The Memphis Grizzlies have had an elite, physical defense in recent years, thanks to the venerable and physical big-man tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Better balance is necessary for the Grizzlies to be a true title contender in 2014-15, though.
General manager Chris Wallace recognized that, attempting to address it through both the draft and free agency. By selecting Jordan Adams out of UCLA and adding veteran Vince Carter to the wing, Memphis hopes to get immediate production from Adams and all that the aging Carter has left to offer.
Sticking with the hard-nosed paradigm that has seen the Grizzlies emerge as a dangerous Western Conference squad, though, they acquired massive forward Jarnell Stokes on draft day. Stokes adds muscle, if not prototypical height, to the frontcourt.
Underrated floor general Mike Conley Jr. mans the point with excellent efficiency and stunning quickness. Conley now has an increased number of offensive threats to distribute the ball to.
The second season under coach David Joerger should see superior scoring and, with it, reason to believe Memphis will be as unenviable of an opponent as it has ever been. Joerger just has to figure out how lockdown perimeter defender Tony Allen fits into a rotation that figures to be more offensive-minded.
A run to the conference finals preceded a step back of sorts last season, which saw the Grizzlies eliminated in a seven-game series by the Oklahoma City Thunder during the playoffs. In terms of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Memphis is drawing rather long 50-1 championship odds, per Odds Shark.
Let's take a look at the top games on the Grizzlies' schedule, along with a record prediction to determine how far the Grizzlies can go with their current core. Click here for full schedule, courtesy of NBA.com.
Analyzing Marquee Matchups
Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs (at Memphis December 5, December 30/at San Antonio December 17, March 29)
The Spurs swept Memphis in the conference finals during the 2013 postseason. That still has to sting the Grizzlies, and Memphis' attempt to revitalize its offense after ranking 27th in scoring for 2013-14 will be evident against the most complete team in the Association.
In terms of how Memphis matches up, the personnel seems suitable to give San Antonio a tough test. Gasol, entrenched at the center spot, has a soft touch around the rim and solid shooting range. This gives him some leverage if the Spurs go small with Tim Duncan at the 5.
Also helping the cause is Randolph's athleticism and face-up game, something that should prevent Boris Diaw from being as effective in his occasional point forward role and as a passer. Parker isn't quite as fleet of foot as Conley, but he has a similar style of play and is superior in just about every way otherwise.
Carter gave the Spurs problems in the most recent playoffs as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, netting 28 points and seven three-pointers in a Game 5 loss. That showed Carter is still capable of filling it up, particularly with a guard in Conley who can slash to the rim and Gasol and Randolph who can bang bodies with the best of them.
And according to ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon, there's a chance Carter will be even more dangerous entering the last phase of his career:
I'm told Vince Carter, who left Mavs to sign with Grizzlies, had postseason ankle surgery to remove bone spurs. Should be OK for camp.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 12, 2014
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich still has his regular stars at his disposal, but the Spurs also have immense depth, led by two-way dynamo and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
This is going to serve as a strong indicator of where Memphis is—and how much its bench can be counted on to produce against a quality adversary.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (at Oklahoma City November 7, February 11/at Memphis January 31, April 3)
The Thunder knocked out a promising Grizzlies squad that could have gone on a deeper run with their grit, attitude and success to draw on from the previous year. Randolph was suspended for the seventh and decisive game of the playoff showdown, so the series lost some of its sanctity.
In Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, there's also a similarly muscular frontcourt in Oklahoma City for the Grizzlies with which to deal. Allen has the defensive chops to guard superstar Kevin Durant as well as anyone in the league. Few point guards have the lateral quickness Conley does to hang with the likes of Russell Westbrook, too.
Any help that Randolph could have provided in Game 7 may not have changed the outcome too much, as Westbrook notched a triple-double and Durant filled it up with 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting. Durant implied after the contest that he was more of the problem than the Grizzlies' defense—something they should take offense to—per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com:
I got out of my own way. I was thinking too much. I was worrying about what you guys (the media) were saying. I was worrying about what shots I was going to shoot throughout a game. I was thinking too much, and the game of basketball is played off of instincts. I just released everything and enjoyed myself. And I knew if I just put the work in for my team, the results would show.
The notion that good offense beats good defense rings true particularly in basketball.
If Durant, as he often does, fills it up regardless of the degree of difficulty, it might not matter if Memphis can score marginally more than last season. Westbrook has a strength advantage on Conley and an explosive ability to finish that even the Grizzlies can't stop with a full head of steam.
Randolph's return, along with the hope that Memphis will have more offensive production overall, may tilt this matchup more in the Grizzlies' favor. What will decide this one is how much Memphis can dig in defensively, retain its identity as an elite force on that end of the court and stymie Durant and Westbrook.
After registering a record of 50-32, look for the Grizzlies to up their win total in 2014-15, albeit by the slightest of margins.
The struggle for Memphis will be adhering to its strong suits while not tiring itself out before the postseason commences. Joerger has to make sure his players fare well enough to clinch a playoff berth, though.
How far will the Grizzlies advance in the NBA playoffs?
Other teams with superior talent across the board can get away with an off night in terms of scoring and still win. Among the West's viable playoff candidates, the Grizzlies will have the hardest time to overcome a lack of offensive proficiency to win on a given night—even with their apparent upgrades.
The key will be to take care of business against inferior foes, remain healthy in spite of their mighty physical toughness and at least split games with the West's elite. Another issue is that the conference is so stacked that any slip can be magnified and cause a quality team to miss out on the postseason.
There's a sense that Memphis may still be one piece away from contention, yet this adversity-tested nucleus also has unfinished business to tend to from falling short of the ultimate goal.
Thus, the Grizzlies will battle to a solid regular-season record. The real work will begin thereafter. Depending on how the West and playoff seeds shake out, it's easy to imagine Memphis advancing as far as the conference finals.
Record Prediction: 52-30