Ball Don't Lie

Ball Don’t Lie’s 2012-13 NBA Season Previews: The Memphis Grizzlies

Ball Don't Lie

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Marc Gasol expects positive things (Getty Images)

For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.

As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.

We continue with the right as rain Memphis Grizzlies.

Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener

For a team that has spent precious little time as the overlooked underdog, an NBA junkie's fave dragon (Favrgon), the Memphis Grizzlies  might be looking down the barrel of something scary if they can't make some noise next May. A first round exit at the hands of a very good Los Angeles Clippers squad last May came on the heels of a second round run in 2011, and while this team has third round or even Finals potential (given a series of productive matchups), the cap figures and age issues surrounding the club don't portend well for years of keeping the band together.

Mostly because the nearly $47 million spent on Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol this season will jump to nearly $50 million and then nearly $52 million in the two years following. A potential new ownership group might be fine with paying tax-level dollars just to keep this current roster running, but even in New York or Los Angeles this payroll (in the mid-$70 millions next season even if Tony Allen isn't retained) would be tough to live with. For a team still trying to develop depth, it's damn near in the way.

Which is why 2012-13, sadly, has to be so telling for both the franchise, the players involved, and the fans. A team with two All-Star caliber bigs, a game-changing defender in the back court, and two still-improving sub-stars at small forward and point guard should be able to do terrible things to even the Lakers and Heats of the world; but if Memphis doesn't impress this postseason the hard sell for one or more max studs could be on the move.

A shame, but reality in any market. Get to work now, then.

Because of the payroll concerns, internal development was Memphis' finest offseason addition; even more so than acquiring the sound work of scoring guard Jerryd Bayless. The addition of potentially 82 games of the recently-mindful Zach Randolph, whose drop off last season likely had more to do with his sluggishness after having to miss 38 games following a knee injury than it did turning 30 just two weeks into the NBA's 2011 lockout. Randolph has been flat-footing his way towards 20 and 10 for ages, and while the onset of NBA-advanced age might limit his side to side defensive work, all those caroms he grabs on that end will help make up for that production.

That's assuming the opponents can get a shot off, as the team will probably rank at the top once again at causing turnovers. Of course, that's assuming LeBron James doesn't decide to make everyone cry and lead the NBA with 7.9 steals per game.

Due to tax concerns, O.J. Mayo's inconsistent (but much needed) touch at shooting guard is off to Dallas. Mayo was no star, average in just about every area down to his 36.4 three-point shooting, but as a minutes sopper he'll be missed even if Bayless completely makes up for his production. Teams still treat Mayo as if he was the lights out shooter they were introduced to in the first part of his rookie season; and they won't be racing out in the same way with Bayless.

We really hope the Grizzlies don't over-rely on former Minnesota Timberwolf Wayne Ellington, even if he might be the team's best long range shooter at this point — Bayless' sound  marks on 104 attempts in Toronto last year scream "fluke" when you consider that he's been a below average shooter from behind the line since 2008. Marresse Speights has lovely touch, sometimes. Darrell Arthur, regrettably, is sometimes not injured.

From there, you have Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, 25 and 26 respectively, adding another chunk of all-around excellence to the foundation that Randolph and Gasol set.

Based on Randolph's return and the seven-game playoff run, I'm not as concerned with Gay finding lanes hard to slash through in 2012-13. Though he rarely passes after putting the ball on the floor, it doesn't feel (to this outsider) as if Gay is guilty of forcing things after not receiving a look for too long, and Conley's continued ascension as an improving penetrator and passer will aid a team that is just looking to stay out of the NBA's lottery (The Lower 14) in terms of overall offense.

The Grizzlies, more or less as presently constructed, might stay together for years beyond July of 2013. Even if another first or second round loss is in the cards, the new ownership may respond to the city's commitment to the team, and take on this frontcourt's pay at a loss. On the opposite end of that spectrum of weirdness is something just as odd — things could be chopped up this February.

The point, as it's been for decades, is to listen to what the city of Memphis is telling you. This is a team worth embracing, and this certainly is a team worth watching as much as you possibly can. For months, or years.

Projected record: 50-32

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FEAR (Getty Images)

Fear Itself with Dan Devine

It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.

