The Memphis Grizzlies had one job this past offseason, and they blew it.
That won’t result in any sort of franchise-crumbling catastrophe; the Grizzlies win 50 games every year because they’re big, skilled, physical and have worked hard to develop continuity-bred chemistry. They’ll probably win 50 games again in 2015-16.
But by failing to shore up their most glaring weakness, a lack of reliable perimeter shooting, they’ve essentially doomed themselves to another campaign that’ll feel eerily similar to the past half-dozen or so.
The beats are achingly familiar: Memphis will start the year as a likely playoff team, maybe with some dark-horse buzz because a handful of observers talk themselves into defense and physicality being a reliable pillar of success. At some point, the Grizz will win eight or nine games in a row, vaulting into second place in the West for a week or two before settling in somewhere between the fourth and sixth seed come playoff time. There, they’ll probably win a series, or at least be brutally competitive before being undone by their lack of spacing on offense.
Memphis’ 2015-16 fate was sealed in July when it addressed its lack of shooting by trading for 35-year-old Matt Barnes, who fits the Grizzlies prototype in all the best and worst ways. He’s fiery, he’ll take a hard foul, he defends and he’s not all that mobile anymore. And though he shot 36.2 percent from deep last year, his career accuracy rate from long range is just 33.8 percent — nearly identical to the ho-hum 33.9 percent Memphis shot as a team in 2014-15.
Barnes probably improves the Grizzlies, but he doesn’t do it in the only way that really matters. Adding more grit and defense to Memphis is beyond redundant. It’s like building another blues joint on Beale street. There are already more than enough.
And look, the Grizzlies ticked off almost every other offseason box. They kept Marc Gasol, signing him to a new contract that assures his entire prime will be spent in Memphis. And they replaced Kosta Koufos with perennially underrated big man Brandan Wright, adding rangy length and bounce to a front line that needed some. Along with the Barnes move, that’s a nice little summer.
But it’s baffling how a team run by John Hollinger, an analytics pioneer, simply refuses to stock the wings with three-point shooters in a league increasingly dominated by the long ball. It’s understandable if the Grizzlies want to preserve a successful identity, or if they believe there’s some market inefficiency they’re exploiting by ignoring shooters. Maybe they put out offers to a dozen different marksmen and were rebuffed at every turn.
But if that’s the explanation for this past offseason failure, it doesn’t do much to clear up the remarkable (and remarkably discouraging) consistency with which the Grizzlies have played over the last half-decade.
Since 2008-09, the Grizzlies have ranked 27th or worse in three-point attempts per game. They’ve been dead last more than once. This aversion to three-point shooting isn’t a fleeting preference. It’s a systemic allergy — one that shoves the franchise deeper into the past and farther from even semi-serious contention with every passing year.
They’ve ranked seventh or better in defensive efficiency in each of the past four seasons, but never better than 13th on offense in that same span. A little three-point shooting, just a little, would make a huge difference.
I get it: If you’re the Grizzlies, you see the success you’ve had and you want to embrace who you are. You know you can win a bunch of games, keep fans engaged and maybe, just maybe reach the Finals with a few good breaks. You’re keeping that title window open a crack by staying the course.
Maybe there’s wisdom in that. Most teams don’t reach this point of fringe contention, and even fewer get to stay there for years on end. And maybe their refusal to simply shoot more threes is tied to a larger “this is who we are” plan.
But Memphis’ ideological stasis cuts the other way, too. Maybe by failing (refusing?) to add shooters year after year, the Grizzlies are wasting the opportunities their well-documented defense/grit/physicality/grind/whatever afford them.
Having Gasol, the best center in the league and one that would absolutely thrive with the better spacing a few shooters could provide, is a straight up luxury. Teams would kill to get him, and you can bet that on any other team, there’d be an organizational red alert to surround the best passing big man of his generation with a whole bunch of marksmen. The treys would be flying at a Houston Rockets-on-uppers rate.
And if you think Zach Randolph is tough to handle on the block, imagine what he’d do against teams that couldn’t ignore Tony Allen and double him. Imagine what Mike Conley, already one of the best point guards in the league, could do if the lane wasn’t constantly clogged with help defenders.
Gasol is getting older, Randolph is already ancient and Conley has taken a heck of a beating in recent seasons. It’s fair to say all are either at or past their primes. And for the foreseeable future, they won’t get the chance to play in a modern, reasonably spaced, functional offense.
And that sucks.
Whether it’s an issue of inability or unwillingness, the Grizzlies have failed to find and utilize three-point shooting for years. As that trend continues, the chance that we’ll look back at this team as one of the bigger wastes in recent memory just keeps growing.