of the season. Or that they have held that lofty position despite a significant stretch without Zach Randolph. Or that their 17-6 record against the unforgiving Western Conference is only surpassed by league-leading Golden State (17-5).
What Joerger saw is what every Western Conference coach and GM sees when he looks at his team – a flaw that can be exposed by an opponent in a postseason series and end a potentially deep playoff run before it even starts.
The front office apparently agreed, because the Grizzlies have landed Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green in a three-way trade. Green isn’t a point guard, but he is a playmaker who can play both forward spots and an upgrade for an offense that has a tendency to bog down at times.
The Grizzlies are the latest team to add a big piece in an effort to keep pace in the West. Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City and Phoenix already have swung deals. New Orleans was part of the deal involving Green. Portland is looking for wing depth.
Only the Warriors, who are clearly the NBA’s best team right now, and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who have an undying belief in their system and personnel, have kept their names out of the trade talk, which has been so feverish you would think the deadline is next week instead of 5 1/2 weeks from now.
Here’s a look at how these teams have done so far:
DALLAS MAVERICKS: They went first, springing for former All-Star guard Rajon Rondo without giving up any significant pieces but also without getting any promises from the often moody impending free agent. The addition of Rondo gives the Mavs arguably the best starting lineup in the league and improves their defense, which remains questionable. There is some skepticism among opposing teams that Rondo will truly be available on the open market, colleague Mike Scotto reported.
Dallas hasn’t exactly been gangbusters since adding Rondo, going 7-4 with narrow escapes vs. the Lakers and Nets. Coach Rick Carlisle often has subbed Rondo in and out at the same time as Dirk Nowitzki, trying to accelerate the process of getting him in synch with his alpha dog. But with a highly imaginative player who has the ball in his hands as much as Rondo, we may not see the full impact of this move until March or April. GRADE: B-minus
HOUSTON ROCKETS: Beaten to Rondo by the hated Mavs, Rockets GM Daryl Morey raised the stakes in the West, landing Corey Brewer and Josh Smith in a one-week span, giving up no key pieces or first-round picks while dramatically improving depth. But adding two new rotation pieces had a predictable effect on a previously clicking team, and Houston is just 7-5 since a 19-6 start.
Brewer offers needed length and defense at the wing spots and is averaging 12 points in 23 minutes, although you have to wonder whether a career 30 percent 3-point shooter can keep banging them in at 41 percent. Smith’s signing was actually a necessity because power forward Terrence Jones – who averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds before going down with nerve damage in his leg – may not be back until after the All-Star break, if at all.
As our Ben DuBose astutely pointed out, Smith and MVP candidate James Harden are similar in that both can create their own shot but both need the ball, which was why starting them together transformed the offense from an expressway to a mall parking lot. However, the Rockets are 5-1 when Smith comes off the bench. As a reserve, he is averaging more points in less minutes while torching lesser foes for 51 percent shooting. At point guard, Sheridan thinks they should take a look at Jose Calderon as a duo with Patrick Beverly. GRADE: B
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: By trading for Dion Waiters, they did two things they have shown extreme aversion to in the past: using a trade exception and moving into the luxury tax. He also cost them a first-round pick, so maybe GM Sam Presti is starting to see the looming shadow of Kevin Durant’s 2016 free agency.
If Durant, Russell Westbrook and perhaps Kendrick Perkins can convince Waiters that his long-term role in this league is Jamal Crawford and not Jimmy Butler, then his ability to provide instant offense will be a boost to the Thunder, as it was Friday when he scored 15 points, including the clinching 3-pointer. Late in games, however, Scott Brooks will still go offense-defense with Andre Roberson, because Waiters makes little effort on that end.
And as usual with the Thunder, money was a factor. Waiters is under team control next season, while Reggie Jackson will enter restricted free agency looking for at least $12 million annually and a starting job. Durant expressed frustration with Jackson’s play Friday. It’s not a stretch to imagine the Thunder allowing Jackson to walk and sliding Waiters into his role for a season until coming up with a long-term solution. GRADE: C-plus
PHOENIX SUNS: They couldn’t stand pat after what other teams had done, so they burned one of their surplus first-round picks on Brandan Wright, who wasn’t in Boston long enough to find a good restaurant. “His length, athleticism and finishing ability make him a great fit for our style of play,” said GM Ryan McDonough, who was looking at another season of threatening 50 wins and missing the playoffs.
The Suns have won 10 of their last 14 games, a stretch that loosely coincides with Jeff Hornacek’s increased use of all three point guards at the same time and Alex Len starting at center. Len is a better rim protector (2.8 blocks per game as a starter) than Miles Plumlee but will never be confused for a lob target. That’s where Wright comes in. He can play pick-and-roll with any of the point guards, and he averaged 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes with Dallas.
