The Grizzlies, it would appear, are in a tailspin. They swept a West Coast road trip with victories over the Suns, Warriors, and Kings, and then returned to Memphis for an overtime victory over the Spurs.
Since then, well, things aren’t going according to plan.
I’ve been just as shocked as you have by the last three games. In the whole of the Lionel Hollins era, this has been a team that has made up for its (many) deficiencies through sheer force of will and raw, oftentimes ugly, effort. This is a team that may not be as talented as its opponent, but will fight, scratch, and claw every inch of the way to a win. It’s supposed to be "All heart, grit, grind," right? Didn’t we believe that? Isn't that why Tony Allen is the Grizzlies' spirit animal?
Peter Edmiston, of Sports 56 in Memphis, said this last night:
Grizzlies have now lost 3 in a row by 20 or more pts for the first time since March of 2008. That was the end of a 22-60 year.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 17, 2013
Some perspective: Grizzlies have lost 3 straight by 20+ pts. At no point in the Bobcats' 18 gm losing streak did they lose 3 straight by 20+— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 17, 2013
So what do we do now, Grizzlies fans? What are we supposed to expect from this team that started 12–2 and has been .500 ever since, and which appears to be flaming out before our very eyes?
The Grizzlies appear to have found themselves at the center of a perfect storm. Since the new ownership group took over at the beginning of the regular season, we’ve seen things go from awesome to okay to horrible. The team looks less like the world-beaters we saw in November and more like the hurt-ZBo uglyball practitioners of last season, when they were playing defense so well they only had to score 80-something points to win.
The problem? They’re still only scoring 80-something points, but they’re not doing anything on defense. And they’re not doing anything on offense either. They’re not making shots. In Dallas, the Grizzlies’ eFG% was .399, or 39.9%. At home against the Clippers, it was 33.7%. The team’s raw FG% was 30.3%, which was the worst in franchise history in a home game all the way back to 1995. In Vancouver. With Big Country Reeves. Even they didn’t shoot 30%. In San Antonio, same story: eFG% was 42%.
Of course, in San Antonio, it didn’t help that the Spurs’ eFG% as .638, and they assisted on 75% of their baskets — but that, too, shows you something about the Grizzlies’ defensive intensity. This is a team that thrives on turning other teams over. They had a streak of 138 straight games where they forced their opponent into 10+ turnovers, and that streak ended in Dallas on Saturday.
Clearly something is going on. The team can no longer score — something we’ve seen since December — but now they appear to be incapable of (1) getting stops and (2) being able to get the offense going again when they hit a wall. They seem to lack the wherewithal to adjust their offensive gameplan on the fly — but their effort, at least to the uninformed eye, looks so weak that it’s hard to tell whether to blame that on coaching or on the players.
Offense has never been this team’s strong suit. So far this season they’re 16th in the league in offensive rating with a 104.2, but that number is certainly being boosted by November, in which the Grizzlies were in the top 5 in both offense and defense. In the last three games, the Grizzlies had an ORtg of 97.2, 87.5, and 94.1. Their defensive rating for the season is 2nd out of all 30 teams at 100.5, but in the last three games, it was 121.8, 118.6, and 118.2. So the offensive ratings have been well below season average, and the defensive ratings have been far worse than the season average.
What happened to the Grizzlies’ defense? What’s going on?
When the new front office took over, it was obvious that things were going to change. When they hired John Hollinger to be VP of Basketball Operations, it became even more obvious that the team was going to be trying an analytics-based approach to team-building.
There’s a slight catch in that, though: the team was already built. This was a team that was one win short of the Western Conference Finals in 2011, was a 4th seed in the playoffs last year even though their best player — or second-best, maybe Marc Gasol is the best — was hurt for a majority of the year, and was 12–2 in the month of November this year beating the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, and Oklahoma City Thunder right out of the gate.
Due to money, it was clear that the Grizzlies were going to have to make some sort of salary-based move. Ever since 2011, a large portion of Grizzlies fans have felt like Rudy Gay wasn’t pulling his weight. It’s not even up for argument whether he’s worth what the Grizzlies paid him — a max deal to which he was signed after the dumbest contract negotiation ever, in which Michael Heisley offered 5yrs/$50mil, Gay and his agent countered with 5yrs/$65mil, Heisley said "no way" and let Gay reach restricted free agency, and then signed him for 5yrs/$84,000,000. Eighty-four million dollars.
Eighty-four million dollars.
So when Zach Randolph needed a contract extension, and had carried the team to its first playoff win, first playoff series win, and an electrifying 3OT-featuring 7-game series with the Thunder, he got a big contract. Which he had earned.
