The Memphis Grizzlies just might be able to make the NBA Finals this season. However, that's not where Grizzlies fans should set the bar for their favorite team. Nor is an NBA championship, for which the Grizzlies are aiming.
That would be one of several lofty goals for this season in the "Grindhouse."
The Grizz can focus on a fixed set of realistic measures before shooting for the NBA Finals. One is winning a playoff series.
The capacity of this small-market team is fairly well-known. Memphis is a given to be one of the most competitive teams in the Western Conference, dominant on its home court.
Follow along to see some things fans can realistically expect from the Grizzlies.
Tony Wroten will have a slow start to his NBA career. He has a legitimate ability to score. However, his game is limited to driving to the basket, and he is only good going to one side.
His DraftExpress.com profile notes that he hasn't changed much with each new level of basketball he's approached. It said that his weaknesses "will likely become even more glaring at the next level, and none of which he's shown much of a learning curve with in his career."
Lionel Hollins has given his rookies modest playing time since becoming full-time head coach in 2009-10. In those three years, his rookies have received between 8.5 and 17 minutes per game. Sam Young was the only one to play more than 14 minutes per game.
Wroten will likely fall in that middle range as Hollins monitors his progress as a ball-handler.
Those who worry about whether Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph can coexist shouldn't worry. The two are tight teammates. Gay told Memphis Sport, "I see him as a big brother."
Gay dismissed the talk of whether he and Randolph can coexist in an interview with ESPN Radio 92.9 FM Memphis. Gay said, "It has little to do with us at all. It's easy for people to say, 'Well, it went one way without this person or even without me' but it's crazy because we haven't had a full season together."
During a media day interview with Lee Eric Smith of 3 Shades of Blue, Randolph also dismissed such talk. He said:
I don't know where that comes from. If you look at all the teams, they got two or three guys, so that don't make sense. You can win it just like Miami, with LeBron [James] and [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh. You make it work. Players make it work. It's basketball. He ain't selfish. I ain't selfish.
Randolph and Gay make their plays in their respective areas. Randolph scores within Lionel Hollins' double-post system. Gay makes it happen in transition and from the wing. Gay is anything but a selfish scorer. Rather, Grizzlies fans wish he'd score more selfishly. Randolph is a willing passer.
The item seems like an abstraction, and will remain as such.
It is reasonable to expect that the Grizzlies will finish in the top 15 in scoring average. They were 12th in the league in 2010-11 when Rudy Gay missed 23 games. Last season, they were 20th, but Zach Randolph was out for most of the year and O.J. Mayo was the only capable scorer off the bench.
This season, each of the starters enters the season in good condition. The Grizz replaced Mayo with another solid bench scorer, Jerryd Bayless. Also, Marreese Speights, who discovered an ability to score effectively in short minutes in the latter part of last season, will back up Randolph. Josh Selby looks ready to make progress as a scorer.
Memphis isn’t a high-flying offensive team, just good enough to outscore teams. That Lionel Hollins' squad will score better than most teams is reasonable to expect.
The Grizzlies led the league in steals and turnovers forced the last two seasons. There’s no reason not to assume they’ll do it a third year in a row. Last season, the Grizzlies had four players average at least a steal per game (Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo). Three of those players return this year.
Gay, Conley and Allen form a terrific turnover-forcing trio, averaging at least 1.5 steals each the last two seasons.
Much of the Grizzlies’ defensive identity is based on ball-hawking and turning turnovers into transition points. They won’t let themselves down by giving ball-handlers slack.
Tony Allen is a terrific defender, but he won’t be chosen as the best in the game. He does what perimeter defenders have to do to win the award—get steals. However, he has a few too many games in which he overpursues than he should if he is going to lead the league in the category.
Unfortunately, because he isn’t absolutely dominant with this crude stat, he won’t win the award.
Also, preference is often given to interior defenders. Tyson Chandler and Serge Ibaka dominated the conversation last season. Dwight Howard was on people’s lips for three seasons before that. The last perimeter defender to win it was Metta World Peace in 2003-04 (then known as Ron Artest).
Only two of the last 24 winners patrolled the perimeter.
Indeed, it’s easier for voters to give it to a big man because it’s easier to see how that player dominates on defense. Defensive impact is easier to measure—with defensive rebounds and blocks, as well as lower defensive ratings for dominant interior defenders than perimeter defenders.