What Makes You Scary: A vision, only barely glimpsed, finally becoming realized. Back before the start of last season, NBA observers in some circles wondered whether the feel-good Grizzlies, who'd stormed their way to within a win of the Western Conference Finals after losing star small forward Rudy Gay to a dislocated left shoulder behind the bruising tandem of center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, were going to face an identity crisis (sorry, Eric) and possibly take a step backward once they had their full complement of frontcourt talent. The fear was that reintroducing a wing scorer who would take touches away from either Randolph or Gasol (but mostly Z-Bo) down low would mess with the rhythm and flow that Memphis had established down the stretch, moving them away from an inside-out attack that had proven successful in knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to the limit.

As it turned out, injury again largely took the bat out of coach Lionel Hollins' hands, only this time it was Randolph who'd find the pine, as a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee kept the big man sidelined for 38 of the lockout-shortened season's 66 games; even after his comeback, he was largely relegated to reserve duty, making just eight starts and rarely looking like the world-breaking low-post force he'd been a season prior. Gay, on the other hand, was the picture of health, making 65 starts, averaging 19 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 37 minutes per game, and, save for a steep drop in his 3-point accuracy (39.6 percent pre-injury in '10-'11, 31.2 percent last year) looking like the near-All-Star-level three he'd been before succumbing to injury.

All told, the team's expected starting five -- Gasol, Randolph, Gay, defensive menace Tony Allen at shooting guard and steadily improving point guard Mike Conley -- played just 155 minutes together over the course of 17 games, according to lineup data available in NBA.com's stat tool. That's even less than the 184 total minutes (spread over 30 games) the five shared in 2010-11.

It's a shame, because 339 minutes over the course of two seasons really isn't very much to be able to analyze or use as reliable predictors of future performance. Still, though: Um, have you looked at those minutes?

Back in 2010-11, the Gasol-Randolph-Gay-Allen-Conley group produced an average of 105.9 points per 100 possessions, 1.5-per-100 better than the team's overall mark and one that would've ranked among the 10 most efficient offenses in the NBA over the course of that full season; the offensive gains more than offset a slight defensive slide from 102.5-per-100 allowed on the whole to 103-per-100 allowed by this group. The unit grabber a higher percentage of offensive and defensive rebounds than Memphis' season rates, shot better from the field and 3-point range, dished more assists and snagged more steals per 48 minutes, and fouled less frequently. Doesn't seem like a unit that had that much trouble co-existing, right?

The numbers last season, though, were downright ridiculous -- 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions (9.1 better the full season) and just 93-per-100 allowed (5.9 better). That means that the Grizzlies' starting five, on average, outscored its opposition by 17.1 points per 100 possessions, which is, y'know, a lot -- last year's best efficiency differential belonged to the Chicago Bulls, who outscored opponents by an average of 9.3-per-100. The rebounding numbers all went up by an absurd degree -- 35 percent of available offensive rebounds (better than league-leading Chicago), 82.3 percent of available defensive rebounds (better than league-leading San Antonio) and 57.9 percent overall (better than league-leading Chicago) -- and their True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages would've been right around top-five in the NBA.

Obviously, the small sample sizes at play here prevent us from taking these numbers too seriously, extrapolating these out and predicting something like a West-winning performance. But with Randolph back to 100 percent, Gasol providing his now-customary brilliant post work on both ends, Gay (26) and Conley (25) continuing to develop and just about to enter their athletic primes, and Allen in about as round-peg-in-a-round-hole role as exists in the NBA as Hollins' designated disruptor, I wouldn't be surprised at all if this unit continued to put a serious hurting on opposing lineups if given the chance to actually run together a bit. Here's hoping they get that opportunity.

What Should Make You Scared: Floor spacing ... or, more to the point, the lack thereof. When your primary offensive weapons are post players who do their best work with their backs to the basket or slashers who do their best work when they've got room to drive and lanes through which to penetrate, spreading and balancing the floor is paramount ... and Memphis isn't great at it.

The Grizzlies ranked 27th among 30 NBA teams in 3-pointers made last year, 28th in the league in 3-pointers attempted and tied for 25th in 3-point percentage ... and the guy who led them in makes and attempts, O.J. Mayo, will suit up for the Dallas Mavericks this season. Only one returning Grizzly, point guard Conley (a team-leading 37.7 percent), shot better than league-average from deep last season, and while Mayo's ostensible replacement, Jerryd Bayless, hit a blistering 42.3 percent of his triples in Toronto last year, Memphis fans might want to temper their expectations -- before making 44 of his 104 3-pointers last year, he'd hit just 85 of 265 (32.1 percent) in his three-year NBA career, so the lockout-shortened season might have been an outlier for him.