And then when Marc Gasol needed a contract extension, and had carried the team to its first playoff win, first playoff series win, and an electrifying 3OT-featuring 7-game series with the Thunder, he got a big contract, though not as big as Gay’s or Randolph’s. Which he had earned.
And then the Grizzlies were screwed for the 2013–2014 season, because, adding in Mike Conley’s steal of a contract, they owed $58 million to four guys on the roster.
And then (and then) Michael Heisley and Chris Wallace didn’t do anything about it over the summer before this season, because Heisley was selling the team anyway so it wasn’t his problem.
So Hollinger takes over in the front office — and nobody knows his role or Chris Wallace’s anymore, because nobody’s talking about who does what — and Rudy Gay trade rumors immediately start floating around. He’s getting traded to Phoenix for Jared Dudley and picks, but that’s not good enough for Memphis. He’s offered to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio but the Wolves immediately reject the offer. He’s going to Orlando. The Wizards are giving up Bradley Beal for him.
Rudy Gay has had a tough winter, personally, as well. His grandmother, to whom he was very close, passed away, and that’s a tough thing to deal with anyway, but amid the trade rumors and having to play basketball with no time off, it’s got to be a tough situation for the guy. I really feel for him.
All of it adds up to a team that was already struggling getting kicked while it was down.
Meanwhile Marc Gasol is engaged in a disappearing act nobody seems to be talking about. He’s passing up open shots to make pretty assists, when he should be scoring more aggressively when he has opportunities right in front of him. When he is shooting, he’s not doing it very well. His eFG% in the last three games is .375, .308, and .667, but that .667 happened because he only took 6 shots. He scored 12 points because he got 5 FTA’s. So maybe last night showed he still has it, to an extent.
But it’s part of an overall trend of passivity on Gasol’s part, where he could be scoring more, especially in the pick and roll and pick and pop with Mike Conley. It’d take pressure of Zach Randolph to score in isolation on the block, and pressure off Rudy Gay to make something happen in isolation on the wing with 4 seconds on the shot clock.
But what would it even matter, if the rest of the team is playing so poorly? Where’s the intensity? What’s happening here?
Something has to give. The Grizzlies simply cannot keep playing this way if they hope to keep their coach and/or keep their roster intact. If they can’t get it together, this new front office is going to blow the whole thing up, and it’ll be justified, because this group of players is no longer performing at a high level.
Could they have quit on the coach? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. Could they have quit on each other? Maybe, but they didn’t quit last year when O.J. Mayo trade rumors were flying to and fro. I mean, Mayo was told to pack his bags because he was traded and then at the last minute the trade fell through. Seems like they would’ve been rattled by that just as much, if not more.
Could they have quit on the new ownership, feeling like the franchise is directionless because of all of the uncertainly going around? I guess that’s possible. But how much sense does that make as an explanation? And why didn’t they start getting blown out on the West Coast road trip, especially against the Warriors?
At any rate, they longer they struggle like this, the more certain it becomes that their coach is going to be different next year and that at least one of them is going to be traded somewhere else. Keeping this core together makes no sense when this core is losing by 20 points every night — especially when they’ve proven how well they can play. Are they just not making adjustments?
The Grizzlies are in free fall right now. They’re playing the Kings on Friday night, but I’m not calling that a guaranteed win anymore. The Kings play with effort. Apparently that makes them a dangerous team for the Grizzlies to face these days.
We have to believe that this is rock bottom. That last night’s loss was a "come to Jesus" moment and that the locker room last night was a place where guys said "enough is enough" and decided to turn it around. We have to think this is just a course correction, where things go too far one direction and have to swing back the other, a big pendulum of momentum during the dog days of the NBA’s brutal overscheduled winter.
If we don’t believe that, then we believe that the sky is falling, and I’m not ready to say that yet. I’ve seen this team come back from the brink too many times to make that claim.
Well, maybe not the Dallas game, which was a SEGABABA after an overtime win. But I was still shocked that the Grizzlies came out and showed no fight whatsoever, like they weren’t even trying to win the game. They wanted to kill 48 minutes and then get on a plane and go home. ↩
The counter-argument to the "Trade Rudy" crowd that says "They did better without him in 2011" has always been "but if they have Rudy Gay against Oklahoma City, they go to the NBA Finals." They matchup against Dallas was certainly much better for Memphis than the matchup against Oklahoma City was. That’s one of the great "what ifs" of Griz history to me. What if Rudy Gay had been in that OKC series? Would things have played out any differently? Surely they would have, right? ↩
Which is pretty ridiculous, and in retrospect, was probably leaked from Memphis even though it wasn’t true to get the trade value higher for Rudy. ↩