The Memphis Grizzlies roll into training camp on another quest to prove themselves, despite having made their deepest playoff run in franchise history this spring.
The Grizzlies had won a franchise-record 56 games, avenged their 2012 first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games before the San Antonio Spurs swept them in the Western Conference Finals.
All that was accomplished despite having traded leading scorer Rudy Gay at midseason.
They'll seek an even better finish this time in an attempt to notify the league they're more than the perennial team to avoid and overcome the stigma of having beaten two teams with injured stars.
This comes as a bit of a challenge. Memphis switched head coaches during the summer. After outside shooting loomed as an issue, the Grizzlies' antidote was injury-riddled gym rat Mike Miller.
Will the Grizzlies beat their Western Conference Finals finish from last season?
Grizzlies 2012-13 Results
- 56-26 record (.683)
- 2nd in Southwest Division
- 5th in Western Conference
- Lost in Western Conference Finals to Spurs 4-0
While several teams are evolving in ways unimaginable from beyond the arc, the Grizz were 25th in three-point field-goal percentage at 34.5 percent. This was their sixth straight season ranking in the bottom third in the category.
Signing Miller helps, but it's hard to tell how much. Injuries have plagued him the past four years. He has played fewer than three-fourths of the season four straight seasons.
When he's healthy, a keen strategy would be putting him and Quincy Pondexter on the floor at the same time. Combining his ability to shoot from the wings with Pondexter's from the corner could open up the offense.
On the other hand, the following tweet by ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin says everything fans need to know about the Grizzlies' overall offensive improvement after the Gay trade.
@sportsgurufsr Actually, the Grizzlies offense was 2.1 points per 100 possessions better AFTER the Gay trade. It was a very smart trade.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) September 15, 2013
Jerryd Bayless, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol improved their offensive production, jolting a unit that had languished after the first month of the season. Also, Tayshaun Prince served as an efficient low-usage player.
The improvement elevated a team that scored just enough to support its tenacious defense. An additional increase in offensive efficiency could make the Grizz unstoppable.
Key Additions and Losses
Key Additions: C Kosta Koufos, SG Jamaal Franklin, PG Nick Calathes, PG Josh Akognon, SG Mike Miller, head coach Dave Joerger
Key Losses: Head coach Lionel Hollins, PF Darrell Arthur, PG Keyon Dooling, SF Austin Daye, PG Tony Wroten
Who was the Grizzlies' best offseason acquisition?
Biggest Addition: Koufos
The Grizz struggled the past few years with putting a capable backup behind Marc Gasol. With the likes of Hasheem Thabeet and Hamed Haddadi playing sparingly, Gasol pushed through 35 or more minutes per game in three of the past four seasons.
That should change with the arrival of Koufos. He put in solid all-around play for the Denver Nuggets last season, averaging 12.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes as a starter. Koufos also allowed 103 points per 100 possessions.
His 58.1 percent shooting bodes well for a possible boost in bench efficiency.
Biggest Loss: Hollins
The Grizz didn't lose any significant players. Dooling, Daye and Wroten were at the end of the rotation. Arthur averaged 16.4 minutes per game, but his role diminished due to injuries and poor shooting down the stretch.
Thus, the only loss that may have any consequence is that of Hollins. Hollins steadily improved Memphis, leading them to their only two playoff series victories. He also oversaw the growth of players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
However, he had quibbles with the new upper management. He spoke out against the Gay trade, as he was quoted by The Oklahoman as saying, "When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget."
He had issues with new executive John Hollinger, as shown when Hollins blew up at Hollinger upon seeing him instructing Daye during practice in the playoffs, per Yahoo! Sports.
Chris Herrington wrote for the Memphis Flyer about an issue with Hollins of "implementing organizational philosophy." With that said, the Grizz cut ties with the four-year full-time head coach and hired someone in Joerger who may be more willing to implement it.
|Marc Gasol||Zach Randolph||Tayshaun Prince||Tony Allen||Mike Conley|
|Kosta Koufos||Ed Davis||Quincy Pondexter||Mike Miller||Jerryd Bayless|
|Jon Leuer||Janis Timma||Jamaal Franklin||Nick Calathes|
|Willie Reed||Josh Akognon|
Battling for a Roster Spot: Akognon vs. Willie Reed
Both Akognon and Reed are a few years removed from their last college seasons and showed flashes of promise in venues outside the NBA's regular season.
Akognon shined in the past two summer leagues. He averaged 17.5 points per game this year for the Dallas Mavericks summer league team and 19.3 per game for the Sacramento Kings summer squad a year before.
