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Grizzly Problems

Can Memphis make it to the Finals?

In the weeks leading up to the start of this NBA season, everyone and their mother had their very own theory about the effects of the compressed schedule. One prevalent opinion said that younger, deeper squads would hold a significant advantage over older teams built around veteran superstars. This sort of thinking made sense — older players, we’re told, break down more easily, while younger players should be able to hold up better in the third game of a back-to-back-to-back.

There’s still time for that theory to play itself into the realm of truthiness, but this season has seen the Spurs — one of the teams that were supposed to be crippled by the compressed schedule — playing typical Spurs basketball. Steve Nash has shot an absurd 54 percent from the floor and led a genuinely uninspiring supporting cast into playoff contention. The 39-year-old Grant Hill plays 30 minutes a game. Dallas, a team that looked old at the start of the season, has dragged itself back into something resembling championship form. Kobe Bryant has played 38-plus minutes a game and currently leads the league in scoring.

For the most part, conditioning and professionalism have held the line. In retrospect, it’s a bit crazy that so many, myself included, ever thought differently. The compressed schedule has wreaked havoc on pretty much every measurable part of basketball, but it’s confirmed what should be self-evident: Older, proven players become older, proven players because they know how to stay in basketball shape and can always figure out ways to affect a game.

The Memphis Grizzlies were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the condensed schedule. Young, deep, and coming off a playoff run that saw them physically overwhelm the no. 1-seeded Spurs, the Grizzlies were predicted to contend for the Western Conference championship. Those lofty expectations were quickly derailed — Darrell Arthur blew out his Achilles before the start of the season, the team lost three of its first four games, Zach Randolph tore up his knee, and the team appeared destined for another season-long fight for one of the last playoff spots.

Since losing Zach Randolph on New Year’s Day, the Grizzlies have been on one streak or another. In a season that just passed its 48th game, the Grizzlies have racked up four losing streaks of three games or more. They have also gone on a four-game, a five-game, and a seven-game winning streak. On March 16, the Grizzlies were looking forward to a favorable stretch of games against the Raptors, the Wizards, the Kings, the Blazers, and the Clippers. March 16 was also the first game back for Randolph, who, even in limited moments, should have given the Grizzlies some lift on the offensive end of the court. Instead of solidifying their playoff position, the Grizzlies lost four of those five games. Randolph has shown flashes of the guy who outplayed Tim Duncan and hit every manner of impossible shot in playoff crunch time, but the extended time off has had its expected effect on Z-Bo’s conditioning, timing, and rhythm.

Those extreme swings, which now include the team’s most recent two-game winning streak, have spat the Grizzlies out with a 27-21 record, good for sixth in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture. In 11 games against the league’s top teams — the Bulls, Thunder, Spurs, Mavericks, and Lakers — the Grizzlies are 3-8. (They haven’t played the Heat or Magic yet.) They have gone 0-6 against the Thunder and the Spurs.

I don’t really put too much stock in team-specific win-loss records in the NBA, especially within a compressed schedule. The Bulls, for example, beat the Heat in all three of their regular-season matchups last year and then got destroyed by Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. This Grizzlies team might not have played particularly well against the elite teams in the league, but unlike, say, Indiana or Phoenix, who have almost zero chance of beating a better team in a seven-game series, the Grizzlies still have the talent and the depth to beat pretty much anyone. In this past Sunday night’s game against the Lakers, seven different Grizzlies scored in double digits. More important, Hamed Haddadi and O.J. Mayo, who overwhelmed the Lakers’ second unit, provided a preview of what could happen if Memphis could ever properly calibrate its myriad parts. The Grizzlies have seven quality basketball players — Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Mayo, Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Marreese Speights. These seven guys present unique matchup problems — a motivated Gay is pretty much unguardable, Conley can outrun pretty much anyone, Gasol can score and defend in the post, Allen is still the league’s best perimeter defender, Mayo still shows occasional flashes of his once-hyped offensive repertoire, and a healthy Randolph still commands a nightly double-team.

