Why Memphis Grizzlies Are NBA's Most Dangerous Dark Horse

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 4, 2014

USA Today

This is normally something we'd save for March or April, which is usually when the NBA falls asleep on Marc Gasol and Co. as sneaky title contenders. But the Memphis Grizzlies' hot start has accelerated the sleeper-recognition timeline.

Memphis is off to its best beginning in franchise history, sitting comfortably at 4-0 after downing the New Orleans Pelicans by a final score of 93-81 on Nov. 3. In typical workmanlike Grizzlies fashion, though, Gasol quipped after their third win, "That's better than being 0-3," per Steve Reed of The Associated Press.

What's so scary about this Memphis team? How is this version of the Grizzlies any different from the ones we've always ignored until that "Hey, wait a minute; Memphis is good" moment in the season's final weeks? Let's break it down.

Less is Marc

Nov 3, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) defends against New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second half at FedExForum. Memphis defeated New Orleans 93-81. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY S
USA TODAY Sports

Because Marc Gasol shares genetic code with his brother, Pau, one of the NBA's most altruistic and genuine souls, it would be out of line to suggest he'll be motivated by the potential payoff of a contract year. Still, here we are...and here Gasol is, slimmed down and looking strikingly fit.

Opening night: career-high 32 points.

It's hard to know if Memphis is specifically feeding the big man because he looks like he's missed so many meals, or if Gasol is taking on a bigger offensive role because he senses the needs of his team. Whatever the case, the big man's usage rate has spiked.

Memphis is getting more out of less Gasol on offense.

And his credentials on the other end are beyond questioning.

Gasol has a Defensive Player of the Year award from the 2012-13 season on his mantle, and his ability to anticipate, help, clog the lane and change shots makes him the primary reason Memphis has posted a top-10 defensive rating, per NBA.com, in each of the past four years.

His dominance is subtle, comprised of quick shuffles and intelligent positioning. Gasol is not fast, and he probably leaves the floor less often than almost any other center in the league. But he impacts the game profoundly.

If healthy, a motivated, trimmed-down Gasol is a fearsome force—one that can absolutely anchor a dark-horse contender on both ends.

VC to the Rescue

Since sending away Rudy Gay two years ago, the Grizzlies have survived with one-dimensional wings.

Mike Miller shot the ball well (as he always does) last year but made minimal defensive impact. Tayshaun Prince can't score unless he's within kissing distance of the basket. Courtney Lee was a breath of fresh air on offense a year ago but doesn't have a reputation as a stopper.

Tony Allen, who we'll get to momentarily, is a monstrously valuable defender. But he can't shoot a lick.

You get the idea.

Enter Vince Carter. A superstar in a previous life, Carter has gradually morphed into a rangy defender who can hit a three and run a surprisingly effective pick-and-roll. Vinsanity is 37 years old this season, but he's going to rejuvenate the Grizzlies with his versatility.

The days of limited wing play in Memphis may finally be over.

Added bonus: Quincy Pondexter, who missed the majority of the 2013-14 campaign, is also back in the rotation. If he rediscovers the 39.5 percent stroke from long range he flashed in a healthy 2012-13, he could replace Miller's lost production and then some.

The Core

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21:  Marc Gasol #33 (C), Mike Conley #11 (R) and Tony Allen #9 of the Memphis Grizzlies walk up court dejected against the San Antonio Spurs in the second half during Game Two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Gasol is easily Memphis' most important player, as evidenced by the 33-13 record it posted down the stretch last year when he returned from a knee injury. Great as the big man is, he's still just a part of this team's core—a central group of four players who give the Grizzlies their grit-and-grind identity.

Zach Randolph is still a load in the post and on the offensive glass who justifiably draws double-teams on offense.

Mike Conley just keeps getting better. He posted career highs in scoring, player efficiency rating, field-goal percentage and assist percentage last season, per Basketball-Reference.com. Constantly overlooked in the discussion of the league's best point guards, the Grizzlies floor general is an excellent defender who plays a brilliant two-man game with Gasol in the high post.

Allen, quite simply, is Memphis' X-factor. There is no such thing as a defender who can consistently shut down players like Kevin Durant, James Harden or any other dynamic scorers in the Western Conference.

May 1, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9) fight for the ball during the game in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playof
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But he comes closer than anyone.

It's not often a player of KD's caliber admits to being flustered by a one-on-one matchup, but Allen hounded him to the point of exhaustion in last year's playoff meeting.

The Grizzlies core—Gasol, Conley, Allen and Randolph—has been together since the 2010-11 season. In that time, they've carved out an identity and knocked off every current Western Conference contender.

Per David Aldridge of NBA.com: "They don't have the tradition of the Spurs or the star power of the Thunder, or the hype of the Cavs or Clippers. They just come out and bludgeon you for 48 minutes, and see who's left standing at the end."

Theirs is a style that ages well. Physicality, defense and a collective approach to squeezing just enough points out of the offensive end is what the playoffs are all about. And if continuity counts for anything, the Grizzlies have it.

Why Not Memphis?

Nov 3, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) dribbles the ball during the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at FedExForum. Memphis defeated New Orleans 93-81. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the West is a death march. It is every year.

But when you look at the other contenders, Memphis compares favorably with the best the conference has to offer.

OKC knows how tough the Grizzlies are after its seven-game fight last year. And with all of the injuries currently afflicting the Thunder, who's to say they'll be fit for a postseason rematch at all?

The Los Angeles Clippers have been a tough matchup for the Grizzlies, taking four of the last seven meetings since the 2012-13 season. But, of course, that doesn't include the first-round knockout Memphis delivered the Clips in the 2013 postseason.

Memphis would match up well with the Houston Rockets, as Allen could wrangle Harden. The same is true of the Golden State Warriors, whom the Grizzlies have beaten nine out of the past 11 times they've played. Allen could harass Klay Thompson while Conley would stay glued to Stephen Curry, and the Dubs don't have a defensive answer for Randolph.

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

The San Antonio Spurs are who they are, and if healthy, it's tough to pick against them. But remember, the Grizz took a first-round series from the defending champs in 2011.

Nobody's saying the Grizzlies are a favorite. But they match up well with just about everybody, and there's also this critical point: They don't care how you want to play.

Memphis attacks opponents on its terms, dictating the physical nature and pace of the game with brutal efficiency. The Grizzlies force the ugly. They welcome the grime. And not everybody is comfortable with that.

So now that they're sitting atop the conference, boasting the league's No. 2 defensive rating (shocker, right?), let's all agree not to wait until the end of the season to remember the Grizzlies are terrifying.

And if they make a deep playoff run toward the Finals, at least we'll all be able to say we saw it coming early.

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