With the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs as the odds-on favorites to win it all with high-powered offense, the Memphis Grizzlies have gone in the other direction in an attempt to grind their way to an NBA championship.
Is that still a viable way to win a title?
Taking a look at Miami's championship team a season ago, the Heat did have the fourth-ranked defense, allowing just a shade over 100 points per possession, but they backed it up with an eighth-ranked offense. They were hardly pulling teeth to score.
It's been nine seasons since a team ranked outside of the top 10 in points per possession won a championship. That would be, of course, the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
The '04 Pistons were 18th in points per possession and 24th overall in points per game. They made up for those stats by giving up just 89.4 points per game. Of course, once they traded for Rasheed Wallace, they did have a bit more firepower, averaging an additional point more per game.
We've seen the Grizzlies go on an impressive run since trading Rudy Gay, the only guy who could have been considered a dominant scoring threat. This has, more or less, turned them into a version of the 2004 Pistons.
After trading Gay and acquiring Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis, Memphis has won 15 of 19 games. The Grizzlies have given up just 88 points per game and 100 or more points just twice, while averaging over 94 points, an improvement on the season average.
Tony Allen has talked about the vibe around this Memphis team since the trade (via Sulia's Alex Kennedy):
Well, I just think we turned into the team that we were two years ago, without the guy that we traded. Obviously, we've made some additions, but for the most part we're the same team from that 2010-11 season. Just Grit and Grind, in and out basketball. Everybody playing hard, playing together.
The 2011 Grizzlies were incredibly stout on defense (with Rudy Gay injured), knocking down the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. In the second round, they pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games but just couldn't finish them off.
Two years later, they have a deeper bench, a more seasoned defense and an offense that can assert itself at times.
Memphis can play at a slow pace, send its offense through the post and defend well enough to beat anybody in the NBA, but can that style still lead to an NBA championship?
Well, yes—Memphis could win a championship by emphasizing its defense and gritty, grimy offense, but it's a lot harder to play that way now than it was when the Pistons did it in 2004.
The main difference between the 2004 Pistons and the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies is the hand-check rule. Hand-checking was abolished everywhere but directly beside the basket in the season following Detroit's championship. Players had to go from playing defense with their hands to playing defense with their feet.
Scoring became easier, and acquiring the best scorers possible became key. Meanwhile, defensive prowess (at least on the perimeter) went by the wayside, as it's harder for perimeter defenders to make as big an impact. That's why Allen makes just $3 million this year.
A defensive-minded team has to play a more flawless game, as a slight slip-up here and there could mean a streak of points from its opponents, negating all the hard work throughout the game.
One of the hardest things for a defensive team to do is play from behind, as it has to get back into the game in a much different way than an offensive team.
For an offensive team, going on a run means scoring quickly and frequently, potentially getting back into a game and cutting down a lead in just a few minutes.
A defensive team has to go on a run by bearing down even more on defense and scoring at a slightly elevated pace. This takes a huge chunk of time to turn the game around, which becomes even more difficult in the playoffs when everyone is playing at an elevated level.
This Grizzlies team could very well win an NBA championship, but it would be one of the more impressive feats in sports if it were to happen.