Sizing up the Southwest: the Memphis Grizzlies

September 16th, 2013 by Kevin Hetrick

Two weeks from today, across the country, the NBA kicks-off a new season with media day; finally, something substantive to distract us from football.  Until then, Cavs:the Blog continues our odyssey through the rest of the NBA.  The Eastern Conference featured several doormats to enhance Cleveland’s playoff hopes; the Western Conference houses few similar patsies.  Beginning the sojourn through that terrifying wilderness, today I look at the Memphis Grizzlies.

Last season: In a league where small-ball fours and spread-floors progressively reign, the Grizzlies offer a throw-back style.  Playing at the league’s slowest pace and hoisting the fewest threes, the massive Memphis squad rolled to the Western Conference Finals, before being trampled ignominiously in a sweep against San Antonio.  Fronted by their dual Hulks, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph; a great two-way point guard in Mike Conley; and defensive ace Tony Allen; Memphis thrives with interior play, post passing, and elite bucket-stopping, holding opponents to the second-worst offensive rating in the League.

Off the court, significant moves also occurred.  In December, Memphis hired ESPN columnist John Hollinger to advise their front office.  Shortly thereafter, the team pulled off two trades to significantly improve their salary cap situation: one move prominent for Cavs fans, and the other amongst the League’s marquee deals of 2012 – 2013.  First, the Grizz dealt Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a future first rounder for Jon Leuer.  At the time, this looked a coup for Cleveland, but now with: Speights a Warrior; Ellington a Maverick; Selby a struggling a D-Leaguer; the pick possibly falling around 24th in 2017; and Leuer a 24-year old big with a new contract and career 14.0 PER*, the scales balanced considerably for this deal over the last eight months.  I’m holding hope that Memphis picks between sixth and fourteenth in 2015 or 2016 (in which case the Cavs get the pick).

The second trade involved sending Rudy Gay packing to Toronto, in exchange for Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye, Ed Davis, and a second round pick later used on Jamaal Franklin.  The move eliminated luxury tax risk last season, but also shed $18 million in salary moving forward.  Prince provides veteran presence, defensive commitment, and accurate long-range shooting, and Franklin may emerge as a long-term replacement for Tony Allen, to continue pairing between Conley and Gasol in one of the NBA’s elite defenses.

From the date of the first of those trades, the Grizzlies finished with 30 wins, 12 losses, and two playoff series conquests.  Their salary cap situation is rosier, and it’s easy to appreciate some of the sneaky successes of the early days of the Hollinger infused front office.

What they’ve done this off-season: Six of the top seven minutes earners return from last year’s 56-game winner: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Jarryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter.  The seventh guy is Rudy Gay, but Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis both return.   So the core largely remains, but Memphis still 1) inked Tony Allen to a new four-year deal, and 2) probably to the surprise of many Cavs fans, Leuer snagged two years guaranteed, with a team option for a third.  3) Darrell Arthur, was sent packing for Kosta Koufos, very much in line with the Grizz’s modus operandi of playing big, with stout defense.  4) Letting Austin Daye walk represents a minimal loss, and his spare minutes get eaten-up by 5) Mike Miller.  Following amnesty from Miami, this veteran marksman chose Memphis; his career 41% shooting from deep meshes nicely among the brick-stricken Grizzlies.  6) After trading Tony Wroten for nothing, 7) Memphis signed Eurocup MVP** / former Florida Gator Nick Calathes to vie for leftover point guard minutes.  8) And of course, they drafted Jamaal Franklin.

Winning nearly 3/4 of their games in the second half of the season, they upgraded their bench filler from Darrell Arthur, Austin Daye, Keyon Dooling & Tony Wroten to Koufos, Miller, Calathes & Franklin.  All seems good there.

The most dramatic move of the offseason though involved parting ways with head coach Lionel Hollins.  Following a very successful season, and as the winner of all 18 playoff victories in franchise history, on face value, he seemed unlikely to hit the market.  Throughout the season however, and particularly during the Rudy Gay trade saga, rifts between the veteran coach and the reconstructed front office became apparent.  Dave Joerger, long-time Grizzly assistant and five-time D-League / CBA Champion Coach, takes the reigns.

How they match up with the Cavs & Match-up to watch: In the ideal, everyone’s healthy scenario, the Bynum, Varejao & Thompson frontcourt constitutes one squad very capable of matching size & skill with Gasol and Randolph.  Bynum matches Randolph’s bulk, while Andy keeps Gasol on the move, with those two both flashing sweet, soccer-bred passing.  Andy and Tristan’s activity on the o-boards, combined with Bynum’s cutting and backdowns, draws tons of fouls from the Memphis bigs; Gasol and Koufos ranked sixth and seventh in the NBA for committing fouls in 2012 – 2013.  And of course once they hit the pine, Cleveland pummels Jon Leuer a bit. Like the Cavs, small forward represents the Grizzlies worst position, and well, the Wine & Gold have Kyrie Irving, offensive wunderkind, who likely (maybe?) viewed a marathon of Mike Conley’s Greatest Defensive Possessions*** this offseason.  With advanced backcourt defense, Andy and Andrew healthy, and Cleveland’s improved depth, the Cavs match up well with this NBA semi-finalist.

And that’s the continued, fun theme of the off-season; everyone’s healthy until the games start, and hence the Cavs outlook is nice.

*Leuer’s PER was 17.2 in his limited minutes in Memphis last year, a complete turnaround from the 3.3 he posted in similar time in Cleveland, and in line with his rookie season in Milwaukee.

**Calathes lead Russian side Lokomotiv Cuban to a Eurocup Title with my guy, Derrick Brown.  Could be a tough intro to the EuroLeague for Brown and his teammates, sans Calathes.

***This is an available highlight DVD, right?