The 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies were an overwhelming success given the terrible circumstances they were dealt. Settled into their usual middle-of-the-conference playoff spot around the All-Star break, the Grizzlies looked in danger of dipping out of the postseason entirely when All-NBA center Marc Gasol had his season ended by a broken foot in late February. Yet that serious injury proved to be just the first of many blows to the Memphis rotation. Star point guard Mike Conley missed the final 20 games of the season with a sore Achilles, starters Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes played or did not play based on their condition on any particular day, and many other contributors found themselves in the same predicament. Last season’s Grizzlies used a record 28 players in all, and many of the lineups they put forward in April were cobbled together just a few days prior.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies held on to finish 42-40, good enough for the No. 7 seed in the West. They offered no resistance to the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs in the first round, but having the opportunity to lose those four games was an accomplishment in itself. It may have taken a down year for the West’s mid-tier to do it, but Memphis persevered through one of the worst injury stretches an NBA team has ever had to make the postseason. It was a testament to the grit-n-grind philosophy the team has embodied for several seasons now and a reflection of Dave Joerger’s ability to get his team to play hard in the face of adversity.
So, naturally, the Grizzlies made headlines by parting ways with Joerger, hiring longtime Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale in his place, and signing free agent forward Chandler Parsons to a max-level contract that substantially changes the look of the team. These moves would perhaps be more controversial if the injuries to Gasol and Conley had derailed a legitimate championship contender. Instead, the Grizzlies appeared heading for a season much like the previous five or six — somewhere around 50 wins and a playoff exit against a contender clearly a level above them. The front office decided it was time for some changes to this formula in the hope that the team can challenge its West rivals with new looks while simultaneously keeping the toughness that has served this group so well.
There is reason to think that Fizdale is the man to make it happen. Still just 42 years old, the South Central native has been an NBA assistant since 2003 and a member of the Miami Heat’s bench since 2008. He has paid his dues and established himself as a basketball lifer, earning this opportunity with a level of determination that should mesh well with the Grizzlies’ guiding philosophies. He’s also forward-thinking and innovative enough to find ways to bring Memphis into the league’s new era of three-point shooting.
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Whether the team has the right personnel to make those adjustments is an open question. Adding Parsons was an attempt to do it, although there are many questions over his ability to make good on his lucrative four-year deal. What is clear is that it will bring some changes to a rotation that’s been in place throughout this Grizzlies era. Zach Randolph has already been shifted to a sixth man role, apparently to allow the team to play faster but also likely to ensure Parsons gets plenty of minutes as a stretch four. Gasol and Conley will remain the team’s leaders, but Parsons is now clearly the third biggest star. It’s a lot of responsibility for a player with knee issues that have already put his availability for the season opener into question.
Like many of the West’s regular playoff participants, the Grizzlies enter this season as a good team with enough questions to put their eventual finish into serious doubt. However, their situation is different if only because last year’s injury woes loom so large. Perhaps their luck will turn. Yet most of the team’s key players are coming off some major injury with the potential to turn nagging if it hasn’t already. They could just as easily return to their spots as a worthy challenger to the league’s best teams as they could crash and burn.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Tony Parker: It wasn't the same as all the great battles we've had with the Grizzlies in the past. They tried. It's just too hard w/injuries
— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) April 24, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Answers to this question will differ based on opinions of Fizdale, Joerger and Parsons. Those takes themselves rely on several unknowns, so it’s perhaps not worth getting too certain just yet.
The coaching change from Joerger to Fizdale was undoubtedly a big (and to many surprising) move given the success of the team over the former’s four seasons in charge. Yet The Vertical’s report on Joerger’s firing made it clear that on-court performance was just part of their reasoning. If Joerger and the front office couldn’t work together, then the dissolution of their relationship was just a matter of time. Better to end it before it became a major distraction and let both parties move on.
It would seem difficult for Fizdale to match Joerger’s ability to wring wins out of a limited team, but there are other ways for the Grizzlies to improve. Memphis has struggled to play different styles for several seasons and lagged far behind the rest of the league when it came to considering the value of three-point shooting. If Fizdale manages to modernize the offense without conceding what has made the Grizzlies a uniquely difficult matchup, he could create a much more imposing postseason opponent.
