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 2016-17.
This time last year, I wrote what amounted to a love letter to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose commitment to flouting NBA futurism in favor of doubling down on suffocating defense and brutalizing interior offense had transformed an island of misfit toys into “something like a paragon of consistency and reliability.” There’s a lot to be said for knowing who you are and who you’re not, and for insisting on playing to your strengths even if everybody else seems to be heading in another direction.
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No team in NBA history has ever used more players than the 2015-16 Grizzlies, who spent much of the season — and especially the second half — engaged in near-constant triage. Night after night, Dave Joerger and his staff responded to whichever crisis was freshest and most dire, hoping against hope that they could keep plugging the leaks and remain afloat just long enough to make the playoffs for the sixth straight season. It wasn’t easy without dual linchpins Marc Gasol (fractured foot) and Mike Conley (Achilles tendinitis), and it got even harder without capable backup point guard Mario Chalmers, and without hoped-for backup center Brandan Wright, and with big men Zach Randolph and Chris Andersen missing time, and so on, and so on.
They made it, though, finishing 42-40, good for seventh place in the conference despite sputtering and coughing their way across the finish line with the NBA’s fifth-worst “net rating” (whether you outscore your opponent over the span of 100 possessions, or vice versa) after the All-Star break. Memphis’ answer to The Suicide Squad was promptly snuffed out by the San Antonio Spurs in an easy breezy four-game sweep, but there was dignity in the struggle, a valor in the persistent baring of teeth even against unconquerable odds that seemed distinctly Memphian. It moved Joerger to tears.
Admirable as Memphis’ raging against the dying of the light was, though, the late-season battle couldn’t obscure the uncomfortable truth. Even when healthy, the Grizzlies — stylistically satisfying and competitive as they’ve been with an offense built around the interior talents of Gasol and Randolph, and a choke-you-out defense led by Tony Allen — just didn’t have the horses to hang with the NBA’s elite.
“We never set out to have a post-oriented team,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace told ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz this past spring. “Our personnel led us in that direction.”
And when attempts were made to alter that direction — like when Joerger, upon taking over for Lionel Hollins in 2013, tried to goose the pace at which the Grizzlies played by exhorting his charges to push the ball into the frontcourt faster after stops, trying to run more drag screens in transition, and looking for opportunities to find early offense rather than waiting for everyone to get set and dumping the ball into Gasol at the elbow or Randolph on the block — the bigs bucked back. The pace remained glacial, the offense primarily elbows-and-in, the variety limited — and the results, too often, predictable.
Now, though, the personnel’s a little different. Yes, Z-Bo and Allen are still entrenched as the team’s spiritual leaders and totems … but they’re 35 and 34 years old, respectively, each in the final year of his contract. Yes, Gasol’s still the man in the middle, one year removed from receiving a five-year maximum-salaried contract … but as much as the Spaniard stands as the backline commander and frontcourt facilitator who gives the Grizzlies life, he’s now 31 and coming off a season-ending foot injury that’s wreaked havoc on big men before, which has to have Memphis’ brass at least a bit concerned about expecting as much from him as they have in the past.
Now, the two highest-paid Grizzlies operate outside the paint. Conley, as steady a two-way lead guard as there is in the league and the highest-wattage point man in an admittedly weak free-agent market at the position, netted a record-setting five-year, $153 million max contract to stay in Tennessee. In the process, Conley also worked to recruit former Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons to help fill Memphis’ long-gaping shooting and playmaking void on the wing … all for the dear price of four years and $94 million.
Now, the Grizzlies’ roster features a handful of intriguing young players who might be able to provide changes of pace at positions of need. Incoming rookies Wade Baldwin IV (a smooth, defensively capable combo guard out of Vanderbilt) and Deyonta Davis (an athletic and energetic rim-runner and space defender from Michigan State) could offer a spark. Offense-first guards Andrew Harrison and Troy Daniels could add some playmaking and floor-spacing to a team perennially in need of both.
Big men JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin both showed flashes when afforded rotation opportunities last season. Athletic swingman James Ennis, who came up with the Miami Heat and spent some time in Memphis last season, put up a shade under 16 points and four rebounds in 31 minutes per game during his season-closing stint with the similarly injury-addled New Orleans Pelicans, and returns to Beale Street with a chance to make his presence felt off the bench at the three spot.
And now, with Joerger out amid long-simmering front-office tensions, longtime Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale is in place to run the show. Now, Memphis has a coach who didn’t come up with “grit ‘n’ grind,” whose stock in trade over the years has been player development, and who sees reliance on a more diversified — and perhaps even perimeter-oriented — attack as the Grizzlies’ path forward. From a great Summer League chat with Fizdale by Matt Moore of CBSSports.com:
“The style of play is going to change the way [Conley] looks offensively,” Fizdale said. “We talked about giving him the first six seconds of every possession. In the past, which I’m not knocking because I have so much respect for those coaches and the success that that they had, but they played a different style where they posted their bigs first and then Mike had the ball at the end of the possession. I want to give Mike the opportunity early on to attack and make plays, and then we’ll get that end of possession post-up for Zach or Marc out of movement where teams can’t just load up on them.” […]
“[Parsons is] gonna be my LeBron James. He’s gonna be my Dwyane Wade,” Fizdale said, obviously not comparing Parsons’ talent to those two future Hall of Famers, but describing the kind of high-involvement, hyper-versatile role he envisions for Parsons. “He’s gonna be the guy I put into every offensive situation imaginable. He’s 6-9, 6-10, he can handle, he can shoot, he can run pick and roll, he can post, he can work off the elbow, he can set pick and rolls.”
“There are so many ways I want to use him. And obviously catch-and-shoot is what he does well already. I’m going to move him around a lot. With the personnel we have, he’s very unique. We don’t really have a guy like that, a lot of teams in the league don’t have a guy like that. I want to put him in the optimum situation offensively where he can be impactful.”
It’s all there in Fizdale’s vision. Attack early. Make plays. Playmaking wings and stretch fours. More motion. More variety. More shooting and, Lord willing, more making. Less yesterday. More today.
To some degree, that’s a bummer for those us who have inhaled deeply of “grit ‘n’ grind,” one of the league’s most invigorating and beloved identities. And yet, as Joe Mullinax of Grizzly Bear Blues recently wrote, “Once you come to terms with the passing of that era, you can have a clearer view to the future.”
The 2016-17 Grizzlies won’t completely move away from bread-and-butter post-ups and face-ups, but if Wright and Parsons are healthy, and if a couple of the young wings — Baldwin, Daniels, Harrison, perpetually injured 2014 first-rounder Jordan Adams — can pop, Memphis could look more like a modern NBA offense, with better spacing, more side-to-side movement and a quicker pace, all orchestrated by the Grizzlies’ conductor and heartbeat. If it goes right, the Grizzlies could have more answers than just, “Hold them to 80 and we’ve got a shot,” which sounds like a pretty promising shift in a league where stagnation is death.
It could all go sideways, of course — if Fizdale’s hoped-for changes meet with the same resistance that Joerger’s did, if the big guns aren’t healthy and Memphis’ young and largely untested bench isn’t ready for prime time, etc. But a half-dozen years after catching lightning in a bottle to put themselves on the NBA map, the Grizzlies have chosen to chart a new path toward sustained relevance and, with any luck, a return to the ranks of the clubs with a real shot at making the conference finals. The goal remains the same, even if the grind might not.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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