The Memphis Grizzlies are between a rock and a hard place right now. After advancing to the Western Conference Finals last year for the first time in franchise history, they now sit on the outside looking in to even make it back to the playoffs this year. Let’s look into some reasons as to why this year’s Grizzlies are falling short of their expectations.
After last season, the front office and head coach Lionel Hollins decided to part ways. To most people that aren’t followers of the Grizzlies organization, this might seem odd. The team had just posted its best win percentage in franchise history (56-26, .683%). What people may not know is that Hollins was very outspoken as to how he thought the front office was handling business (This piece from “Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie” blog contains many examples of this, including Hollins’ great “When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget” quote).
Hollins also didn’t develop the talent involved in the trade that sent franchise player Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors for Ed Davis and Jon Leuer. Davis and Leuer were young guys brought in through Jon Hollinger and his “Moneyball” approach to the game of basketball. Both guys have played well this year under new head coach Dave Joerger: Davis has averaged 7.6 PPG and 4.3 REB so far this year and has posted 10 PPG over his last 10 games, where he’s seen an increase in minutes. Jon Leuer went from playing hardly any time under Hollins to averaging 9.2 PPG and 4.5 REB under Joerger. Both of these guys were brought in to be role players under Hollins and he didn’t play them much or show any real interest into developing them. Dave Joerger has, but we will get to him in a minute.
Here’s the list of Grizzlies that have missed games this year due to injury: Ed Davis, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless (more on his trade later), Quincy Pondexter, Mike Conley and last but not least, Marc Gasol. When you glance over this list, you see that at the entire starting line-up has missed games at some point this season due to injury. And while they haven’t all been injured at the same time, any team’s record will reflect their best players not playing together consistently.
Pondexter is out for the season, which is frustrating, because coming off last year’s great performance in the WCF, he was thought to be a guy who could come in and even compete for the starting job. Tony Allen is out for 2-3 weeks with a fractured hand. The most notable injury was the sprained MCL of reigning defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol. His injury has been the biggest reason the Grizzlies are where they are in the NBA right now. His absence defensively has allowed teams to penetrate the paint with ease, and losing his passing and scoring ability has been the biggest reason that Grizzlies can’t close games that are within striking distance.
I don’t care what team you play on, even the Spurs. You take away the team’s best player, and they will struggle. If you take Tony Parker off the Spurs, they aren’t the same team. Take Lebron James off the Heat and I don’t think they contend for titles. Take Russell Westbrook off the Thunder and even Kevin Durant can’t beat the Grizzlies by himself. You can’t finish a puzzle if the biggest piece is missing.
The Grizzlies currently stand last in their division and 12th in the western conference, five and a half games out of 8th place. So now the question bodes, do the Grizzlies concede this year already, or do they continue to grit and grind their way back to playoff contention? An argument could be made that the Grizzlies need to trade away Zach Randolph, but any of the actual relevant trades I have seen are more tuned to salary dumps that they are actually getting value for Randolph (Here‘s some fake-trade examples from our friends at 3 Shades of Blue).
Although trading Randolph wouldn’t sit well with the Grizzlies faithful (He has made himself a name in Memphis and the fan base absolutely loves him), it might not be the worst idea. Randolph is an aging player with not a lot of tread left on his tires. One of the most talented and deep drafts classes ever is looming, and it would be a shame for the Grizzlies to not get their piece of the pie. The Grizzlies also have young players such as Mike Conley that they can build a foundation upon for years to come.
While on the subject of Michael Conley, let’s give him his due. Michael Conley is playing the best basketball of his life this season. He has stepped up in the absence of Gasol and put the team on his back. With the way he has matured his game this year, it would almost be a shame for the Grizzlies to close up shop. Conley has shown this year that he can take control of a game and really carry the Grizzlies. He almost singlehandedly brought the Grizzlies back Tuesday night against Coach Pop and the Spurs. Conley has taken that next step to become one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Now, back to the season at hand: The Grizzlies’ front office has made moves lately to show the fan base that they are not going to fold up shop just yet. Jerryd Bayless was sent to the Boston Celtics in a three team deal which brought Courtney Lee and a 2016 2nd round draft pick to the Grizzlies. Lee made an immediate impact in his game against the Spurs, and will fit in nicely in Memphis, “the land of second chances.” Speaking of second chances, the emergence of new fan favorite James Johnson has been a huge addition to the Grizzlies backcourt. He is essentially a cheaper Rudy Gay that doesn’t try to shoot through double and triple teams. He is a swingman who can also shoot the ball. If Johnson can continue to play his role, he will be a viable player that could help the Grizzlies for years to come.
Marc Gasol should be back in a week or two. Along with the additions that the Grizzlies have made in Lee and Johnson, add to the fact that Leuer, Davis, and offseason acquisition Kosta Koufos have been solid role players all year long, and I think that the Grizzlies can make a push if they can remain healthy. This is a team that is upgraded from last year’s Western Conference Finals trip. In order to make it back to the playoffs and make another run at the NBA Finals, they have to remain healthy. Is it a long shot? Yes. Can it be done? That is still yet to be seen, but I say yes.
by: Sam Henley