There aren’t many small-market teams that have experienced a run of success like the Memphis Grizzlies have over the past half-decade. The Grizzlies are looking to keep the train rolling this season after an offseason which has perhaps been underrated.
Most important, the Grizzlies locked up franchise cornerstone Marc Gasol for the long haul, ensuring they will have a chance to be competitive both now and likely for years to come – assuming Mike Conley, a free agent next summer, is serving as the other half of the talented tandem.
Aside from an obvious re-signing of a superstar, the Grizzlies bolstered depth by acquiring two useful veteran role players in Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright, who should be upgrades in key areas.
With each passing year and an aging core, it seems more improbable that the Grizzlies will continue to win 50-plus games and be at least a fringe contender once the playoffs roll around. But this team always seems to thrive when it feels counted out.
With that said, have the Grizzlies done enough to truly contend and maybe even reach the pinnacle? Or will this be yet another season where they seem so close, yet so far away? One prominent online casino lists the at 30-1 to win the title.
Here are five things to watch for with the Grizzlies this season.
1. Spacing issues
Will lack of proper spacing plague the Grizzlies and limit the team’s ceiling forever? That’s an exaggeration, but it feels that way at times. The last three seasons, the Grizzlies have ranked 29th and 30th twice in 3-point attempts per game. Some of that is by design, because their offensive strength lies in the post where Gasol and Zach Randolph work best. But the offense has never had the balance necessary to enable this team to overcome defenses sinking into the paint in the playoffs, taking away the Grizzlies’ bread and butter.
Mike Conley and Courtney Lee were 1-2 on the team in 3-pointers made. League-wide, they were 51st and 71st. Houston and Golden State each return three players who made more threes than Conley.
Last season was the first where the Grizzlies had a notably better than average offense. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement via creating scoring opportunities on the perimeter. The addition of Matt Barnes should help slightly, but it is tough to say that this team won’t be plagued by spacing issues, given the construct of the roster.
2. The age curve
Three of the Grizzlies’ “Big Four” are on the wrong side of the age curve in Gasol (30), Randolph (34) and defensive stalwart Tony Allen (33). That makes it fair to wonder how long the Grizzlies can ride these horses before they succumb to the cruel beast of old age rendering the tools they’ve long used to succeed on the court far less useful, bringing them back down to the playing level of mere mortals.
Randolph’s game has aged well, and Gasol’s game should do the same. But given the way the Grizzlies are still structured to work inside-out on offense, will Randolph in particular be carrying more of the load than he needs to? And should the Grizzlies take some of the offensive load off of Gasol’s shoulders to better preserve him for the long haul, enabling him to play his best on the defensive end right now? Last season, Gasol’s defensive performance clearly took a dive because he was more focused on the offensive end than ever before.
The front office, coaching staff and fans all must know that the window for the Grizzlies to win a championship as currently constructed is rapidly closing. If they aren’t able to get it done this season, how many more years can they rely on guys like Randolph and Allen to play key roles and will this team to unprecedented levels of success? They aren’t getting any younger.
3. Buried youth
Dating to the Lionel Hollins era, the Grizzlies have not had great success developing draft picks. Not much has changed under Dave Joerger, but it’s hard to say if that’s cause for concern – or even his fault.
Sometimes a team’s current position in the league hierarchy dictates how big of a role youngsters play. In the Grizzlies’ case, they have had too much success to really warrant younger players getting many minutes over the course of the past several seasons. Most playoff teams don’t have rookies making major contributions, and that’s long been the case for Memphis.
Looking at things from that angle, it’s tough to fault the Grizzlies for draft pick after draft pick cycling in and out of the organization because there wasn’t any way to get them on the court, allowing them to prove their usefulness. The list includes DeMarre Carroll, Greivis Vasquez and Tony Wroten, who are pretty useful players.
Of course, there’s a catch. If the Grizzlies never make a concerted effort to develop prospects, there won’t be much to build on when the current “grit and grind” era ends. There is only so much a player can develop in the D-League, and a guy with great potential like 2014 first-round pick Jordan Adams can hardly sit at the end of the bench forever and be expected to be useful when he’s finally needed.
RELATED: Grizzlies salaries and analysis
At some point, Joerger – the man calling the shots on the court – is going to have to do what a good leader of any business does: Trust his people to do the job they were brought in to do and give them a true chance to fly. That includes the youth.
4. Wing minutes
Conley, Randolph and Gasol are locks to start this season, but the wing starters and minutes are far from solidified. A case could be made for Barnes, Allen, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green to get a spot in the starting five, and Joerger might experiment with different combinations in the early going.
Given the need for guys to be able to space the floor to allow Randolph and Gasol to dominate down low, it is tough to say that Lee – the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter – shouldn’t get the bulk of his minutes while Randolph and Gasol are on the floor.
Green struggled mightily at times on the wing after arriving from Boston during last season, but he might be poised to play more as a stretch-4 in small lineups than anything this season. That still leaves Joerger to divide minutes between Barnes and Allen, two prideful, defensive-minded veterans who both want to be on the court as much as possible.
Joerger’s management of those minutes could really swing team morale and chemistry one way or another this season, making it a crucial conundrum to solve.
5. Brandan Wright’s implementation
Conley is excellent at running the pick-and-roll. However, he has never played with a roll man as good as Brandan Wright, who was signed as a free agent this summer. Wright’s offensive game is limited, but he is an absolute monster at rolling hard to the rim and finishing at a high rate when he receives the ball in such situations.
Wright’s unique talent should open up the offense in ways the Grizzlies haven’t been able to before, namely by creating more space for Conley to either pull up for open jumpers or drive all the way to the rim with increased ease when defenses inevitably overplay Wright.
Wright’s mobility also gives the Grizzlies the ability to switch more screens on defense than before, and that can only be a plus for a team that has been very limited by what it could do in that department in seasons past.