The Memphis Grizzlies are entering exciting new territory. Last season, the Grizzlies knocked off the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and then pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games. The playoff run made the Grizzlies look like they could compete with the best.
New expectations come with that first playoff series victory. Sports Illustrated writer Chris Mannix predicted the Grizzlies to win the Southwest Division. Four contributors out of 30 for ESPN picked the Grizzlies to win the division. Also, Lionel Hollins was among leading vote recipients for Coach of the Year as picked by ESPN contributors.
This is entirely different for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies, owners of the worst franchise winning percentage in then NBA (.352), are used to losing. Typically, pundits write the Grizzlies off as doormats.
Can the Grizzlies handle the expectations?
Read along for more regarding this and other burning questions facing the Grizzlies this season.
The Grizzlies faced a big man dilemma entering the final week of the preseason. Darrell Arthur tore his Achilles in practice last Sunday. As it would turn out, Arthur is out for the season.
That—along with the fact that the lone backup center Hamed Haddadi hadn't received a visa to return from Iran—left the Grizzlies without any big men on the bench.
With little time to spare, general manager Chris Wallace searched the NBA landscape for a solution. Fortunately, he found a promising young big man in Dante Cunningham. Cunningham averaged 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.1 rebounds per game. He posted 1.7 defensive win shares, which is very good for a backup.
However, Cunningham shot only 46.2 percent from the field, compared to Arthur's 49.7 percent figure.
Also, the Grizzlies traded Greivis Vasquez to the New Orleans Hornets for small forward Quincy Pondexter. Pondexter averaged only 2.8 points and 1.3 rebounds in 11.1 minutes per game last season. While he's only 6'6", Pondexter pulled a decent number of boards while at Villanova. He averaged 5.6 rebounds per game in his career, and had 7.4 rebounds per game in his senior season.
It's hard to tell how Cunningham and Pondexter will do filling the void. They should be able to take the minutes just fine. Filling in with the points could be a problem.
O.J. Mayo was among the most talked-about players in trade speculation during the offseason. The Grizzlies were looking at a trade scenario that would have sent the guard to the Indiana Pacers, but it was dead after Tony Allen made a false trade report on Twitter.
Now, one might wonder whether the Grizzlies will hang on to Mayo for the remainder of the 2011-12 season, Mayo's last season under contract before he becomes a restricted free agent.
Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley seems set on keeping Mayo for the entire season. Heisley told The Commercial Appeal in an interview in early December that he didn't want to see Mayo dealt. Heisley likes Mayo's talent. Still, Heisley let Wallace explore deals in case he could get value for Mayo.
Would the Grizzlies be willing to deal Mayo if it would help their chances to make the NBA Finals?
Heisley probably wants to keep Mayo for the entire season, but he wouldn't keep Wallace from fielding calls from interested general managers.
Rudy Gay is looking at a new start. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in February. After undergoing surgery in March, Gay went through an arduous rehabilitation. He worked his arm hard in rehab, as workout routine sheets showed. He had to work back to his shooting form.
Gay looked good in exhibitions during the lockout, for what that might show. He dropped 38 points in one exhibition and 45 points in another.
At the very least, it showed that he was strong enough to put up points.
His NBA preseason games were pleasing enough. He scored 15 points in 25 minutes in the first game against the Hornets, and scored 20 points in 31 minutes in the second game.
If Gay's career numbers are any indication, he should come back just fine. He posted career-high shooting figures last season—.471 field-goal percentage, .396 three-point percentage, .805 free-throw percentage. Each of the last two seasons saw improvement in field-goal percentage.
When the Grizzlies returned to practice after the lockout, Gay said, "I feel like a rookie again." However he might have felt then, he won't look like a rookie in the first game against the Spurs on Monday.
The Grizzlies are putting their money (what little the second-smallest market can afford) where the talent is. Mike Conley will begin a five-year, $45 million deal this season, which he signed before the start of the 2010-11 campaign. Rudy Gay is in the second year of a five-year, $84 million deal, which is under new scrutiny with him coming back from injury. Randolph starts a new four-year, $80 million deal.
Gasol had inked a four-year, $57 million deal a couple weeks ago.
That's a great deal of money, especially when one considers how conservatively Heisley spends.
Randolph, 30, will have to make good on his deal soon. He comes off a career-high rebounding average and one of his best scoring years. He'll be at his athletic peak. After this season, it could be all downhill for Randolph.
The younger three could be under pressure, too. Gay, as mentioned before, is looking to prove he still has it after his shoulder injury. Conley is making big money despite not being one of the top five point guards in the game. Gasol has great value, but not many would figure he could put up Randolph's numbers.
Nevertheless, it would all be worth it if the core group can bring the team to the promised land.
The Grizzlies are talking big after their storybook playoff run of last season. Heisley declared a couple days after the Thunder eliminated the Grizzlies that they could have won the series if they had Gay. Conley told the Memphis Daily News, "As a team, we still feel like we have a chip on our shoulder. I don't think it's gonna change."
Randolph, placing the Grizzlies with the league's best, wondered why the Grizzlies weren't slated to play on Christmas Day and said, "I think we're ready to do big things."
All the Grizzlies have to do in order to make the NBA Finals is continue to do what they did well last season—hit shots efficiently (No. 6 in field-goal percentage, .471), play tough defense (No. 1 in turnovers forced, 1,367) and beat the best teams (10-6 combined regular season record against Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Thunder and Spurs).
The Grizzlies might not have quite the combination that the Thunder have in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it will be interesting to see if the Grizzlies can knock them off if they meet late in the playoffs.