The Grizzlies have four strong players in its core. However, not one of these guys stands out among his teammates enough to be on the watch list for the award. If Zach Randolph comes back strong and has a huge season, he could receive some sort of end-of-season recognition. However, a first-place MVP vote isn’t it.
Rudy Gay would have to average 25 points per game to be under consideration, but that’s not likely.
Marc Gasol is rising in the ranks among the NBA’s centers, but he isn’t a game-changer.
Mike Conley isn’t close since he isn’t even in the top five among point guards.
The MVP race will likely come down to LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. If Randolph or Gay has a spectacular season that vaults the Grizz to one of the top two spots in the conference, he’d be in the conversation. But that would be a surprise, to say the least.
A select number of teams receive multiple All-Star selections each year. Last season, six teams had multiple All-Stars. In 2011, five teams had multiple All-Stars.
The Grizzlies aren’t likely to be one of those teams this season. Marc Gasol received his first All-Star selection last season. He might get another nod this year. Zach Randolph is one of the three best power forwards in the game when he’s healthy and on his game. The question is whether he’ll come back on a rampage.
Rudy Gay is a spectacular scorer who can dazzle fans. However, he probably won’t stand out enough with his scoring to impress national observers.
Mike Conley likely won’t enter the conversation unless he breaks out as one of the top three point guards in the conference.
Anyway, earning an All-Star selection isn’t easy. For multiple players from the “Grindhouse” to make the All-Star team, a couple of guys will have to have huge first halves to the season.
Memphis is a balanced scoring team. In each of the last three seasons, this small-market team has had five players average double figures, but no one average more than 21 points.
In 2009-10, Zach Randolph averaged 20.8 points per game, the second highest figure in his career. The 31-year-old has averaged 20 points per game six times in his career. His career high was 23.6 points per game in 2006-07, but the Portland Trail Blazers didn't have any other real scorers playing at least 60 games that year.
He’s a multi-dimensional scorer, but not dominant enough to command an overwhelming share of the team’s scoring.
Rudy Gay hit his career high with 20.1 points per game in his second season. Since then, he’s simply deposited between 18.9 and 19.8 points per game. He’s never scored 25 points or more 20 times in a season. The knock on him has always been that he doesn’t take over games with his scoring like he could.
He could suddenly turn on his motor and become a monstrous scorer, but after six pro seasons, Gay seems like he’s become what he is—a pure scorer who isn’t quite one of the league’s biggest threats.
The Grizzlies can easily take a top-four spot in the Western Conference. The Southwest Division is stacked, but aside from the San Antonio Spurs, no team in the division has the depth or the tenacious lineup that Memphis has.
After the Grizzlies, Spurs, Lakers and Thunder, it’s hard to tell if any other team is capable of taking a top-four spot. The Clippers have a solid collection of talent, led by two supreme superstars in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. However, hardly anyone can say with certainty that the Clips can stay on the same wavelength as Vinny Del Negro for a full season.
The Nuggets could be on the rise with the addition of Andre Iguodala to a young, promising group. Iguodala, whose superb defense, sound passing and mid-level scoring make him a good glue guy for a middling team, can help take a team with fresh talent to the next phase.
He can be a good leader for JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried.
However, this group might not be quite ready to overtake an established Memphis crew.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap lead an impressive Utah Jazz team that can score the lights out any night of the week. However, Jefferson and Derrick Favors are the only ones who play decent defense.
The conference is filled with good teams, but the Grizzlies stand in the small group of teams that look primed for a home-court playoff spot.
Royce Young of CBSSports.com put it plainly when he said that last season ended in “a major disappointment” for the Grizzlies. After pushing the Thunder to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals in the 2011 playoffs, the Grizz couldn’t leave smiling unless they improved on the previous season’s finish.
A myriad of problems led to their first-round exit this past spring. Marc Gasol was off his game most of the series. O.J. Mayo could hardly hit a shot. Turnovers were a thorn in the team’s side. The list goes on.
Some might wonder if this team can get past the first round after the letdown against the Clippers. Nevertheless, this remains one of the premier defensive teams in the NBA. Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph are top-notch scorers. Gasol is raising his profile in that area.
The Grizz should grind past the first round at least. Depending on the second-round matchup, a Western Conference finals appearance shouldn’t be a surprise.