The Grizz will hope it was also an outlier for Gay, whose long-range accuracy fell off a cliff last year -- Tom Lorenzo of Grizz blog Straight Outta Vancouver, for one, would prefer it if Rudy would just stop shooting from that far away -- and former Minnesota Timberwolves guard Wayne Ellington, who shot just 32.4 percent from deep last year after hitting at a 39.6 percent clip through the two previous years. One potential wild card to keep an eye on if the Grizz have trouble spacing the floor: Second-year second-round pick Josh Selby, who shot 64.7 percent from deep in Summer League and 50 percent in preseason, and could get a look as Memphis' fourth guard if either Bayless or Ellington struggle early.

The issue wasn't just the 3-ball, though. Memphis last year took the league's 12th-most "long twos" -- shots from between 16 and 23 feet away, widely regarded as the least efficient shot in the game -- and finished 21st out of 30 in field-goal percentage on such shots, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics. For teams with sharpshooting big men -- think Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City, Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass in Boston or Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas -- inverting the offense, allowing bigs to step out on the floor and letting them fire away can serve as a legitimate means of drawing opposing big men out of the paint, creating room for wings and guards to post up on smaller defenders or openings into which they can penetrate. If you don't have excellent outside-shooting bigs, though, such attempts to reverse-engineer spacing can lead to an offense bogging down. That happened to Memphis a lot last year, helping explain their tie for 20th in the league in offensive efficiency.

That said, don't be surprised if Memphis keeps firing those long twos. After returning from injury, Randolph never really got his touch back; he shot 30 percent between 16 and 23 feet way last year after hitting 37 percent from that distance in '10-'11 and 42 percent from there in '09-'10. Gasol's number was better than Z-Bo's, and right around league average for centers last year (38 percent), but still represented a drop-off (44 percent in '10-'11, 40 percent in '09-'10). Reserve big Marreese Speights has consistently shown he can knock down the deep jumper when it's served up (47 percent last year, 42 percent in '10-'11, 44 percent in '09-'10) and power forward Darrell Arthur showed improved range during his strong '10-'11 campaign (39 percent), too.

If Randolph and Gasol return to form, Speights holds fast and Arthur's stroke stays sweet after returning from the left-leg stress fracture he suffered prior to training camp (which followed an Achilles tendon tear that cost him all of last season), the Grizz look to have one of the best midrange-shooting frontcourt rotations in the league, which could improve spacing and get their offense out of the bottom 10 in the league. If they don't, though, opponents will likely again be able to load up in the paint without much fear of outside reprisal, leading to more stagnant possessions, another bottom-of-the-league offense and little hope for advancing far in the competitive Western Conference playoffs.

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Memphis rallies in front of basketball-mad fans in Indiana (Getty Images)

Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis

There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.

On Friday, when discussing the Indiana Pacers, I said that there's no shame in being a good playoff team with no substantive shot at a title. That's not only true because circumstances sometimes allow a team to contend out of nowhere. On a very basic level, an organization can do a lot with a steady period of postseason appearances. Fans have fun, players build reputations, and pretty much everyone in the front office holds onto a job. It's all pretty darn positive.

The Grizzlies, now heading into their third season of being a very good, fairly limited team, are proof of that. After 2011's surprising first-round upset of the Spurs and last spring's hard-fought series against the Clippers, Memphis looks primed for at least a few more seasons of postseason relevance. On top of that, they do it with verve, combining old-school toughness with the kind of brash confidence we associate with the modern NBA. There are few frontline combos as capable and fun to watch as Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. Add blog favorite Tony Allen and the ever-improving Mike Conley, and you're looking at a team to be reckoned with.

However, as the rest of the West improves, it looks more and more likely that the Grizzlies will top out as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. In practice, that means the Grizzlies are most likely to read as "dangerous" rather than "dominant" or "relentless." They're really good, but they're only ever to achieve so much.

For the Lakers or Heat, that's not enough. But Memphis until recently looked like a franchise that might have to move to another city due to diminishing local interest. A few playoff appearances, along with a prospective owner committed to finding local support, could end up keeping the Grizzlies in town. That's a major achievement, in many ways more important than making the conference finals.

The Grizzlies know what they are, and they also know what they're likely to be for the foreseeable future (unless, that is, they deal Gay, which is always within the realm of possibility). That makes them a tough team to handle, as well as a tremendously fun one. And even if they never win more than a playoff series in any particular year, they can know that they've accomplished a lot. Judging success, as always, depends on circumstances and available options just as much as the final result.

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