The Memphis Grizzlies entered this season as an established Western Conference playoff team, albeit one that perhaps had reached its ceiling. There are worse fates than winning 50-plus games and maybe a playoff series every year, but there is also something unfortunate about succeeding in so many ways and failing to reach the ultimate prize. If the Grizzlies were lucky enough to be able to depend on their grit-and-grind identity, then they also sometimes appeared hemmed in by it.
The 2014-15 team is a different squad. With a healthy Marc Gasol leading the way, Memphis has emerged as a bona fide offensive force, with a points-per-possession ranking that's actually better at that end of the floor (10th) than on defense (11th). At second in the loaded West, they are a legitimate championship contender.
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The Grizzlies' depth and quality were on full display for Tuesday night's game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Playing without point guard Mike Conley (wrist sprain) and defensive terror Tony Allen (ankle sprain), the visitors still managed to thump the West's sixth-best team boasting one of the finest offenses around. Memphis built on a 10-point lead to come away with a 109-90 victory.
They did it primarily with offense, particularly by going through Zach Randolph for a succession of 17-footers over the outstretched arms of Tyson Chandler. Z-Bo had 16 of his 22 points (10-of-15 FG) in the second half and added 10 boards, putting up a double-double for the 10th straight game. Here's a look at his night:
Gasol added 15 points and six assists while serving more as a facilitator in Conley's absence.
Randolph earned notice earlier in the day for being blunt about his hopes for this season. In a piece on the Grizzlies' evolution and identity, TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz got Z-Bo to identify the specialness of this year:
“It’s the year,” Zach Randolph said after Monday’s shootaround. “Everybody feels it. We feel it. We’ve been in the Western Conference finals. We’ve been that close.” [...]
“We’ve been through it so long that we know how each other is going to react and that we can trust each other,” Gasol said. “But the game is evolving and we as players and as a team have to evolve. You have to change things and adjust. We’re the same players and we run the same sets, but -- it’s like the Spurs -- they need tweaks and changes and counters from game to game and year to year in order to evolve.”
The Grizzlies' improvement is genuinely impressive, if also perhaps more dependent on the health of MVP candidate and All-Star starter Gasol (who missed 23 games last season) than any shift in approach. Nevertheless, the Grizzlies look stronger and more versatile than in years past, with new addition Jeff Green providing scoring punch from the wing, Conley playing like a star, and various other players contributing all around the court. It's hard to find many weaknesses here — even the three-point shooting, a longtime area of need, is tied for 15th in the league.
However, it's very possible to read Z-Bo's point that this is the year for the Grizzlies to win as both a culmination of all that has come before and a warning for the future. For one thing, Gasol is an unrestricted free agent this summer and should have his pick of several teams ranging from perennial contenders (the Spurs) to glamorous destinations (the Knicks). Even if he stays, Randolph and Allen are both 33 years old and may not play at a high level for much longer.
Then again, the whole point of the 2014-15 Grizzlies is that they've surprised the NBA world by adapting to reach a new level of success. These apparent challenges could very well be opportunities in disguise.
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