Why This Time Could Be Different for Memphis Grizzlies

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IDecember 18, 2014

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Good, but not great. Tough, but unrefined. Cohesive, but not explosive. A team talented enough for a playoff run, but one superstar short of true championship pedigree.

In the past, when one talked about the Memphis Grizzlies, it was always a conversation of caveats—quick compliments tempered by lingering doubts about the team’s ultimate viability.

But there’s something different about this year’s version of Grit 'N' Grind. Back-to-back wins over the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs—the latter a 117-116 three-overtime classic Wednesday night—having clued even more into that fact.

But Memphis’ emergence as a genuine Western Conference contender goes well beyond whatever beliefs and bellwethers might be gleaned from a paltry pair of games.

Specifically: After years of pinning their postseason prospects almost exclusively on a top-notch defense, these Grizzlies have emerged as a legitimate two-way force.

Critics would call the trend untenable. For the team and its fans, however, Memphis’ success—built as it’s been on a foundation of familiarity—is the definition of sustainable. 

Apr 24, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) and guard Courtney Lee (5) congratulate guard Tony Allen (9) during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExF
USA TODAY Sports

This season marks the sixth of the Grizzlies’ core trio of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Five if you count Tony Allen as the quartet’s fourth. Around them stands a supporting cast of specialists and veterans: defensive shape-shifters Tayshaun Prince and Courtney Lee, steady backups Quincy Pondexter and Beno Udrih, grizzled super-subs Vince Carter and Kosta Koufos—a cast of cogs capable of filling once-glaring gaps.

At the helm stands second-year skipper Dave Joerger, a longtime Grizzlies assistant who served under the previous (and quite successful) Lionel Hollins administration.

Sadly, not even improved win percentages in each of his four seasons were enough to spare Hollins the ax. Joerger took over following 2012-13 with a seemingly simple directive: Put Memphis over the hump.

A year and one very public near-defection later, Joerger appears poised to do exactly that.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

To date, the Grizzlies have leveraged one of the league’s most balanced attacks—eighth in offensive efficiency, per ESPN's Hollinger statistics, seventh at the other end—to the best start in franchise history (21-4).

Formidable balance aside, though, one concern looms particularly large: Can this once slog-prone offense maintain its current clip?

A quick look at the splits between this season and last yields quite the contrast indeed:

Memphis Sound: Grizzlies Offensive Rankings
Season3PA3P%FTAFT%
2013-1414.0 (30th).353 (19th)20.3 (29th).741 (23rd)
2014-1515.5 (28th).377 (5th)24.5 (12th).777 (8th)
NBA.com (all stats per game)

Memphis’ biggest boost has come at the free-throw line, a product in no small part of Gasol and Randolph’s propensity for, in the words of The Commercial Appeal's Peter Edmiston (subscription required), "trading one midrange jumper for two free throws as often as possible.”

A much-improved clip from distance has been an equally big boon for the Grizzlies—particularly in light of the team’s past reluctance on that front. In fact, as Bleacher Report’s Tom Firme recently pointed out, not since 2006-07 has Memphis finished above the league fold in three-point shooting.

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 9:  Mike Conley #11 and Courtney Lee #5 of the Memphis Grizzlies shake hands against the Miami Heat on April 9, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Credit career-best numbers from Conley and Lee for spearheading the Grizzlies’ growth on this front. Even if their overall numbers don’t hold, the combination of Gasol and Randolph’s interior aggressiveness and the additions of net-snapping snipers like Lee and Carter should yield plenty of long-term dividends.

Much can be gleaned from Memphis’ minutia improvements. At the very least, they stand as a sign of Joerger’s willingness to heed the analytics clarion call—something to which Hollins was notoriously resistant, if not outright hostile.

But if the Grizzlies owe their incendiary start to any one factor, it’s the next-level greatness of Gasol himself. Seldom seen as a dyed-in-the-wool superstar, the burly Spaniard has charted a quieter career course: five-tool talents that are both a beacon to a bygone age and a stubborn, idiosyncratic counter to the league’s lily-livered shift from brawn and size to speed and stretch 4s.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

That Gasol’s has been a career year goes without saying. What bears repeating, however, is the stealth, practically seamless way in which the super-skilled 7-footer has assumed the mantle of Memphis’ unquestioned No. 1 option.

In an excellent piece written for ESPN’s TrueHoop, Chris Herrington dishes on the unlikely friendship—and ultimate torch-passing—between Grit 'N' Grind’s two spiritual centers:

Randolph is a bootstrapping success story from hardscrabble Marion, Indiana, and Gasol the son of educated medical professionals, who grew up in beautiful Barcelona and matriculated at Memphis' Lausanne Collegiate School, with an NBA star older brother. Think Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, with malice toward fewer.

Their rare basketball union has also been an evolving one, with this season the culmination of a gradual -- and easy to overstate -- role reversal in which Gasol has gone from Randolph's frontcourt sidekick to the team's offensive alpha dog, and vice versa. It's a shift that runs counter to the duo's natural temperaments -- Randolph entering the league with the "get buckets" gene, Gasol always more deferential.

Gasol’s ascendance isn’t merely about a changing of the go-to guard, although the two’s respective ages—Gasol is 29, Randolph 33—make this an easy narrative crutch. Rather, it’s more a matter of Memphis finally finding a coherent offensive identity.

Z-Bo was and very much remains a man’s man down low. It’s impossible to imagine the Grizzlies grinding out a playoff push without him. But while Randolph’s is a game forged in the fires of low-post punishment—where every basket-ward bull rush becomes a battle of wills—Gasol, for all his burl and brawn, is as much means as end.

Randolph is where you go when you need a bucket; Gasol, with his pinpoint passing and presence, makes those buckets possible.

PORTLAND, OR -  NOVEMBER 28: Zach Randolph #50 and Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the national anthem before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 28, 2014 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

Hardwood historians might point to the 2004 Detroit Pistons as Memphis’ most compelling modern comparison. Truthfully, it’s not so far off. Each touted heady two-way point guards (Conley and Chauncey Billups), both boasted unique frontcourt playmakers (Gasol and Rasheed Wallace), with devastating defense being the biggest binding tie.

To this day, Detroit remains something of a discursive crutch for those convinced it’s still possible to win an NBA championship without a top-10 superstar in tow. A decade and change later, the believers of basketball gestalt are still waiting for their encore.

Might Memphis fit that faded playbill? The early returns certainly suggest so. Just don't expect the spotlight to seek the Grizzlies out anytime soon.

Playing in one of the most top-loaded conferences in history won’t make their grind any easier. But judging by the path the Grizzlies have paved already—gritty, no doubt, and as much because of makeup as the cuts from always being counted out—that's just fine by them.

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