The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
Sometimes, when I think about the Memphis Grizzlies, I think of David Mamet and Al Pacino.
This is, in part, because the Grizzlies are the NBA's foremost purveyors of the MMA/jiu-jitsu-style violence the playwright loves. And it is, in part, because every Zach Randolph and Tony Allen sneer and surge stirs my heart like I'm listening to the "Peace with Inches" speech for the first time.
Mostly, though, it's because of what Mamet put in the mouth of Pacino's Ricky Roma in "Glengarry Glen Ross."
More than any other team in the NBA, Memphis subscribes to the law of contrary public opinion. In a league dominated by increased reliance on outside shooting, on deploying floor-spacers everywhere possible, and on counteracting smarter, more complex defenses by banking ever harder on the mathematical truism that three is greater than two, the Grizzlies have doubled down on dinosaur ball, directing their attack through the headbanded triceratops and Catalonian brontosaurus they trot out at the four and five. They challenge opponents to avoid getting trampled.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
As more and more teams move toward pace, space and bombing away, the Grizzlies have stayed 10 toes down in the paint and in the mud. Over the past five seasons, Memphis has moved from the middle of the pack in possessions per 48 minutes to the bottom of the bunch, ranking between 26th and 30th in pace factor in each of the last three campaigns. They've also ranked in the bottom three in 3-point attempts per game and share of total offense generated from 3-point land every year since 2010, per NBA.com's stat tool. They've fared better in team long-range accuracy, though not much; the Grizz high-water mark over the past five seasons was 35.2 percent in 2013-14, tied for 19th place among 30 NBA teams.
And yet, as they've slowed down and packed it in, they've kept winning. Only four teams have a higher winning percentage than the Grizzlies (.629) since 2010: the San Antonio Spurs (.726), replete with legends on the bench and in the locker room; the Oklahoma City Thunder (.675), fueled by the ascent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the Miami Heat (.662), beneficiaries of arguably the greatest free-agent coup in history; and the Chicago Bulls (.647), who paired a generational talent with one of the game's best defensive head coaches until the wheels fell off of both. That's who's been more successful than the Grizzlies; that's the whole list.
They do it the hard way. Z-Bo and Marc Gasol will overwhelm your interior defenders more often than you stop them. Mike Conley can beat your point guard more often than you stop him. Tony Allen will shut down your top scorer more often than he gets dusted. And with Gasol barking out instructions from the back line, the Grizzlies' five-man defense will choke off your options and put you to sleep. It's a bone-simple, comfort-food-satisfying recipe, and it's been extraordinarily effective.
There's some variety in the mix, of course. Gasol's deft passing, Randolph's immaculate footwork and their shared midrange touch mark them as more than mere brute-force objects. Conley's game has all kinds of finer-things nuance, and Allen's one of the league's sharpest off-ball cutters. Courtney Lee can spring spot-up and off-the-bounce surprises, and woe betide those who fail to recognize the aristocratic beauty of Beno Udrih's lefty pullup in transition.
For the most part, though, this is what it is: scrap, claw, do two other things, and 48 minutes later, walk away with your hand raised, just how T-Pain likes it. You can set your watch to it, like Johnny Unitas' haircut and T.A. screaming "FIRST-TEAM ALL-DEFENSE" whenever he gets the chance (and by "gets" I mean "creates," which is often, because, y'know, he really is First-Team All-Defense).
In a league where roster turnover and performance volatility reign, Memphis — a team whose spirit animals, again, are this guy and this guy — has become something like a paragon of consistency and reliability. It's a team that knows as well as any other precisely what it is, what it's trying to accomplish, how it's going to get there and who it's representing, and seems to revel in it all. Marc tears his jersey and melts your heart. Z-Bo's good with these hands, but still hooks you up. The Grindfather hates on scorers and reminds you to bring your children to school.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the matter-of-fact re-up of Gasol, the top pivot on the 2015 free-agent market and the centerpiece of the Grizzlies' on-court identity. His departure would've plunged the franchise into chaos, but the Barcelona-by-Bluff-City big man stayed, because of course he stayed, because "once the dust settled and I started thinking about the process of next season, every scenario would bring me back to Memphis." You don't have to worry about going home again if you never leave; the less things change, the more they stay the same.
To be fair, despite knowing their desired destination and their preferred means of transport, the Grizz haven't actually arrived yet. While they've made five straight playoff appearances, they've bowed out in Round 1 twice, in the conference semis twice, and gotten smoked by San Antonio in the Western finals.
By and large, the roster's fatal flaws haven't changed much — not enough shooting, either up front or on the wings, to punish opponents who pack the paint to stifle Z-Bo and Gasol and cut off Conley's penetration; defenses can ignore Allen when the money's on the table and force Memphis to play 4-on-5 offensively; removing Allen to goose the O short-circuits Memphis' brutalizing D. What makes the Grizzlies who they are also makes them vulnerable, and with the Warriors and Rockets holding fast, the Spurs reloading with LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers building out their bench, Anthony Davis getting one year more tremendous and the Thunder getting "the best player in the world" back, Memphis' path to the Finals sure hasn't gotten any easier.
While offseason additions like athletic finisher Brandan Wright and central-casting swingman Matt Barnes could add more spice to the attack, they don't look like solutions for Memphis' perennial postseason problems. Plus, as valuable as continuity and institutional memory can be, they don't by themselves guarantee winning or inoculate you against the ravages of time; if things break bad, Memphis could find itself following in the footsteps of the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, two more-than-the-sum-of-our-parts collectives who saw their championship windows closed by injury and defection.
But this is the offseason, and hope springs eternal. Maybe come next May, it's the Grizzlies' opponent dealing with debilitating injuries rather than the other way around, as it was when Golden State dispatched Memphis, with Conley's fractured face and Allen's howling hamstring, in six games. Maybe rising sophomore Jordan Adams can earn enough of Dave Joerger's trust on defense to get a chance on offense, and maybe he gives Memphis a needed jolt on the perimeter.
Maybe Jeff Green can provide more consistent contributions given a full offseason and training camp to acclimate, or maybe general manager Chris Wallace can flip Green's expiring contract for more a reliable shooter who can split time at the forward spots. Maybe Vince Carter relocates the Fountain of Youth, or at least enough of his shooting touch to make more than 30 percent of his 3-balls.
Or, y'know, maybe none of that happens. Maybe what the Grizz give us this season is what they've given for the last half-decade: a defensive juggernaut whose style makes fights, whose stars can finish them, and who, with a little bit of luck, just might be able to get over the top. That sounds pretty good to me. There are worse things than knowing what you're going to get when what you're getting is awesome.
Previously, on BDL 25:
- - - - - - -