Are Memphis Grizzlies Prepared for the Next Generation of San Antonio Spurs?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 17, 2013

May 14, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dunks over Golden State Warriors small forward Harrison Barnes (40) in the third quarter in game five of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies clashed four times during the 2012-13 regular season and faced off in a memorable playoff series in 2011. But what's strange about the upcoming Western Conference Finals is that Marc Gasol and Co. still haven't had a chance to prepare for this version of the Spurs.

And that could prove to be a problem for the Grizzlies.

Memphis—along with every other team in the league—is perfectly acquainted with the Spurs' signature trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

The Grizzlies have run up against them plenty of times, and even knocked them out of the postseason two years ago, but a quick look back at the recent matchups between these teams shows that the past won't be particularly helpful in predicting the future.

That 2011 series between the Spurs and Grizzlies happened at a time when Danny Green was practically the last guy off the bench and Kawhi Leonard hadn't yet entered the NBA at all. And on the other side, Memphis was giving heavy minutes to O.J. Mayo, Sam Young and Shane Battier.

Those were two different teams.

Using more recent history as a guide doesn't help much, either. Three of the four meetings between the Spurs and Grizzlies this year took place before Memphis traded Rudy Gay. And in the lone meeting after that deal, the Spurs played without Leonard, who sat with a bum knee.

That meant San Antonio lacked plays like this:

So, with the fact that these teams are oddly unfamiliar with one another, it's worth looking at the potential challenges the Grizzlies will face against the latest incarnation of the Spurs.


The Problem With Green and Leonard

Here's the thing: You don't really game-plan to stop Green or Leonard. Both players do the vast majority of the offensive damage in transition, on spot-up opportunities or in scattered, offensive-rebound-type situations. Leonard, in particular, has made a habit of finding points with his athleticism and hustle alone.

In other words, San Antonio doesn't exactly run many plays for either of its athletic young wings.

This poses an interesting question for the Grizzlies, whose strengths include a pair of wing defenders in Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince who excel at making life difficult for scoring swing men.

With Leonard and Green likely to serve as floor-spacers and little else, is it really worth using Allen or Prince's considerable defensive talents on a couple of players who really aren't ever going to attack in one-on-one situations?

Probably not.

In fact, it seems most likely that Allen will square off with Parker, largely in an effort to keep Mike Conley out of foul trouble. But the point is that what Green and Leonard do on offense effectively nullifies one of Memphis' greatest assets: its staunch one-on-one perimeter defense.

What's more, both of the Spurs' young guns bring their own terrific defense to the party.

Green spent the bulk of San Antonio's semifinal series against the Golden State Warriors hounding Stephen Curry all over the floor. Fans everywhere took notice of how phenomenal Green was at defending the hottest shooter on the planet.

And recently, folks also seem to be coming around to Leonard's fantastic defensive versatility. As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney noted, Leonard's ability to cover huge swaths of the court and defend anyone from point guards to power forwards has given the Spurs a frightening new small-ball option.

For evidence of that, we need only to look at the final minutes of San Antonio's series-clinching win against the Warriors, in which Gregg Popovich actually benched Duncan and slid Leonard to the 4.

Sorry, Memphis. This year's Spurs have a pair of defenders in Green and Leonard that are every bit as good as Allen and Prince. But San Antonio's duo also poses a much bigger threat on the offensive end. Remember, Green shot nearly 43 percent from long range in the regular season, while Leonard hit a solid 37 percent of his triples.

The Grizzlies would kill for that kind of perimeter shooting from its starting wings.

If any team is capable of making adjustments on the fly—especially on defense—it's the Grizzlies. They've still got the best defensive player in the league in Gasol and a regular-season resume that features the NBA's second-best defensive rating.

As we head into what's sure to be a very competitive series, it's critical to remember that these aren't the same old Spurs. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are still the focal points of the team, but now there are a pair of dynamic young additions whom the Grizzlies can't afford to overlook.


*Stats via and unless otherwise indicated.