Reed averaged 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 48 games for the Springfield Armor NBDL team.
Despite their nice numbers in these spots, the major factor is a need of the depth chart. Keeping Akognon would give the Grizz four point guards, as Reed would give them at power forward.
The Grizz need the extra depth at the 1 spot more than the 4 spot. Zach Randolph is past his peak and isn't immune to injury, but Ed Davis and Jon Leuer are capable enough that Reed isn't necessary in case the 31-year-old goes down. Davis and Leuer are both reasonable rebounders and inside shooters.
Meanwhile, Memphis would have concerns if Conley were to go down. Bayless shot 2.7 percent worse from the field and 3.3 percent worse from three-point range when not playing next to him. Calathes projects to be a good shooter and passer, but nothing is certain for players moving from European ball to the NBA.
That will put Akognon on the roster.
Biggest X-Factor: Randolph
Entering his 13th season, Randolph is facing a potential career breaking point. He shot 46 percent from the field, the lowest since his rookie year. After starting with a 49.4 percent mark after two months, he shot 43.9 percent the rest of the regular season.
Randolph still is a premier rebounder. He had his second-best rebounding rate at 19.3 percent and led the league in offensive rebounding with four per game.
Also, he rebounded in the playoffs, averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the first two rounds before being shut down by the Spurs in the conference finals.
He'll be counted upon to shoot well and clean the glass. The Grizzlies' great rebounding is predicated on Randolph's ability to patrol the boards on both ends. If he keeps up his play in that area, they'll stay near the the top in that area. He may need help to keep up his field-goal mark from Gasol's passing and Joerger's designs.
What's the greatest number of games the Grizzlies can win?
If the Grizz improve significantly from long range, win on the road, find further dominance inside and see Conley score more, they'll win 58 games and finish third in the conference. Conley would drop 18 points on at least 45 percent shooting, including 38 percent from three-point land and 60 percent at the rim, while taking 14 shots per game.
Winning in the "Grindhouse" comes naturally for the Grizz, as they have won more than 70 percent at home the past three seasons. Last season saw them win more than half away from Memphis for the first time. Matching that total of 24 road victories is essential to climbing to the top three.
If Gasol and Randolph roll over opposing big men again, they'll not only succeed in the regular season but also go deep in the playoffs. The triumph against Oklahoma City was due in large part to the pair averaging 37.8 points and 19 rebounds per game.
Combining that with strong outside shooting would catapult them to the NBA Finals.
If Conley shoots below 44 percent from the field and scores fewer than 15 per game, Zach Randolph shoots as poorly as he did after the first two months of 2012-13 and the perimeter shooting doesn't blossom, they'll win 53 games and place sixth in the West.
Only six teams—the Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors—are sure bets to make the playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers are possibilities to make it but need much to go their way.
Even if Conley and Gasol are ordinary by their standards, they, along with the stifling defense, can earn more than 50 games. By scoring just enough to win, as Hollins' teams mostly did, they would remain far ahead of the aforementioned bubble teams.
Further offensive struggles and meandering by Randolph would send them to a first-round exit. Randolph was a big propeller in the 2011 and 2013 playoff runs. If he falters, it's unlikely that Davis would be able to fill the gaps.
The Grizzlies will finish 56-26 and place fourth in the West. With Tony Allen returning and Joerger orchestrating a defense that he and Allen designed, the "grit 'n' grind" will remain the toughest unit to penetrate.
Joerger will boost the offense with fresh schemes, about which Gasol told ESPN he's excited. This should pick up the sluggish pace, create different looks and increase fluidity. Three-point shooting will improve somewhat with the arrival of Miller and improvement by Pondexter. But it will only be enough to put them in the middle of the pack in the category.
In the playoffs, Memphis will dispatch Houston with tight defense. Gasol will stop Howard on the pick-and-roll and impose himself physically on the Rockets' new big man in the low post while Allen and Conley buckle down on their shooters.
That will set up a second-round rematch with the Thunder, in which the Grizz edge a healthy team wearing sky blue in seven games. Russell Westbrook, who shot 34.5 percent the past three years against Memphis, will make it closer with his scoring but won't hit enough shots to help Kevin Durant thrust their team past the Grizz.
Joerger will unleash Miller's three-point fire out of necessity, while giving Pondexter the chance to make downtown attempts that matter, unlike last year when he hit shot after shot in a desperate bid to prevent a sweep. They'll do just enough to relieve pressure on the big men and help the defense push the series to the limit.
But the Spurs' shooting diversity will prevail in a moderate scoring contest that doesn't expose Memphis' defense but the offense's inability to win a big game when the defense can't.