The Memphis Grizzlies are all but assured a low playoff seed, but the contender status they were assigned before the season shouldn't be forgotten.
They're currently staving off the Phoenix Suns in a bid for the playoffs, but the Grizzlies' place in the standings belies the quality of this team. A well-conditioned Marc Gasol and an aggressive Mike Conley have restored the team that scared Western Conference playoff opponents last year.
Will the Grizzlies at least make the Western Conference finals?
Having scratched and clawed their way this season from 12th to seventh in the West, Memphis shook off the ills that held them down earlier in the year. After struggling to score and defend for most of the first half of the campaign, the Grizzlies rediscovered their "grit 'n' grind" defense after Gasol returned from injury.
Powered by Gasol's rim protection, the Grizz are among the hottest teams since his return at 23-9.
The recent surge notwithstanding, a few other factors demonstrate that this small-market club is more than a competitive first-opponent for one of the Western Conference's top seeds.
Somewhat better balance
The defense is as tough as ever with Gasol back. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Norof tweeted, Memphis is tops in defensive rating since Gasol's return.
Since Marc Gasol returned to #Grizzlies on 1/14, MEM has No. 1 ranked D-Rating of 97.7. No one wants to face this team in the postseason.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) March 23, 2014
The complexion of the defense has changed a bit from last year, but the overall output remains strong. Tony Allen remains a feisty wing defender with a 3.6 percent steals percentage.
But Conley, who led the league in steals last season, has traded steals for greater discipline. Conley, who is allowing six fewer points per 100 possessions since Gasol's return than beforehand, has a 2.4 percent steals rate, one percent lower than in 2012-13.
The Grizz have four regulars with block rates of 3.5 percent or higher, two more than last year.
Memphis has brought their offense a bit closer to the level of their defensive prowess. They're seventh in the league in field-goal percentage at 46.2 percent, 1.8 percent better than last year.
The Grizzlies have a wider variety of scorers, with five players averaging double digits. Seven Grizz players take 30 percent of their shots from beyond 15 feet, compared with five last year (of those who finished the year with the team).
Conley's continued scoring evolution
After the Grizz dealt Rudy Gay last season, Conley took over as the team's No. 1 scorer. He fared adequately in this role or the slower-paced, low-scoring Grizz, averaging 16.4 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting in the last 40 games of the 2012-13 campaign. He produced 13 of his 17 20-plus-point performances in that span.
In this campaign, Conley has built on that run. Scoring 17.1 points per game doesn't seem like a leap. However, his 18.4 points per 36 minutes is 1.9 higher than even in the post-Gay run from a year ago.
Also, he's continued to more aggressive. Conley takes 15.3 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, 2.4 more than last year. His usage rate is 24.9 percent, a 2.4 percent increase.
What's intriguing is that he's taken this step without sacrificing assists or becoming more turnover-prone. He's averaging 6.5 assists per 36 minutes, 0.1 more than last year. His turnover rate is 11.7 percent, 3.4 percent lower than 2012-13.
Conley acknowledged in an NBA.com article that he's having his "most productive season, by far."
That growth should continue in the playoffs.
Added perimeter shooting
One issue that the Grizzlies have overcome since last year is a shortage of perimeter shooting to surround Conley.
The acquisitions of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee, along with the activation of Jon Leuer, have closed the gap.
Miller is doing his job as a strict role-playing three-point shooter. He's fourth in the NBA at 45.6 percent from three-point range. The 34-year-old takes 52.6 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond the arc.
The Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe marveled about Miller's spacing against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, saying, "Miller's floor-spacing ability was in full effect last night, with no Pacer defender able to leave him open for any extended period of time."
Lee has drifted as a three-point asset, but is generally good from the perimeter. He's shooting 32.7 percent from downtown, but 27.8 percent since Feb. 1. Still, his long-range shooting spaces the floor as he takes 57.8 percent of his shots from beyond 15 feet. Lee excels at long twos, hitting 56.5 percent.
Leuer, who played infrequently last season after being picked up from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade, surfaced in the rotation after Gasol went down and periodically gets significant minutes with Gasol back. Leuer shoots 48.9 percent from three-point range and takes 55.4 percent of his shots outside 10 feet.
If the Grizz make greater playoff use of Beno Udrih, who has scored 13 points in 23 minutes of five games for Memphis, they'd have even greater options on the outside. Udrih has shot 45.2 percent from beyond the arc this season and 35.6 percent for his career.
The 31-year-old would further space the floor for the compact Grizzlies, since he takes 48.4 percent of his shots outside 15 feet.
In general, the Grizzlies are deeper than ever. The aforementioned perimeter shooting is better than the squad last year when, after the All-Star break last year, Quincy Pondexter was the only above-average three-point shooter off the bench. Jerryd Bayless shot 44.6 percent from downtown in March 2013, but that was just his second month of 36 percent or higher.
The frontcourt depth has grown as well. Kosta Koufos is by far the greatest backup center Memphis has ever enjoyed. Koufos' 14 percent offensive rebounding percentage and 18.6 percent total rebounding rate would rank among league leaders if he had enough minutes. He provides outstanding defense off the bench, allowing 101 points per 100 possessions.
Koufos' has raised his shooting in the calendar year, hitting 56.9 percent from the field, bringing his season mark to 50.6 percent.
Ed Davis is grabbing 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes and making 53.4 percent from the field. His rebounding figure is down 0.9 percent from last year, but he's shooting 1.7 percent better.
With the deep bench, the Grizz have been able to keep their starters under 34.5 minutes per game. Three starters, including Gay, played more than 34.5 last year.
Lacking a home-court playoff spot puts the Grizz in no worse position than last year, when they made the Western Conference finals without entering as one of the top four seeds. And this is the same team that knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2013 Western Conference semifinals.
One wouldn't want to write off such playoff this year, not with the way Memphis has been playing since the All-Star break. While Dave Joerger is a rookie coach, he benefits from better scoring, depth and outside shooting than did his predecessor, Lionel Hollins.
With these general improvements and Conley having proven himself for an entire season, the Grizzlies can't be forgotten as a dark horse team.
Statistics are current through March 23 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from basketball-reference.com.