The Grizzlies are most effective in transition, where they have shot 64.5 percent and scored 1.206 points per possession, trailing only San Antonio’s rate of 1.211. The difference, of course, is that the Grizzlies run a whole lot more than the Spurs do. Like the Thunder, the Grizzlies have been able to use transition opportunities to swing the pace of games, something they needed to do frequently in Z-Bo’s absence. Without Randolph, the Grizzlies have struggled in pretty much every aspect of the half-court game. They are among the five worst jump-shooting teams in the league and don’t convert particularly efficiently around the basket. They rank 23rd in overall points per possession. Only the Raptors, Kings, Cavs, Hornets, Wizards, Pistons, and Bobcats have been worse. (For what it’s worth, they weren’t much better last year, when they ranked 20th.)

The Grizzlies’ offensive inconsistencies have brought up an interesting question about the composition of teams in the NBA — can seven above-average basketball players make it to the Finals without the help of a superstar? Recent history would say no. The ’99 and ’00 Portland teams went nine deep. Both teams lost in the Western Conference Finals. The ’00 team was a good five minutes away from winning Game 7, but it’s also worth considering whether or not those bad five minutes would have happened if Portland had a true superstar on the court. The ’04 Pistons have become the most miscast and misused counterexample in the history of the NBA. Yes, they didn’t have an identifiable and highly marketed superstar, but they had four players in their prime who would go on to combine for 16 All-Star Game appearances. The “We Believe” Warriors went deep as well, but couldn’t get past Utah in the second round. And although last year’s Memphis team thumped the Spurs and took the Thunder to seven games, they didn’t quite have the consistent wing scorer to take them to the Conference Finals.

That wing scoring was supposed to come this year with the return of Rudy Gay, who sat out last year’s playoffs with a shoulder injury. From a statistical standpoint, Gay has been doing pretty much what Rudy Gay does. For the fifth straight year, he’s averaging somewhere around 16 shots per game, which he converts at around a 45-47 percent clip. The problem with Rudy Gay this season is also the problem with Rudy Gay every season. Yes, he puts up 18.9 points per game, but it’s not a particularly impactful total. He hasn’t had a 30-point game. He does not take over quarters with his scoring. Most important, he doesn’t play particularly well off Randolph and Gasol — Memphis pounds the ball with an almost machine-like consistency. What they need is someone to knock down open jumpers or swing the ball to other shooters when it comes out of the post. Problem no. 1: Gay’s game is more about creating jumpers for himself. Problem no. 2: Even if he did swing the ball when it came out of the post, there’s nobody on the Grizzlies’ roster who could knock down the wide-open corner 3-point shot.

Gay has all the skills of a high-volume scorer — he can shoot over his defender, he moves fluidly, he can get to the rim. Like Tracy McGrady, Gay looks like he’s playing in slow motion — he doesn’t jump as much as he sort of floats, he doesn’t drive as much as he sort of ambles and ends up at the basket. Like McGrady, Gay has the rare ability to look both graceful and thoroughly disinterested at the same time. The difference, of course, is that McGrady went on to become one of the most gifted pure scorers in league history and did whatever it took to get his 30 points per game. Gay is wired much differently. If he went back to school and played in your intramural league, he’d find a way to put up about 16 shots and 19 points per game.

It’s pretty maddening to watch, especially given the Grizzlies’ lack of other perimeter scoring options. Despite showing flashes of his old self, O.J. Mayo has continued his slide into averageness. He looks a step slower than he did when he came into the league and doesn’t shoot from outside with the same confidence. The best modern Microwave guards should shoot somewhere around 45 percent. This number can be stretched a bit if a player is particularly combustible, but Mayo’s not the type of player who can come in and score 22 in a quarter. When he does swing games, as he did on Sunday against the Lakers, the Grizzlies are pretty much unbeatable. Memphis has a 22-10 record when Mayo scores in double digits. When he doesn’t, they are 5-12. I understand that these sorts of stats can be largely arbitrary and obviously shouldn’t be translated into some broad truth about the power of double-digit numbers over single-digit ones, but I do think it helps clarify Memphis’s one glaring area of need: perimeter scoring.

