The first pictures of a post-Rudy Gay world were none too pretty for the Memphis Grizzlies. They shot 34.7 percent from the field and managed just 19 assists on 34 makes in a 106-89 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in which Memphis trailed by as many as 26 points.
But one blowout loss does not a solid sample size make. Especially when the Grizz were operating without the players (i.e. Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye) for whom they sacrificed Gay and backup big man Hamed Haddadi. Especially when that trade constituted the second major shakeup of the team's roster in less than two weeks, after the new front office shipped Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a cost-cutting measure.
And especially when the opponent in question is the defending Western Conference champion and may well be the best team in the NBA.
That being said, Thursday night's game at Chesapeake Energy Arena offered Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies coaching staff a glimpse into what they can and should expect from their remaining players, and what they'll need to glean from the new arrivals.
On the offensive end, anyway. The Grizzlies were already second in the NBA in defensive efficiency and tops in turnovers as a percentage of their opponents' possessions.
Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley Jr.—premiere defenders all—moved nary an inch from the Music City amidst the chaos. The addition of Prince, a four-time All-Defensive performer, only figures to bolster Memphis' advantage on that end of the floor.
The offense, though, is a different story entirely. The Grizzlies were already a ghastly 21st in offensive efficiency with Gay, and don't figure to improve in that regard with Prince, a spot-up shooter never mistaken for a shot creator, stepping into a role on the wing.
Say what you will about Rudy's shooting percentages and overall efficiency, which were both exceedingly poor for a player of his pay grade. But the guy's solo artistry was an integral part of what little success the Grizzlies have had on the offensive end. His athleticism, ball-handling and ability to get off shots under duress forced opposing defense to bend as they attempted to stifle him.
That very bending created critical space in which Memphis' dynamic big-man duo of Gasol and Zach Randolph could operate. The sort of space that outside shooting (which the Grizzlies lack) would normally help to carve out and that Gay's slashing served to promote.
The absence of such space was abundantly clear for Memphis against OKC. Without a bona fide threat to burn them from the perimeter, the Thunder simply packed the paint on defense and dared the Grizzlies to shoot long jumpers.
Not surprisingly, Scott Brooks' strategy worked to perfection. The Grizzlies guards had an exceedingly difficult time driving into the middle and delivering the ball to Gasol and Z-Bo, who combined for 25 points on 10-of-32 shooting with six turnovers.
Randolph, in particular, had a rough go of it sans Rudy. His 19 rebounds (nine offensive) made for an eye-popper, but didn't come close to making up for missing his first 10 attempts of the evening.
With the middle of the court practically off limits, the Grizzlies proceeded to launch 25 attempts from three-point range—well above their season average of 13.7 per game (29th in the league). Predictably enough, Memphis made just six of those long-range shots.
It didn't help Memphis, either, that its bench was once again nowhere to be found. Darrell Arthur, Chris Johnson and Tony Wroten Jr. combined to score 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Which is hardly a shock coming from the third-least productive bench in the NBA (one that's been drained in recent weeks).
This cocktail of poor perimeter shooting, a nothingburger-of-a-bench and slow-footed skill inside could prove lethal for the Grizz, enough so to imperil their pursuit of a deep playoff run as a top-four seed out West.
With or without Rudy, Memphis was always going to be dependent on the dynamic duo of Gasol and Randolph to lead the way offensively. Those two carried the Grizz to the brink of the Western Conference Finals two years ago while Gay was sidelined with a shoulder injury, and have remained the axis on which Memphis spins ever since. In theory, removing Gay from the equation meant more touches and more responsibility for those two All-Stars.
In practice, though, leaning so heavily on Gasol and Z-Bo will be much easier said than done if the Grizzlies can't space the floor. Their opponents need only follow OKC's defensive blueprint of sagging off the three-point line and clogging the lane to make life on the court frustrating for the Grizzlies.
As such, it's incumbent upon Mike Conley, a career 37.8 percent shooter from three, and Jerryd Bayless, who scored a season-high 23 points against the Thunder, to put pressure on opposing defense from the perimeter. They'll have to knock down open looks in order to convince their foes to respect their strokes and step away from Gasol and Z-Bo therein.
Prince should be of service in this regard. He's not necessarily a worrisome threat on the offensive end overall—at least not one that opponents game-plan for—but he is a solid shooter from distance nonetheless. He's made 37 percent of his three-point attempts as a pro (albeit with only 1.8 coming per game).
Bayless' role in this transformation is particularly critical. His three-point percentages have fluctuated from year to year, though he's proven at times that he can knock down shots from beyond 16 feet with relative regularity.
More importantly, Jerryd Bayless is the closest thing the Grizz now have to a Rudy Gay-esque isolation scorer. He sports a solid, creative handle and has shown himself capable of hitting shots off the dribble, contested and otherwise, when the occasion calls for it.
Efficiency experts may not care for such low-percentage attempts, but they're an inevitable outgrowth of Memphis' slow, deliberate offense. According to 82games.com, 43 percent of the Grizzlies' field-goal attempts have come during the final eight seconds of the shot clock, when the looks are typically either terrific (due to ball movement) or terrible (due to the scrambling sense of urgency).
Like it or not, someone's going to have to take those shots. At present, Bayless seems like the player best equipped to handle such a stat-crippling responsibility.
But Bayless has only been in the Music City since the start of the season and has never been a great shooter beyond the scope of stepping to the free-throw line. Those factors may make it difficult for the Grizzlies to trust the 24-year-old with such an immense task, leaving many of those tough shots in the hands of Conley.
In any case, the non-Gay alternatives are all far from ideal. The Grizzlies were light on shooting and slashing as is. Subtracting Rudy from the equation only figures to exacerbate those problems, while creating even more of a mess for Gasol and Z-Bo to clean up.
To be sure, those two are capable of shouldering a sizable load for the Grizzlies. Randolph is a powerful scorer in the low post, and Gasol's as good a passing big man from just about anywhere on the floor outside of his older brother (Pau Gasol).
But neither is particularly fleet of foot or perimeter oriented. Marc can play pick-and-pop, but is far from what one might consider a reliable scorer.
Can the Grizzlies win the title without Rudy Gay
All told, the only way Memphis is going to move forward successfully is if they all chip in, as a team, to make up for Gay's departure. Conley, Bayless and Prince will have to pose a greater collective threat to opposing defenses. Gasol and Z-Bo will have to produce more points and work harder to lubricate what was already a rather stodgy offense. The second unit of Ed Davis, Pondexter, Arthur, Tony Wroten and Chris Johnson will have to do more than just take up space on the bench.
That's how good teams do great things—they do them together. They play for each other, they help each other and they fill in the gaps for one another, especially when the front office doesn't do it for them.
It'll be no different for these Grizzlies. Nobody will pity them for parting ways with a terrific talent who nonetheless struggled to live up to lofty expectations. Nobody will feel sorry for a team with a one-two punch of Gasol-Randolph.
But that was always going to be the case with Memphis, as it is for every squad with championship aspirations. Just ask the Thunder. They demolished the shorthanded Grizzlies, like they have the rest of the league this season, but only after running into a buzzsaw otherwise known as the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Winning in the NBA is hard, and becomes even harder at the highest levels. In this regard, the Grizzlies' battle was always going to be one fought uphill. Trading away Rudy Gay doesn't necessarily change that, though it likely renders the task at hand that much more treacherous.
Still, if Lionel Hollins can rally his troops and get them to play the sort of physical, grind-it-out ball that they have all season, then the loss of Rudy Gay may well turn out to be a fork in Memphis' road to bigger and better things, now and into the future.