Is Wright – whose $5 million salary fit beneath the salary cap – enough for the Suns to catch the Spurs or hold off the Pelicans and Thunder? Maybe not. But 25 of their last 42 games at home might be, and McDonough still has some chips to play. GRADE: B-minus
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: Landing Jeff Green cost GM Chris Wallace the expiring contract of Tayshaun Prince and a 2019 first-round pick. The $1.5 million difference in salaries pushes Memphis into tax territory, which is why the redundant Quincy Pondexter was offloaded to New Orleans with a second-round pick. Whether Green opts in or out of his final year at $9.2 million, the Grizzlies could re-sign Marc Gasol and still keep him, thanks to the pay cut in Zach Randolph’s extension.
Green won’t score as much as he did in Boston (17.6 ppg), where he was pretty much a first option. But he is a much better player than Prince (7.3 ppg) with more athleticism and versatility that will allow the Grizzlies to go small on occasion. He also averages 1.22 points per shot despite making just 30 percent from the arc.
No team – not even the Cleveland Cavaliers – would benefit more from signing ageless sharpshooter Ray Allen than the Grizzlies. But for what’s been done by contenders so far, Green seems like the best move. GRADE: A
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: Until today, GM Dell Demps has been trying to improve his roster with minimum signings, receiving minimal impact (although Dante Cunningham was a nice find). Their portion of the three-way deal lands Pondexter – who has $9 million over three years left on his deal – and a second-round pick while shipping out Austin Rivers and unproven rookie Russ Smith (unproven at this level, anyway).
Shortly after signing his extension in 2013, Pondexter feuded with Joerger and suffered a season-ending injury. He began his career in New Orleans, and a fresh start in a familiar place might do him some good. But although he is an upgrade for a very shaky bench, he isn’t anywhere near the game-changer the other West teams have added. Now if Demps can find a taker for Eric Gordon, whose contract expires just in time for 2016 free agency, that may move the needle. GRADE: C-minus
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: For no good reason, they have generated very little buzz despite being the clear-cut No. 2 behind the Warriors. Portland has gone 11-2 without starting center Robin Lopez because GM Neil Olshey – who just got a contract extension – fortified his bench this summer with big man Chris Kaman and glue guard Steve Blake, both having very solid seasons.
But the one position Olshey didn’t deepen was the wing, which was why there were reports this week of the Nuggets wanting a first-round pick to let go of Wilson Chandler, who primarily has been a guy with good numbers on bad teams. Portland doesn’t need numbers, though; it needs a wing upgrade from Allen Crabbe, C.J. McCollum and Dorell Wright. Chandler has a team option for next season, and the Blazers don’t owe any first-rounders, so he may be worth the reach. GRADE: INCOMPLETE
TRIVIA: Dion Waiters is the only current active player who has been a teammate of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But another was on a roster at the start of the season. Who is he? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Former lottery pick Robert Swift, who has bright red hair, many tattoos, stands seven feet tall and reportedly likes heroin, was arrested Tuesday in Washington state after putting on a mask and trying to rob a house during daytime hours.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young, after coach Byron Scott suggested he come into practice early to snap out of a slump that has him at 28 percent from the field this month:
“I’m going to stick to being the whole Swaggy P dude, and continue to shoot.”
TANKS A LOT!: Over the weekend, Knicks president Phil Jackson offered a “mea culpa” for the team’s horrendous season. But instead of taking the blame, he should be taking credit. With Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani injured, the Knicks have over $57 million on the sidelines. The current rotation includes three rookies, a second-year player and two minimum veterans playing for a rookie coach. With the team riding a franchise-record 15-game skid to the bottom of the league standings, Jackson said a “losing mentally … is embedded right now.” And he reportedly is looking to make more trades. Now that’s how you tank!
LINE OF THE WEEK: Pau Gasol, Chicago vs. Milwaukee, Jan. 10: 39 minutes, 17-30 FGs, 12-13 FTs, 18 total rebounds, three assists, one steal, three turnovers, 46 points in a 95-87 win. With Derrick Rose sidelined by knee soreness – and his teammates shooting a combined 18-of-58 – Gasol erupted for a career high in points as he abused Milwaukee’s undermanned front line. He is just the fourth player in this millennium to go for 46 and 18, and at 34 by far the oldest.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City at Golden State, Jan. 5: combined 8-37 FGs, 2-9 3-pointers, 18-25 FTs, 17 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, zero blocks, four turnovers, 36 points in a 117-91 loss. Durant (3-of-16) and Westbrook (5-of-21) had their second-worst combined shooting game as teammates. The following night in Sacramento, they were 11-of-37, their fifth-worst showing.
