Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Memphis Grizzlies.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
If this sounds creepy, it's because it is. I'm cheerful about watching the Grizzlies because I absolutely cannot wait to see what this team decides to do in the face of pressure, and expectations.
There were expectations before -- show up to camp in shape, listen to your coach, play team ball, typical things -- but this is something else entirely. Few expected the Grizzlies to make the playoffs last year. Even fewer expected them to get out of or even take a game or two in the first round. For that group to then take Oklahoma City to seven games in the second round was a bit of a shocker to those who weren't paying attention to their late season swing into the postseason.
Now? People are paying attention. Some of the smarter basketball minds out there are even calling the Grizzlies championship contenders. With a rock at power forward, a stud at center, competent backcourt play and defensive game-changers all around, they would seem to have a point. The West is deep and talented, possibly seven or eight teams have a chance in that playoff bracket, but it isn't quite distinguished. The Grizzlies are part of that crew.
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And that's something to live up to. Especially when the Grizz made no major moves over the offseason save for re-signing center Marc Gasol, and adding a pair of leapster rookie guards. News came this week that talented forward Darrell Arthur will miss the entire season after tearing his Achilles tendon, and that's going to set things back.
Or, at least, it's going to create more opportunities for others to step up admirably. This is a chance for Rudy Gay, nobody's All-Star, to become the do-everything machine his potential has always screamed. To lock down on the perimeter and use his length on the interior while helping. To take his licks at backup power forward. To continue to refine himself as an outside shooter playing off of Zach Randolph, but to also earn his team trips to the line by crashing towards the rim off of broken plays. To become that glue piece, the Shawn Marion-type, that the Grizzlies so badly need.
They needed it even before Arthur went down, but now they'll be relying on Gay (assuming Zach Randolph, Gasol, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Tony Allen continue apace) more than ever. And that leaves me giddy. Cheerful, even, as the team attempts to make that next step.
You know what that "next step" is, right? This team played in the second round last year, and nearly won it. "Next step" has them -- the Grizzlies! -- in the Conference finals or even the Finals.
Something else, Memphis. Enjoy it.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Memphis Grizzlies
I'm so excited for you!
Like most Memphis fans, I'm really looking forward to seeing a healthy Rudy Gay back on the court and adding a soaring, imposing scoring element off the wing to balance the Grizzlies' bruising post tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Given the way Memphis finished the season without him, it's easy to forget that the former lottery pick out of UConn was playing arguably the best ball of his career before partially dislocating his left shoulder against the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 15.
Gay was hitting at career-best clips from the floor (47.1 percent), the 3-point line (39.6 percent) and the stripe (80.5 percent) and assisting on more than 10 percent of his team's baskets for the first time as a pro. On the other end of the court, he'd grabbed a higher percentage of available defensive rebounds than he had since his rookie year, lowered his Defensive Rating to 105 after four straight years of allowing opponents to produce 110 points or more per 100 possessions against him, and contributed more Defensive Win Shares through 54 games than he had in any of his previous four full seasons.
He wasn't Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, but given the array of contributions he was making, you could argue pretty convincingly that Rudy Gay was the third-best small forward in the Western Conference when he got shut down. There might be some early-season growing pains as Lionel Hollins looks to reintegrate Gay into the Grizzlies attack without forsaking the play-through-the-post identity the team cultivated down the stretch, but adding a player of Gay's caliber to a team that nobody wanted to play late in the year should make for a pretty exciting squad in Memphis.
I'm so worried for you!
The Grizzlies came within one game of the Western Conference Finals due, in large part, to their ability to dominate with a collection of massive, skilled bigs who overmatched opposing front lines, so it might sound weird to say that my big worry is Memphis' frontcourt depth. For the moment, though, Hollins' club is wafer-thin up front.
As of April 6, 2011, a week before the end of the regular season, Memphis had lost a total of 91 games to injury, illness or suspension, according to the intrepid game-note hunting of Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus. That was the 10th-lowest total in the NBA, meaning the Grizz were luckier than two-thirds of the league. I hunted through the notes for the final week of the Grizzlies' season myself; if my math's right, the final number was 103 games. The big-ticket items there were Gay missing 28 games, including the final 25 of the regular season, and first-round pick Xavier Henry missing 36 games due to knee problems. (Partially torn ligaments in Henry's right ankle will keep him out for at least the first month of this year, too.)
