Immediate Hurdles the Memphis Grizzlies Must Face This Season
Marc Gasol considered not only the Memphis Grizzlies' sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, but also the path to travel to an NBA Finals berth as he sat on the scorer's table at the end of the conference finals. That trail became more complex with the Grizzlies' coaching change, other teams' moves and Memphis' lack of exciting transactions.
The Grizzlies stand in a changing Western Conference landscape. Every Southwest Division team has a chance at the playoffs and three have finals aspirations. Also, the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are widely believed to have passed Memphis as contenders.
The Grizz have their share of obstacles before they find themselves playing in June. Offensive corrections, such as opening their shooting options, must be made. New head coach Dave Joerger can't let this scrappy dark horse fade. Like last season, the Grizz will face a close race for a top-four playoff spot.
Here's a look at how they can jump their biggest hurdles.
What's the biggest issue the Grizzlies face this season?
See that Joerger hits the ground running
Whereas most new coaches take over a bad team, Joerger leads a team that had its best season record and deepest playoff run. Lionel Hollins slowly built a contender predicated on tough defense.
Joerger was part of Hollins' staff, but doesn't plan to do everything the same way as his predecessor. The six-year assistant looks to install genuine offensive schemes.
Marc Gasol told ESPN he's excited about Joerger's plan to speed up an offense that had the slowest pace in the NBA last year, saying, "He's going to push the tempo and have a lot of plays from his pocket that he's told me [about]. And I'm excited about next season."
Having Gasol on board with the new schemes before training camp is valuable because he was one of the team's two most important facilitators. With Gasol and Mike Conley running the offense at the right tempo and rhythm, the new concept of focused offense should work smoothly.
In another break from the old head coach, Joerger wants to play Gasol, Conley and Randolph fewer minutes, according to ProBasketballTalk. Each of them played more than 34 minutes per game.
Also, as an assistant moving into the head coaching role, Joerger faces a challenge in the transition. As The Commercial Appeal noted, he's "fun and outgoing." Generally, assistant coaches are more easygoing than head coaches. That was stark in Memphis, with the confrontational Hollins and the nicer Joerger.
He'll have a tall task in commanding the respect of a variety of personalities and ensuring that leaders like Gasol and Tony Allen stay strong as leaders.
Getting the best from their perimeter shooters
The Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting was exposed in the conference finals when the Spurs collapsed on Gasol and Zach Randolph on the inside and attacked Mike Conley.
The Grizz took the fewest three-point attempts in the league and were 24th in three-point field-goal percentage last season. Pondexter was the only player to shoot 37 percent from behind the line.
Since Mike Miller was Memphis' only significant acquisition for the backcourt, they'll mostly look for perimeter development from within. Miller will likely play 15 minutes per game, and he'll only take three shots from beyond the arc each game.
Hence, Joerger will call upon Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Conley and Tayshaun Prince to take more and better outside attempts. Prince should take more than 1.1 threes per game.
Pondexter launched just over half his shots from three-point range, and his overall field-goal percentage was only 3.1 percent better than his three-point mark. If someone can set him up for more corner threes, he'll work wonders.
Some Grizz fans want to see Pondexter create more for himself, but he's a spot-up shooter for whom 95 percent of threes are assisted.
Conley, as I mentioned previously, could select his long-range shots better. He takes many of his threes from the right wing, but shoots 32.8 percent from that spot.
Fighting for a home-court playoff spot
With the amount of depth in the conference, another scramble in the last week of the season for a home-court playoff spot is expected. Along with the Grizzlies, the Rockets, Clippers and Golden State Warriors look to be in the shuffle for playoff seeds three to six.
All three teams made significant upgrades in the offseason. Switching Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers made the Clippers a more serious playoff team. The Warriors tightened an improving defense by acquiring Andre Iguodala. Adding Iguodala's abilities as a scorer, facilitator and defender to a strong perimeter shooting team that stops opponents coached by a growing Mark Jackson.
The Rockets at least earn a mid-bracket playoff team by signing Dwight Howard.
The stretch run won't help the Grizz finish where they want. They'll play 12 of 17 games on the road from March 3 to April 2. After playing five straight games on the road, Memphis will grapple with the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs from April 4 to 9.
The Warriors likely have an easier finish. Six of their 14 March games pit them with clear-cut playoff teams. Eight of their nine April games are against middling teams.
The Clippers will ease into the postseason. Five of their last six games are at home.
Reminding everyone they're contenders
Some Western contenders on the upswing have plenty of questions. The Spurs face the age-old question about the age of core players, although it's offset by the team's depth. The Rockets must show that Howard will stay motivated and get along with Omer Asik.
What's the best numbered group of the top Western contenders in which the Grizzlies belong?
The Warriors have great depth, but the frontcourt is compromised with Festus Ezeli's injury since Andrew Bogut is injury-prone and trade rumors swirl around David Lee.
The Clippers lack frontcourt depth around Blake Griffin with DeAndre Jordan stalling in development and Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens standing as incapable backups.
Meanwhile, the Grizz have a solid baseline of what they can do. They play grinding defense at every position, which disrupts opponents every postseason.
Memphis doesn't turn it over often. With greater offensive diversity, they'd become a punishing playoff team.
Merits of contenders are weighed by compilation of star players to a fault. Gasol, who had the best season of any center last year, is the Grizzlies' only true superstar. Conley has a shot at becoming elite if he makes the most of Joerger's offensive schemes.
However, Gasol and Randolph's interconnected play, as they work off each other and create looks for the other, causes greater problems than a pair of superstars. Together, they dumped the Spurs in 2011 and the Oklahoma City Thunder this past spring.
Another great run by the duo, along with the continued rise of Conley, defensive dominance, better outside shooting and solid coaching by Joerger would notify the West that the grind never stopped in Memphis.
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