Depleted Memphis Grizzlies Have Become NBA's Most Improbable Playoff Contender

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2016

Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, center, movies the ball defended by Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The Los Angeles Lakers won 107-100. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — At some point over these last few weeks, the Memphis Grizzlies officially waved goodbye to their delightfully rugged Grit n’ Grind era. 

Marc Gasol is 31 years old and broke his foot a week before the All-Star break. Zach Randolph is 34 and a sack of rice defending pick-and-rolls. Tony Allen, for better or worse, will be Tony Allen for the rest of time. Mike Conley, a free agent this summer, is out indefinitely with a sore Achilles. Paleontologists get fired up every time Vince Carter hits a three.

An unthinkable number of injuries, coupled with two major trades with the future in mind (Jeff Green and Courtney Lee were swapped out for Lance Stephenson, P.J. Hairston and a few draft picks), have decimated the roster. But somehow the Grizzlies have managed to hold onto their cushion as a No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Entering games Thursday, they lead the No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers by four games.

Is this a scrappy mirage, or is it the final sendoff to one of the most identifiable and consistent franchises of the decade?

Matt York/Associated Press

Here’s a brief list of some players who’ve worn a Grizzlies jersey this season: James Ennis, Xavier Munford, Briante Weber, Russ Smith, Alex Stepheson, JaMychal Green and Elliot Williams. 

“With all due respect, sometimes I don’t know [their] last names,” Matt Barnes said before Tuesday night’s loss against the Los Angeles Lakers. “That’s just what kind of season it’s been, and you’ve got to take your hats off to guys who’ve come in and played, because normally, when you have this many fill-ins and D-League players, it’s for a team that’s not competing for nothing.”

This season was supposed to be a last stand. Barnes and Brandan Wright were the major acquisitions who’d help fortify the Grizzlies' bulletproof identity. Instead, in the middle of March, the best (healthy) player on the roster might be Lance Stephenson, a tantalizing second-round pick turned borderline All-Star turned disappointing journeyman who's averaging 15.1 points on 49.8 percent shooting in 17 games.

Every night, they stomp into battle with a slingshot made out of paper clips and a rubber band, and every night they give their opponent hell. On Tuesday, head coach Dave Joerger stretched his rotation to 12 on the second night of a back-to-back. His point guard rotation was Jordan Farmar (the same guy who, before this week, hadn’t played in an NBA game since he was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers last January) and Ray McCallum, whose season began with the San Antonio Spurs.

Matt York/Associated Press

Before the game, the Grizzlies discussed just how difficult it can be to acclimate new faces into a machine that’s already moving. 

“We’re kind of free styling,” Barnes said. “We’ve got a couple sets that we try to get into, basic sets. But with guys like Lance, you want to let Lance just play. We want to get Jordan pick-and-rolls, myself and Tony in pick-and-rolls, cutting and spotting up, being able to feed Zach. So really, it’s just kind of been by committee, move the ball to the right guy and try to score.”

Coach Joerger credited his coaching staff and the veteran players who're still healthy for making things so much better than they should be.

Our guys have accepted each other for who they are as individuals, he said. You know, let them be who they are individually both on and off the court, not judging, just going out and playing hard together.

Speaking from the other end of the spectrum is McCallum—one of the team’s newest faces. From his perspective, the opportunity to get consistent minutes and showcase the skills he wasn’t able to display in San Antonio is a huge motivating factor that ultimately plays to Memphis’ benefit:

“The first couple games, they simplified the package a little bit more, but now we’re getting more of our guys back,” he said. “We’re going to use more of our main sets...the playoffs are at stake, and it’s a lot on the line, so I’m just kind of getting thrown into the fire and being ready to go from day one. It’s what you want as a player. You want to be playing at the highest level and you want to be playing for something, so I’m happy to be here.”

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Top-tier talent is necessary for survival over the course of an NBA season. Through it all, Randolph has held everything together as a calming presence on the offensive end—the reliable workhorse who never stops battling on the boards and still commands a double-team. 

“Getting Zach back as an anchor for us gives our team confidence that there’s a go-to guy there,” Joerger said. “You need a bucket; you can always just drop it in there.

Z-Bo isn’t an MVP candidate, but he’s more important than ever in Memphis. According to NBA.com, since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies offense evaporates when he isn’t on the floor (averaging 99.7 points per 100 possessions) and shines to the tune of 110.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s wrestling down low with opponents (who quickly regret their decision to wake up that morning).

But even after accumulating his first triple-double of his career in a recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, Randolph isn’t sure how the team is still alive.

“It’s tough, man” Randolph said. “It ain’t our team, but we’re [making] the best of it and the good thing is these young guys are getting a chance to play, and they’re hungry…all you can do is work hard, be positive and be a leader and help everybody out.”

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

March wins over the Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers don’t make a lot of sense, especially after you quickly dig into the numbers. 

Since the All-Star break, Memphis ranks dead last in overall three-point percentage (28.7 percent on wide-open threes, per SportVU), and isn't assisting baskets. The Grizzlies are the league's worst team off a paint touch, and have a bottom-10 defense, post All-Star break.

The only positive that stands out is their work on the offensive glass, where only the Oklahoma City Thunder are more aggressive grabbing their own misses, per NBA.com.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

But sometimes numbers lie. Sometimes ingenious coaching and veteran leadership swirl together with a pack of hungry brutes who are literally playing with their careers on the line, and good things happen. 

“We all talk to each other, Barnes said. This team reminds me of that Golden State team I had in 2007, with just a bunch of guys that nobody wanted...[we're] coming together at the right time, and we’ll be a tough out in the playoffs.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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