TRILLION WATCH: There were 4 trillions by Cavs center Brendan Haywood at Philadelphia on Monday, Grizzlies rookie Jarnell Stoles at Atlanta on Wednesday and Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni vs. Charlotte on Saturday. But the week’s winner was Pistons forward Anthony Tolliver, who became the eighth player this season with at least five minutes of invisibility with a 5 trillion vs. Brooklyn on Saturday. Honorable mention to Raptors forward Landry Fields, who avoided a 10 trillion with a foul vs. Charlotte on Thursday.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Portland at San Antonio, Jan. 16. The last time the Trail Blazers visited the Spurs was Dec. 19, when the teams went three overtimes before Portland rode 43 points and two game-tying shots from Damian Lillard to a 129-119 win. The Blazers are 2-0 vs. the Spurs this season after being overwhelmed in five games in last year’s playoffs.
GAME OF THE WEAK: New York vs. Milwaukee at London, Jan. 15. When this game was put on the schedule last summer, the Bucks were supposed to be the bad team. But while Milwaukee already has surpassed last season’s win total and currently is a playoff team, New York is the NBA’s worst team, mired in a franchise-record 15-game losing streak and about to show another entire continent just how bad it really is.
TWO MINUTES: Bulls guard Derrick Rose sat out Saturday’s win over the Bucks with soreness in his left knee. In his previous seven games, Rose was just 36-of-129 from the field, a glistening 27.9 percent. And here’s what he said after Friday’s loss to Washington, in which he was outclassed by John Wall and asked what grade he would give himself on his comeback: “I rate it an A. Missing two years, coming back, still competing, I do not know if too many people can do that or I think a lot of people would be content with just coming back and just finding their way through. I’m fighting through. I don’t think I will ever stop fighting. If anything I’m just going to keep getting better.” Virtually all of Rose’s numbers are career lows, including 39.8 percent shooting that can be attributed to his willingness to settle for jumpers. According to player-tracking data on NBA.com, Rose averages 6.3 drives per game. Ty Lawson and Michael Carter-Williams lead the league with 12.3 per game. So an A? No. Not even close. … As Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the Warriors on Wednesday had the most expensive reserve frontcourt in NBA history – more than $40 million – as Andre Iguodala ($12.29 million), David Lee ($15.01 million) and Andrew Bogut ($12.97 million) all came off the bench. … Washington’s John Wall is tied for second in the league with 21 double-doubles and the only guard in the top eight. He has a chance to be the first guard to lead the league since John Stockton in the 1994-95 season. … In two games against Minnesota, Spurs forward Austin Daye has averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds. In 22 other games, he has averaged 2.7 points and 1.6 rebounds. Asked if he would like to see Daye play better, coach Gregg Popovich cracked, “No, I hope he plays like crap.” … According to Elias, no team has started a season 5-23 or worse – as the Pistons did – and made the playoffs. Detroit has won eight of nine since and is three games out of the final postseason berth in the East. … More on the Warriors: They just completed a 6-0 homestand winning by an average of 22.2 points. For the season, they are winning by an average of 15.9 points at Oracle Arena, a figure that includes a 13-point loss to San Antonio. Other than the Spurs, the team that has come closest to beating Golden State at home is Orlando with a 98-97 loss on Dec. 2 in which Stephen Curry made a transition 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds to play. Regardless of the West’s depth, the Warriors are going to be a tough nut to crack in the postseason. … Three teammates taking more shots than Anthony Davis in the same game – which happened in Monday’s home loss to Washington – is a crime. Davis took just three shots in the first half. … Pacers center Roy Hibbert got the better of Rudy Gobert in Monday’s win over the Jazz, going for 22 points and eight rebounds. The two also engaged in a brief shoving match. But afterward, Hibbert had nothing but rave reviews for the second-year center from France, whose game grew by leaps and bounds during this summer’s World Cup. “Gobert is so athletic,” Hibbert said. “He is so much better than I was my second year.” Two nights later in Chicago, Gobert had 11 points, 14 boards and five blocks against the vaunted frontcourt of the Bulls. … Dallas is 11-0 on the road vs. the East. Standing in the way of a complete sweep are Miami (Jan. 30), Orlando (Jan. 31), Atlanta (Feb. 25) and Indiana (March 29). … When did Meyers Leonard add a 3-pointer to his game? The Blazers center made three in Monday’s win over the Lakers – including a four-point play – and is 13-of-30 this season after going 3-of-13 his first two seasons.
Trivia Answer: Sebastian Telfair. … Happy 63rd Birthday, Campy Russell. … Some teams might have to give Celtics GM Danny Ainge a playoff share. Or Phil Jackson.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.