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Why Memphis Grizzlies Do and Don't Deserve Their Early Contender Status

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IOctober 10, 2016

Why Memphis Grizzlies Do and Don't Deserve Their Early Contender Status

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    The Memphis Grizzlies have continued their stretch of improvement and have started the season 8-2. Though they are currently atop the Southwest Division and look the best they have since Lionel Hollins assumed full-time coaching duties in 2009, it's a bit too early for fans to get excited.

    To their credit, Memphis does look great thus far and has a new attitude that's only going to help them going forward. Mike Conley looks as locked in as ever at the point, and Zach Randolph appears to have finally found the balance that eluded him up until this year. In terms of leadership, Rudy Gay has been incredible and appears well on his way to his first All-Star berth.

    However, Memphis still has a long way to go if they want to be considered top contenders. They are still a very young team and are learning the ins and outs of defeating more experienced crews.

    They definitely deserve something of a contender status, but not to the point where they should be ranked among the best.

Do: The New Zach Randolph

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    For most of his career, Zach Randolph has been a good scorer who could also hold his own in the rebounding department. However, he never really fought for a loose ball and just simply grabbed those that came to him. For his career, he has averaged 17.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

    This year, however, Randolph seems to finally be taking advantage of his 6'9", 260 pound frame. Not only is he averaging 16.7 points per game, but he is also leading the league in rebounding with 13.8 per contest.

    Even more incredible, Randolph has had a double-double in every one of the Grizzlies' games this season. Once a scorer, he now appears committed to being a well-rounded power forward in that he'll play defense before taking a shot.

    So long as he can keep that up, the Grizzlies will continue to play well and make a case for a top seed in the Western Conference.

Don't: Only 10 Games Played

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    Yes, the Grizzlies' recent eight-game winning streak was fun to watch, but it's still way too early to start labeling them as a team that could win it all. They are a deep and talented team, but let's not forget that they have only played 10 games thus far.

    All it takes is for one key player to get hurt, and the house could fall down. For example, if Randolph's injury history rears its ugly head, that leaves Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur as options at power forward.

    Both men bring their own set of skills to the table, but don't have the same impact as Randolph. Speights' best work comes on defense, but he moves slowly and isn't as great an athlete. Arthur can hold his own defensively, but has yet to really wow anyone and is recovering from a preseason injury.

    Also, suppose the team now goes on a losing streak? Memphis shares a division with two championship-caliber teams in the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, so just one bad stretch could be enough to knock them out.

    Don't get me wrong. The Grizzlies are a strong team committed to excellence, but fans shouldn't count their chickens before they've hatched.

Do: Balanced Attack

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    One of the best things about the Grizzlies is that their starters are a strong and cohesive group of five that play well with each other. On that same note, in any particular game, there's no telling which of them will take over and carry the team to victory. It may be Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph one night, or even powerful center Marc Gasol.

    Even point guard Mike Conley is starting to show that he can take over on offense. In Memphis' 94-87 victory against the Charlotte Bobcats on November 17, the former Ohio State Buckeye scored 20 points on 7 of 12 shooting while also coming away with four steals. On the season, he is averaging 14.4 points 6.6 assists and two steals per game.

    It's rare to see such a balanced attack from such a young team, let alone any team in the NBA. With their ability to share the ball and go head-to-head with more experienced teams, this is only going to help the Grizzlies.

Don't: A Weak Bench

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    Wayne Ellington's (pictured) 25-point performance against the Miami Heat aside, the Grizzlies bench does little more than provide the starters with a brief rest. Save for forward Quincy Pondexter, everybody outside the starting lineup averages less than 20 minutes per game.

    This is simply criminal. Coach Lionel Hollins has some great size on the end of his bench in 7'2" Hamed Haddadi, and second-year guard Josh Selby barely gets any playing time despite being a co-MVP (shared with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers) of the NBA Summer League.

    In five games, Selby averaged 24.2 points and 2.4 steals per game while shooting an incredible 64 percent from three-point range. Granted, he wasn't facing All-Star lineups, but the numbers speak for themselves. The fact alone that generally disappointing Jerryd Bayless gets more playing time than Selby is just preposterous.

    More importantly, what if the Grizzlies are in a key playoff game and the entire starting five struggles? With no clear sixth man who can take over in every way, shape and form, this is a problem.

Do: Defense, Defense and More Defense

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    Defense wins championships, and the Grizzlies play it well. They are ranked seventh in the NBA in opponents' points allowed and have one of the league's best young centers in Marc Gasol. The 27-year-old is averaging 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game through 10 games, and has shown marked improvement in limiting his turnovers.

    Gasol also has great size at 7'1", 265 pounds, and forms a great frontcourt tandem with Randolph. Their combined tenacity was enough to stop the red-hot New York Knicks on November 16, and will surely carry Memphis far into the playoffs if the matchup gods are kind to the young team.

    In the backcourt, Conley and shooting guard Tony Allen average a combined 1.9 steals per game. That number may appear low, but it's a testament to just how well either man sticks to their opponent like glue. They never back down, nor do they try to do too much when covering their man, and are easily two of the most underrated pests in the game today.

    Given how the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat couldn't get past Memphis' defense, it's going to be interesting to see how other championship-caliber teams try and approach it.

Don't: The San Antonio Spurs

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    As good as the Grizzlies have looked this season and over the past couple of years, they still have to deal with the veteran San Antonio Spurs on a daily basis. The two share a division and while No. 8 Memphis may have defeated No. 1 San Antonio in the playoffs back in 2011, but the Spurs are still the better overall team.

    Nothing against the Grizzlies, but the current group of players have yet to win a championship together, nor have they been to the playoffs enough as a team. In terms of playoff experience, though they have fought tooth and nail in every battle, they are quite green.

    San Antonio, on the other hand, has a core group that has won three championships together. They have finished atop the Western Conference in each of the past two years and came within two wins of the NBA Finals.

    The team looks even better this season now that head coach Gregg Popovich is starting to incorporate some of the younger players, which could prove to be a problem for Memphis over the course of the season, as they will face the Spurs four times.

    With the division, and thus playoff seeding, in the balance, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Spurs play dream-killer and expose the Grizzlies as the young and inexperienced squad that they really are.

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