The Memphis Grizzlies are who they are, and even after a playoff defeat that highlighted the downside to that oh-so-reliable identity, the 2015 offseason didn’t suggest change was on the way.
Built, as ever, on chemistry, size, defense and roster continuity, the Grizz head into the 2015-16 season looking for different results with roughly the same plan of attack. Some might call that insanity, but if things break right for Memphis, it might be crazy enough to work.
What Happened Last Year
The main reason for optimism in 2015-16 stems directly from the Grizzlies’ biggest disappointment a year ago.
It took a wildly creative and clearly risky strategic move for the Golden State Warriors — NBA champs and probably the best team anyone’s seen since Michael Jordan’s mid-1990s Chicago Bulls — to get past the Grizzlies in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Tony Allen’s ineffectiveness as a perimeter shooter has been an issue for his entire career, and the Warriors exploited it to an extreme by putting center Andrew Bogut on him, which effectively allowed the Aussie to play free safety in the paint while ignoring Allen on the perimeter.
A little added emphasis on small ball, a diminished on-court presence from Allen, and the Warriors quickly took irreversible control of the series.
But before the Warriors’ bold changes, the Grizzlies were up 2-1, and that was with Mike Conley banged up to an obscene degree.
That’s encouraging, and it’s a good thing to remember when forecasting Memphis’ upcoming season. Because for all of the Grizzlies’ obvious flaws — a general lack of team speed, no floor-stretchers in the front court and a glaring dearth of outside shooting — they gave the champs a better run than anyone else.
On balance, 2014-15 was a typical Memphis season. It featured an offensive rating that hovered around the league average for most of the year before finishing 13th overall and a top-notch defensive unit that ranked fourth in points allowed per possession. The most obvious flaw was the one the Warriors exploited; Memphis ranked second-to-last in three-point attempts on the season and just 23rd in accuracy from long range.
Given the conspicuousness of that shortcoming, you would’ve expected the front office to make adding perimeter threats the top offseason priority.
What Happened This Summer
Matt Barnes. That’s it. That’s the complete list of meaningful perimeter additions from Memphis’ offseason.
A more proven threat from long range than Allen or Jeff Green and a defender with exactly the type of grimy, whatever-it-takes demeanor that fits in Memphis, Barnes is hardly a game-changer. He’s a career 33.8 percent shooter from deep. That’s not the kind of addition that’ll force opponents to play the Grizzlies any differently this season. So expect a packed-in paint and plenty of hard double-teams in the post as defenses continue to dare Memphis to beat them from the outside.
There were other moves: Gasol stayed put on a new five-year deal that was basically a foregone conclusion, and Brandan Wright came aboard as a replacement for (and improvement over) the departed Kosta Koufos.
Gasol is easily Memphis’ best and most important player. He anchors the defense and keeps a hemmed-in offense functional with his brilliant passing from the elbow and post.
But Conley is the guy who could determine how far the Grizzlies go this season because he, unlike Gasol, may still be young enough to take another step forward. At 28, the growth will likely be subtle, but there were signs last year that Conley could help cure what ails the Grizzlies. He attempted threes at a higher per-minute rate last year than in any prior one, and he hit them at a 38.6 percent rate. We know Conley is a terrific defender, unselfish facilitator and sneaky flinger of right-handed floaters (even though he’s a lefty, which makes it even cooler), but an itchier trigger finger could pay off in a big way.
Asking Conley to turn himself into a Stephen Curry-esque threat who has to be honored 30 feet from the bucket whenever he has a live dribble is a bit much. But if Conley gets a little more aggressive as an outside shooter, he could help the Grizzlies’ bigs operate for longer without seeing doubles, extend the pick-and-roll out higher and open up the lane for cutters like Allen who need those slashing angles to score.
Gasol had a career year in 2014-15, is already 30 and currently competes at such a high level that it’s ridiculous to expect more from him. Zach Randolph is barely hanging on to borderline star status. Allen is what he is, and Courtney Lee is a role-player.
So it’s up to Conley to push Memphis to a new level.
You can’t predict fewer than 50 wins for the Grizzlies. And believe me, if anyone has written enough critical things about them to do it, it’d be me. But even with their advancing age, resistance to the three-point era and underwhelming offseason, I still can’t bring myself to peg the Grizzlies’ win total below the half-century mark.
If everything goes right and all of the mainstays avoid major injury, it’s easy to see Memphis finishing with another 55 wins and a No. 4 seed. More likely, some regression will set in, the league will consistently exploit its lack of shooting and Memphis will take a small step back toward the sixth or seventh seed in the West.
And despite the fight they gave the pre-adjustment Warriors in the postseason, I just don’t see a way for the Grizzlies to make playoff noise now that the book is so clearly out on how to beat them. This is a team with a second-round ceiling in the brutally tough West.