What We Learned About Memphis Grizzlies in Season's First Half

Tom Firme@TFirmeAnalyst IIJanuary 20, 2014

What We Learned About Memphis Grizzlies in Season's First Half

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    Lance Murphey/Associated Press

    The Memphis Grizzlies' injury woes obscured their full 2013-14 character, but Zach Randolph and others are doing as they will throughout the year.

    Randolph is grinding his way through his 13th season to better results than the prior year. The 32-year-old isn't shooting well, but is putting up big numbers. He's still the No. 2 scorer. He won't recede from that ranking as long as he demands the ball as much as he did in the first half.

    Tayshaun Prince is becoming more of a wallflower than a glue guy. His offensive figures are below replacement rate while he shoots only on occasion.

    Besides overcoming injuries, other noticeable team trends include lackluster play at home and slow pace. Mike Conley's style of offensive leadership doesn't change.

    Following are the most important indicators from the season's first half.

    *Statistics are current through Jan. 19 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.

There Is One Player Whose Absence Damages the Team

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    In recent years, the Grizzlies rallied after losing key players for extended periods of time. They pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to Game 7 in the 2011 Western Conference finals three months after Rudy Gay went down with a season-ending injury. Memphis surged up the standings following Zach Randolph’s partial MCL tear in 2012.

    Despite having a respectable backup in Kosta Koufos, the Grizz couldn’t adequately regroup without Marc Gasol. They went 10-14 during his absence. Their net rating was minus-2.4, 0.9 worse than their season differential, according to NBA.com.

    The Grizz offense is significantly worse with Koufos on the floor, scoring 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

    Memphis' offense was at a loss without Gasol's facilitation. The Commercial Appeal's Chris Herrington described how they missed the Spaniard's passing ability, saying (subscription required) that Randolph faced tougher defenders, Conley had greater difficulty finding slashing avenues and the team had to turn to inferior ball-handlers for playmaking.

    The assist ratio with Gasol (18.4) on the floor is the highest of any rotation player and 1.4 more than the team assist ratio.

Home Is Not so Sweet

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    In the past the Grizzlies relied on the energy provided by the fans at FedEx Forum. But that hometown boost hasn't helped them this year.

    The Grizzlies are 11-12 at home and 9-7 on the road.

    They're significantly better defensively on the road, allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions, 1.5 fewer than they allow at "The Grindhouse."

    The Grizz also protect the ball better in road contests, turning it over 11.7 times per game on the road or 1.3 times fewer than in Memphis. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.86 on the road, 1.49 at home.

    They play 24 second-half games outside Shelby County, so Memphis fans are hoping that the team's strong road play will continue.

Pace Isn't a Problem

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    Before the season, Memphis head coach Dave Joerger stated that he wanted to increase the team's pace on offense.

    However, little has changed in the 2013-14 campaign, as the Grizz are the slowest team in the league at 90.1 possessions per 48 minutes. Still, they have managed to attain one of his wishes—moving the ball across the timeline in within four seconds.

    The slower pace hasn't been a damaging factor, though. The Grizzlies' effective field-goal percentage is 48.3 percent, 1.1 higher than last season.  Memphis' offensive rating has increased from 104.9 points per 100 possessions a season ago to 105.6 points this year.

    Playing a bit more quickly and being slightly more efficient, the Grizz are averaging 2.5 more points per game this season.

    Mike Conley's increased usage hasn't been detrimental to the team. There was concern that a higher pace and more motion could hurt his play, but he has a career-high 51 percent effective field-goal rate and a career-best 32.1 percent assist rate.

    Jerryd Bayless' presence, which sped up the pace of the Grizzlies attack, didn't help, since he played poorly before being dealt. Bayless was involved in three four-man lineups playing more than 50 minutes together with faster than usual paces, but all produced fewer than 99 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

    Joerger seems to accept that his half-court-heavy offense will remain among the slowest in the league, as long as Mike Conley runs it. 

Zach Randolph Is Inefficient, Yet Productive

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Zach Randolph may not be shooting well, but he's still making a difference.

    His field-goal percentage is 44.2 percent, the second-worst of his career. Still, he's averaging 18 points per 36 minutes and has posted 15 20-point games. Randolph leads the team in double-doubles (24) and 20-point, 10-rebound performances (14).

    Also, he became a more proficient passer with Gasol out, recording a career-high 13.4 percent assist rate. Notably, he's more assertive in the offense. His usage rate is 26.4 percent, 3.3 more than last year.

    He'll likely maintain a high level of activity down the stretch, even with Gasol healthy. Randolph is working to prove he can still put up good numbers past his prime. He reiterated to RealGM his hope to stay in Memphis long term.

    In order to make that come true, he must impress on the court.

Tayshaun Prince's Utility Is Narrowing

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    Tayshaun Prince is trending towards irrelevance. He's less involved than ever in the offense and has been ineffective in most facets of the game.

    He simply doesn't produce. Prince injects 96 points per 100 possessions, scoring 6.4 points per game on 40 percent shooting and puts up a combined 7.9 field goals and free throws a night.

    All of his basic offensive figures are career lows.

    His 7.7 percent turnover rate doesn't absorb teammates' inefficiencies when his usage rate is a minuscule 13.8 percent.

    His usage rate, combined with a career-low 26.2 minutes per game, explains why he's dropping down the rotation.

    The 33-year-old's productivity is inappropriate for his salary. He earns $7.2 million this season and $7.7 million next year. If John Hollinger, Vice President of Basketball Operations for Memphis, can find a team willing and able to swallow Prince's pay in return for expiring contracts, he'd give the team a bit of financial flexibility.

The Grizzlies Won't Fade from Playoff Contention

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    While the Grizzlies aren't the NBA Finals contender they were at the season's start, they nonetheless remain relevant. 

    In recent weeks, they've vaulted from being a candidate for tanking to one pushing for a playoff berth. Having won seven of the last nine games, they've jumped from last in the Southwest Division and 12th in the conference to ninth and a couple games away from the eighth spot.

    Memphis' second half schedule features some soft spots. The Grizzlies play 18 of their last 37 games against Eastern Conference teams, including 13 against losing teams. Fourteen of their remaining 25 road games pit them against sub-.500 squads.

    They start the post-All-Star break stretch with eight of 10 games against losing teams.

    With Gasol back, the Grizz have their three major offensive producers healthy. Dave Joerger is keeping Randolph fresh by playing him 33.8 minutes per game, his lowest average since 2007-08.

    Memphis is most efficient offensively with its core trio—Gasol, Randolph, Conley—on the floor, according to NBA.com. Great play by the three will be critical in keeping the team competitive in the second half of the season.