To address this need and their ongoing backup point guard problem, the Grizzlies signed Gilbert Arenas, a move that GM Chris Wallace admitted was inspired by a blogger. I watched Gilbert’s first two games with the Grizzlies in person. Although he looked slightly better than he did in Orlando, it’s clear that there’s not much left in the tank. He spent most of the game against the Clippers throwing passes off of pretty much everything but his intended targets, and looked about two steps slower than he did in Washington. When Eric Bledsoe came into the game to guard him, you could smell the blood in the water. Bledsoe, whose brute strength has to be seen up close to truly be appreciated, hounded Gilbert and eventually sent him back to the bench. Arenas has not played in any of the two subsequent games.

Barring some miraculous renaissance, Arenas will not contribute to the Grizzlies in any meaningful way. Although it would have been nice to see the team pick up a viable scorer at the trade deadline or through some other creative fashion (Andre Emmett is putting up 23.5 a game in the D-League!), it’s understandable why Wallace hesitated on making a move that would compromise the team’s frontcourt depth. Rudy Gay is being paid $15 million this year. O.J. Mayo is playing for a new contract. If either of those two were playing up to expectations, the Grizzlies wouldn’t have had to take a gamble on Gilbert Arenas.

On paper, the Grizzlies should have a legitimate shot at making this year’s Western Conference Finals. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They have a stopper who can mitigate Durant, Kobe, and Dirk (Allen). They have five big men, including last year’s playoff hero (Z-Bo), a budding All-Star center (Gasol), and backups who can play somewhere between 10 and 12 quality minutes per game (Speights/Haddadi). They have a talented wing scorer (Gay), a Microwave Man (Mayo), and a point guard who can push the ball (Conley). The problem is that none of these component parts is really good enough to carry a team to something resembling consistency. Unless Gasol turns into a legitimate franchise center who can reliably score in the post and from 18 feet, Memphis is in the unenviable position of having a Big Three that’s just not quite good enough to compete with the league’s elite. Randolph, Gay, and Gasol are all signed for four more years. Conley has five years left on his contract. For better or for worse, they will be the nucleus of the Grizzlies until 2016.

Which brings us to a familiar but frustrating conclusion, at least for Grizzlies fans: Memphis could be a perennial contender to make the NBA Finals if Rudy Gay would just play up to his $15 million per year contract. The problem, of course, is that Rudy Gay will most likely not do that. He, perhaps more than any other superstar talent in the league, seems completely comfortable with who he is as a basketball player. The Grizzlies’ future rests on him breaking out into something different. There’s no other real takeaway here — Gasol and Z-Bo can have career years, Conley can develop into a reliable ball-distributor who can ignite a few fast breaks per game, Haddadi can develop into another Omer Asik, but unless the Grizzlies can get nightly high-volume scoring from the perimeter, they’re not going to be consistent enough to make it through three separate playoff series.

Before we write off Memphis’s future title hopes, though, let’s remember that the Western Conference isn’t exactly filled with young, budding superstars. The Lakers and the Spurs both have two, maybe three runs left before they have to start rebuilding. Dirk and the Mavs are on a similar timetable. Some of those rebuilding processes might go wrong, meaning this Memphis core could simply outlive their competition and find themselves matched up against the Thunder for the next few seasons. This, despite Memphis’s flaws, would be basketball heaven: The teams, in some ways, are perfectly matched up. They both run. The Grizzlies defend athletically and dynamically. The Thunder score in a similar way. The Thunder invested in perimeter players. The Grizzlies invested in Gasol and Z-Bo. What the teams hold in common — preternaturally gifted wing scorers — also doubles as the difference between them: Kevin Durant will continue to be Kevin Durant while Rudy Gay refuses to be anyone but Rudy Gay.

Filed Under: Lies, Memphis Grizzlies, People, Series, Teams, Zach Randolph

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

Archive @ jaycaspiankang