Are Memphis Grizzlies' Dark-Horse Days Done Heading into 2014-15?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 30:  Marc Gasol #33 and Zach Randolph #50 of the Memphis Grizzlies stand on the court before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 30, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have had a fairly busy summer, at least if you count front-office maneuverings. 

Interim general manager Chris Wallace was signed to a new multiyear deal, and Ed Stefanski was added as the club's new executive vice president of player personnel. Per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowksi, the latter recently, "worked under former Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo as the executive VP of basketball operations."

Wise moves, perhaps, but hardly the kind of forward progress that assures the franchise an immediate upgrade in the roster department.

Those developments were more muted.

Memphis' biggest summer acquisition was former Dallas Mavericks sixth man Vince Carter, who was signed to a deal reportedly worth three years and $12.2 million. Adding Carter certainly goes at least some way toward addressing the club's need for scoring, particularly on the perimeter.

"What he brings to the table is what we need. He’s a good shooter, he’s a good playmaker and he’ll be a good leader in our locker room," said Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, per's Bennett Hipp. "He is a top-five pick-and-roll player in the NBA. He is still very athletic. He still makes open shots. We want to play him in a role where we give him the ball and let him do his thing."

MEMPHIS, TN - JULY 14: Vince Carter #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies addresses the media on July 14, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is cons
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Indeed, that leadership factor may be every bit as valuable as Carter's still-respectable on-court production.

Per Hipp, Wallace added, "Vince’s value to us is more than just making baskets and what he does in the box score. He’s a tremendous leader."

For his part, Carter averaged 11.9 points in just 24.4 minutes per contest last season. The 37-year-old could even improve upon those numbers given the Grizzlies desperate need for help on the wing.

But leadership and complementary scoring may not be enough to get Memphis over what's become an increasingly sizable hump in the ever-crowded Western Conference.

Optimists will argue that Carter isn't alone. Memphis also selected sweet-shooting guard Jordan Adams with the 22nd overall pick in this summer's draft. 

MEMPHIS, TN - JUNE 27: Jordan Adams, #1, and Jarnell Stokes, #2, of the Memphis Grizzlies are introduced by Chris Wallace and Dave Joerger during an introductory press conference for the Memphis Grizzlies draft selections on June 26, 2014 at the FedExForu
NBA Photos/Getty Images

But while the UCLA product is certainly another step in the right direction, you can't help but feel this franchise is in need of a radical overhaul. It fundamentally remains the same team that's faltered in each of its last four postseason appearances.

Two of those playoffs exits—in 2012 and 2014—came in the first round.

The club's most successful run (in 2013) included a five-game semifinals series win against an Oklahoma City Thunder team missing its second-best player, Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies were subsequently swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals.

Despite repeatedly earning the label of "dark-horse contenders," the Grizzlies have at no point amounted to more than a frisky, second-tier team.

It's telling that the three teams to oust Memphis from the playoffs during the last four seasons were San Antonio, Oklahoma City and—most recently—the Los Angeles Clippers. If you had to pick three Western Conference teams with the best chances of making it to the NBA Finals this season, those would probably be the three.

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 3: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on  against Tony Allen #9 of the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on MAY 3, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The gap between those teams and Memphis has hardly narrowed.

To be sure, the Grizzlies continue to boast an absolutely formidable defense, limiting teams to just 94.6 points per game (third-best league-wide) and slowing games down to the lowest pace in the Association last season.

But that highly touted defense may be less dominant than it seems at first glance. Several teams yielded superior defensive efficiency a season ago, including both the Spurs and the Thunder. Memphis was tied with the Clippers for the seventh-best mark in the league.

To be fair, that defense could have been even better had Gasol played the entire season.

As USA Today's Jeffrey Martin noted in January:

The Grizzlies' defense suffered during the nearly two months Gasol, the reigning defensive player of the year, missed with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. When Gasol returned to action Jan. 14 in a 90-87 victory against Oklahoma City, Memphis' defensive rating was 107, seven games later, it was 103.

More importantly, however, Memphis' offensive efficiency lagged at just 103.3 points per 100 possessions. That was in large part due to the team ranking dead last with just 14 three-point attempts per game. And when the Grizzlies did take three-pointers, they made just 35.3 percent of them—which tied the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic for 19th place in the NBA.

In the modern NBA, such an underdeveloped perimeter game won't cut it.

Carter and Adams will do their parts to an extent, but they're unlikely to change a game plan that prioritizes interior touches. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will together make over $32 million this season, and they'll continue getting plenty of opportunities to score in the paint.

Randolph's 24.6 usage rate ranked fifth among power forwards last season. Gasol ranked 11th among centers using 21.2 possessions per 40 minutes. 

Put simply, an inside-outside approach is a huge part of the club's identity. Whether it's a formula that can survive in a heavily contested Western Conference is another matter altogether.

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 14:  Zach Randolph #50 and Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies stand on the court before the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on April 14, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Lacking credible outside shooting, Memphis struggles when opposing defenders invariably opt to collapse on the Grizzlies bigs and harass them into less-than-ideal possessions. Randolph—who admittedly does much of his damage from the mid-range—was held to a subpar .404 field-goal percentage through six playoff games in 2014. Gasol made a career-low 47.3 percent of his field-goal attempts during the regular season.

The Grizzlies are overdue for a new, more diversified approach. Unfortunately, they've done little to secure the kind of personnel needed for such an approach. 

Instead, the organization handed Randolph a lucrative two-year extension this summer, all but assuring that the near-future resembles recent history—all but closing a title window that may never have been all that open.

For a small-market franchise, there's certainly an argument to be made that Memphis should be proud of what it's accomplished thus far.

But for a team that perpetually threatens to capitalize on its 2011 emergence as an upset-capable dark-horse contender, moral victories are of little consolation.