The previews have been rolling in this week. They all seem to agree on one thing: the Grizzlies are going to be good this year, and they’re going to be good because they’re big and they’re physical and they’re excellent on defense.
Where the previews disagree is on how good the Grizz are going to be this year, and whether the team actually did anything over the offseason to make itself any better. Tom Ziller’s preview piece for the mother site put it this way:
There are also the Memphis Grizzlies that got beat by a Clippers team allergic to defense despite home court advantage last year and despite having Z-Bo back for about six weeks going in; a team that didn’t do much (if anything) to improve from that status in the offseason.
So how is this year’s Grizzlies team any different from last year? How are those differences going to matter on the court this year?
The Grizzlies are not a good three-point shooting team. (Yes, yes, thank you Captain Obvious.) Aside from Gilbert Arenas occasionally torching folks in the last part of the regular season, burning out in a blaze of Hibachi glory, the team was pretty miserable from beyond the arc, averaging .326, which was 25th in the league.
The Grizzlies didn’t make any blockbuster moves this summer, but the moves they did make were almost all geared towards improving those numbers.
Jerryd Bayless is a very good backup point guard who, from all preseason appearances, will be able to spell Mike Conley for long stretches, something no one else has ever earned Lionel Hollins’ trust enough to do. In addition to his skills as a floor general, Bayless is also a good long-range shooter, shooting a crazy .423 last year, or 44 out of 104 attempts. That’s probably an outlier. But even if it’s not, Bayless will be able to provide a long-range threat that can’t be ignored, and he’s proven – as recently as last season – that he can make those shots consistently.
Wayne Ellington was brought in from Minnesota in a trade for Dante Cunningham. When that move happened, the Grizzlies blogosphere responded with a resounding "Meh," but Ellington has played well in the preseason. I’m sure he knows his job is to be an aggressive outside threat, and from all appearances he takes that job seriously.
The X-factor in all of this is Josh Selby, who has been a bit of a question mark since the beginning of last season. He was the Summer League co-MVP, raining 3’s and putting up points like a man possessed. He did the same thing in the D-League last season. Whether or not he’s going to (1) be able to do that consistently in the regular season and/or (2) be able to earn enough trust to be allowed out of the O.J. Mayo Memorial Lionel Hollins Doghouse is anybody’s guess.
We’ve seen this before, right? Promising young player kept on too short of a leash to be allowed to develop? Grievis Vasquez? Kyle Lowry? One hopes that Selby can crack the rotation and make a valuable contribution in three-point increments. We’ll see. He’s got a lot of competition.
The Grizzlies are known around the world for their big men: Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Darrell Arthur, Marreese Speights, and fan favorite Hamed Haddadi. A lot of Grizzlies lineups are pretty traditional in terms of who plays what position. This year, though, the Grizzlies have some really fascinating opportunities to go small, and in the preseason some of these lineups have been intriguing.
When I attended the Grizz-Hawks preseason game, the most interesting one of these small lineups I saw was Bayless-Conley-Allen-Gay-Gasol. Having Bayless and Conley on the floor at the same time allowed Conley to use his ridiclous speed off the ball, getting himself enough great open looks to go 5 for 5 from 3-point range. When Conley had the ball, Bayless was just as active. The dual-PG sets looked hard to defend – hard enough that Zaza Pachulia eventually just started trying to hit people instead of screening them.
He’s been hampered in the preseason by a sprained ankle, but Tony Wroten makes this small lineup even more fascinating. When Bayless is in and Conley is resting, the Grizzlies can still go to a dual-PG set with Wroten, except Wroten is much more of an athletic, driving scorer than a long-range shooter. A Bayless-Wroten-Allen-Gay-Gasol lineup would be pretty bad at jumpshots, for the most part, but at the very least it would be interesting. A Conley-Wroten-Allen-Gay-Gasol lineup would be a nightmare for other teams defensively, jumping passing lanes and potentially generating fast break after fast break after fast break.
The NBA – despite the Grizzlies and, of course, the Lakers’ latest superstar
highway robbery acquisition – is moving towards positionless basketball, and is moving away from the traditional inside-out game. I think that’s finally starting to affect the Grizzlies this year. I look for these smaller lineups (probably with a lot of Quincy Pondexter in at the 3 spot for Allen) to be meaningful this year.
This is not going to be a team that is siginificantly different from the Grizzlies teams of the past couple of years – what I like to call the Tony Allen Era. This is a team built around big men scoring inside, and around athletic, driving wing play. Outside shooting has never been the team’s forte.
The moves made this offseason are going to make the team a more credible threat from long range, but nothing is going to change this team’s identity as a team that will murder you on the blocks night in and night out, and then will steal the ball from you every time you try to answer.
The ability to go small adds another element of versatility to a team that has had essentially no bench the last two years. It’ll be interesting to see the ways that Coach Hollins utilizes those lineups in game situations.
Overall, the team isn’t radically different from last year. It’s last year’s team, sharpened to a finer edge, ready to cut through the clutter of this year’s Western Conference.