Parsons will be essential to achieving that goal, which probably isn’t what a lot of fans want to hear. The multi-talented forward turns 28 in this season’s opening week and finds himself at a bizarre career crossroads considering he just signed for more than $90 million. After making his name as a second-round find for the Houston Rockets, Parsons went to Dallas as a player who could help the team transition out of Dirk Nowitzki’s prime. Instead, right knee problems required relatively minor microfracture surgery in May 2015. A four-month recovery did not keep Parsons from experiencing lingering issues that kept him out of the last 13 games of the regular season and all five of the Mavericks’ playoff games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Parsons doesn’t currently own the profile of a player who can transform the style of a playoff team. In fact, fans couldn’t be criticized for considering him one of the biggest question marks on the team.
If things work out, though, then Parsons could be a big success. The Grizzlies have been in desperate need of a competent stretch four since the trend caught on several seasons ago and now have more options when circumstances dictate a change in approach. Fizdale did Parsons no favors when he recently compared his skillset to that of LeBron James, but it’s at least possible to see where he was gesturing. Parsons is an able shooter, a quality distributor, and a good enough rebounder not to embarrass his new teammates. He’s exactly the kind of player the Grizzlies should have targeted given their needs and expectations as a small market.
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That last bit is not inconsequential to this acquisition. Parsons is the first relatively big name to choose to move to Memphis in free agency, which automatically made the announcement of his deal an important moment in the history of the franchise. Put simply, Parsons was valuable to the Grizzlies because they did not have a chance of adding a player of similar quality in any other way. They needed someone for this role, targeted the best man they could hope to acquire, and made the deal happen. The contract could come back to bite them in several years, but for now it looks pretty good.
The same could be said of the team’s record five-year max-level deal for Mike Conley, who owns the most lucrative contract in NBA history at $153 million. Conley is now an established star and master of tempo control, but the notion of a point guard with an Achilles problem should strike fear into the hearts of many fans. However, the Grizzlies had to hand him that massive contract, because this team would fold without him. Someone would have given Conley a max deal, and that gigantic salary will begin to look saner as the rest of the league adjusts to the league’s new cap reality. Regardless, concern is warranted.
Memphis made a few other minor additions, the most notable of which came through the draft. Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin IV will be asked to provide needed depth behind Conley and as a spot-up shooter, while Michigan State big man Deyonta Davis surprisingly fell to the first pick of the second round and represents something of a long-term value play for the Grizzlies. Both could eventually take on bigger roles, but expect them to make stints at the end of the rotation or just briefly over the first few months.
Potential breakout stud:
It’s Parsons by default. With Conley and Gasol established as team leaders, Randolph in a lesser role, and the rest of the team hard to imagine as anything but role players, Parsons is the one guy who can change the look of this team. It’s a little odd to pick out a guy with a max contract as a breakout player, but the injuries and questions about his contract mean he could surprise people. Plus, Parsons has a key tactical role that could remake the Grizzlies’ squad substantially.
Plus, his career highs are modest enough that he can impress with a fairly normal-looking season. Averages of 17 points (50 percent from the field and 42 percent on threes), six rebounds, and four assists per game would represent the best season of Parsons’s career in all categories. Is that so impossible for a player who should be entering his prime?
Parsons stays healthy and lends Memphis all the versatility, playmaking, and shooting that they have lacked. Gasol returns from his broken foot with no lingering effects. Conley does the same with his Achilles. Randolph thrives in his bench role and wins Sixth Man of the Year. Fizdale injects fresh ideas without changing the essential positives of the grit-n-grind philosophy. The Grizzlies take advantage of several down seasons in the West to make the conference finals and give the Warriors all they can handle in a seven-game series.
If everything falls apart:
Parsons never gets healthy and looks like a four-year mistake. Conley impresses in flashes but generally seems like a player on the downswing of his career. Gasol hobbles his way through the year and misses 20 games or more. Randolph doesn’t take to the bench. The team doesn’t fit with Fizdale’s new ideas and pushes for a rebuilding process. The Grizzlies barely make the playoffs before suffering an embarrassing sweep at the hands of a former rival.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
40-42, 9th in the West with the worst odds of winning the draft lottery.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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