That means the rest of Memphis' roster missed a total of 39 games last year, very few of which came in the frontcourt. Gasol missed one October game with a sprained ankle; beyond that, he made all 81 starts. Z-Bo sat seven total games with back, ankle and elbow injuries, but was on the floor roasting cats for the remaining 75. Darrell Arthur sat out two December games nursing a groin injury; for the other 80, the 22-year-old Kansas product was an excellent do-everything big off the Grizzlies bench.
Unfortunately for Grizz fans, after suffering a season-ending tear to his right Achilles tendon during practice this past Sunday morning, Arthur won't be getting off the Grizzlies bench at all this year. Reserve tweener DeMarre Carroll now plies his trade with the Denver Nuggets. Restricted free agent center Hamed Haddadi still isn't in camp, as he's working on securing a visa that will enable him to return to the States from his native Iran. The Grizz are reportedly pursuing Charlotte Bobcats RFA Dante Cunningham and Sixers big man Marreese Speights, but nothing's done yet.
Right now, all that's in the cupboard behind Zach and Marc are a pair of ex-D-League training camp invitees -- 31-year-old Josh Davis, who made five starts for the 2004-05 Sixers, and Walter Sharpe, a 25-year-old out of UAB who last saw NBA time with the 2008-09 Detroit Pistons -- and the immortal Brian Skinner. The season doesn't start today, of course, but the specter of being one turned ankle away from extended minutes for one of that troika ought to have Memphis fans pretty well shook.
I have no idea what to make of you!
For me, one of the more amazing surprises of the Grizzlies' playoff run was the play of backup point guard Greivis Vasquez. I knew that the former second-team AP All-American out of Maryland had the kind of profile that could conceivably translate to the NBA game -- great size for a point at 6-foot-6, the ability to both facilitate an offense and create his own shot and, coming out of the ACC, big-game experience that could serve him well at the next level. But considering the knocks on him -- an iffy stroke, average athleticism, questions about both his commitment to defense and whether he could check opposing guards even when interested -- it didn't surprise me that he struggled to make much of an impact during the regular season.
And then the playoffs rolled around, and all of a sudden, it was showtime. It came in small doses -- the rookie guard from Venezuela only averaged 11 minutes per game -- but in the postseason, Vasquez became an incredibly productive member of the Grizzlies' backcourt rotation.
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He started hitting shots under the bright lights, improving his True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages by 10 points apiece. He showed more control of the offense and took better care of the ball, assisting on 30 percent of Memphis' made baskets during his time on the floor and dropping his turnover rate by 5.5 percent. He used that 6-foot-6 frame to help out on the glass, grabbing 13.3 percent of available defensive rebounds, a well-above-average mark for a guard. He doubled his Player Efficiency Rating from a paltry 9.4 during the regular season to 18.8 -- on par with season marks posted by guys like Joakim Noah and Chauncey Billups.
It was the kind of fantastic, unexpected performance that seemed to typify Memphis' late-season rise. If Vasquez can build off that playoff surge, he could give Hollins an interesting weapon off the bench -- a capable scorer and orchestrator unafraid of running the team in big moments when needed. If he reverts to his regular-season form, though, he could find himself losing minutes to highly-touted second-round pick Josh Selby ... until the playoffs roll around, at least.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: "Cast Away"
At its best, the Tom Hanks vehicle "Cast Away" is a hilarious comedy about a man yelling about making fire and talking to a face-painted volleyball. But the emotional heart of the movie (and the source of its title) comes after Hanks is rescued, when he returns to the people and settings of his previous life four years later and finds that everything has passed him by. There's simply nothing for him, so he goes to deliver a package he held for his entire time on the island -- this film is nothing if not a fantastic commercial for FedEx -- and has a very obviously metaphorical moment standing at a crossroads. You know, like where his life is!
Last season, before his season-ending shoulder injury, Rudy Gay was the Grizzlies' best player. But they got better after he went down, in part because they found an identity as an inside-out team with an emotional center in Gay's replacement Tony Allen. So while the return of such a good player would seem to be a huge help to a team that was only one win from making the conference finals, the team's future is uncertain. Will Gay upset the balance they found last spring?
It's unclear, but the circumstances of "Cast Away" hang over the franchise. We can only hope that Gay decides to grow an awesome beard as a personal statement.