So often, the media can become a bit over-focused on a particular side or angle of a story. Even in Memphis, whether it be the highest of local newspaper/radio men or the common blogger, it is natural to run with the names or situations that will garner the biggest audiences. For example, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph will always find themselves in articles, or as the discussion points of podcasts and radio shows. It comes with the territory of being one of the "Three Grizzly Kings".
Even some more modest role players have found their way into the headlines. Can Tony Allen play Small Forward consistently? Will Jordan Adams force his way into the already crowded wing rotation? Will Tayshaun Prince play Small Forward, Power Forward, will he play at all? Fair questions all, to some degree, for a Grizzlies team looking to compete in the playoffs for a 5th straight season (no easy feat in the crowded Western Conference) and perhaps go even further.
On a team as deep as the Memphis Grizzlies, there are some potentially forgotten stories - players who maybe don't command the attention of a Zach Randolph or the questions of potential like a Jordan Adams. But that doesn't lessen the potential impact that their presence (or lack thereof) will make on the upcoming season. Who among these lesser contemplated Grizzlies will make the most impact?
3. Jon Leuer as a Big-Time Bench Big
The "Jonny Badger" has played some pretty good basketball so far this preseason. Granted, it is preseason and not the largest sample size, but Jon Leuer in 5 preseason appearances has averaged almost 18 minutes a game, scoring 8.2 points per game on 45.7% shooting with 5.2 rebounds in that time period. In his largest allotment of minutes so far this preseason, a 26-minute run against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he also showed the capability of facilitating offense, having 4 assists. The more ways that Jon Leuer can diversify his offensive contributions, the more desirable he will be when it comes to competing for playing time with Jarnell Stokes, and yes, even potentially Tayshaun Prince.
However, the main question facing Jon in regards to consistently increased minutes is whether he's improved enough defensively so that he isn't negating his stretch big offensive game. It isn't that he is physically incapable; he has shown defensive flashes. Take this clip from the 2013 Western Conference Finals, for example.
Good recognition of the switch, good feet, and great reaction to the shot so as to take advantage of his length and make a big play. Clips like this are few and far between for Leuer, though. Consistently, he loses his feet, not able to keep up with athletes getting to the rim off of the dribble-drive or the pick and roll. Here is a series of screen shots that show that issue from that game against the Oklahoma City Thunder recently.
Leuer's man has turned his back to the ball and Russell Westbrook has committed to driving to the lane. Leuer recognizes this and tries to react appropriately. Emphasis on "tries".
Leuer gets his hands straight up, as he should, but he doesn't have the reaction time to better place his feet and position himself to force a tougher shot for Westbrook. One more step and it is an easy take to the basket.
Russell Westbrook blows by lots of defenders. The key is to be able to make the shot as difficult for these explosive ball handlers and penetrating wings as possible. If Leuer is to potentially be counted on to defend at the rim more (more on this later), he must grow this skill more and more. He is on a great contract, and he is a versatile offensive player. How much PT the Wisconsin product gets for Memphis this season will hinge on his ability to defend.
2. Courtney Lee as a Starting Wing
It seems like all of the other wings are getting all of the attention. Meanwhile, the guy the Grizzlies traded for last season and started in 54 games for Memphis including the playoffs seems to get the least publicity. That trade that sent Jerryd Bayless to Boston in exchange for the services of Courtney Lee looks like a stroke of genius after the obscene contracts of this past Free Agency period, as players similar to Lee are now making $2-4 million dollars more than Courtney is. A deal that seemed like a stretch financially at first has become a bargain for a player who can score the basketball in a variety of ways, as this highlight clip shows.
An explosive athlete with range who can run the court extremely effectively in spurts.
And yet, there is some Courtney Lee discontent, even to levels of questioning whether or not the Grizzlies would be better off starting Quincy Pondexter, Tony Allen, or even the rookie Jordan Adams in front of him. It isn't that these questions aren't unwarranted; as red-hot as Courtney Lee was upon joining the Grizzlies, he got equally cold at times. He struggled with the defensive adjustments that the Oklahoma City Thunder made in the playoffs last season forcing him to be more of a ball handler than perhaps he can be consistently.
He certainly has his limitations and is likely not equipped to be a consistently counted on main option, but considering his skill set and potential to be a threat from range, in the mid-range, and driving to the basket, he is still likely the best option for the Shooting Guard spot on the roster. In 5 preseason games, Courtney Lee is 5-6 from 3 point range, shooting a little under 50% overall, and is running the floor well, using his athleticism to get rebounds and steals. Of all the wings, he is the best mix of offense and defense, youth and experience.
Vince Carter appears to be in line to be the leader of the bench unit, Tony Allen is an offensive issue, Tayshaun Prince is an issue in general, and all three of those guys can potentially play Small Forward. Considering Quincy Pondexter will probably see the bulk of his minutes as the "bigger" wing on the floor and Jordan Adams is still growing/proving himself, the job is still probably Courtney Lee's to lose.
1. Kosta Koufos as a Trade Asset?
In the offseason, Kosta's impending free agency and potentially increased role without Ed Davis to "compete" with for minutes was discussed a good bit. Now that the preseason is more than halfway over, however, Kosta has flown under the radar a bit. He has played well at times and has looked disinterested at times, which is to be expected from a veteran player who has been around the Association. However, as I detailed in an article earlier this offseason, Koufos had several areas that he could improve upon to make himself more desirable as a key Grizzly and in free agency in the future. So far, in the extremely limited sample size of the preseason, he has not shown too much growth.
The preseason is set up for players to be able to experiment, to start to implement new parts of their games. Of course it is still possible that Koufos will show that development. If the season carries on and Koufos is the same player but Jon Leuer and Jarnell Stokes are showing real growth and improvement, especially defensively? If Marc Gasol's new found frame and borderline athleticism leads to better durability? It is possible that Koufos could become a trade piece heading into 2015, and a valuable one at that. Teams exist that could use a big who can protect the rim and play well in the pick-and-roll.
Like this one.
After the signing of Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore in the offseason, both of whom combined cost less than Kyle Korver over the life of his contract, perhaps Korver could become available for the right price. Koufos, Pondexter, and a draft pick (preferably 2nd) may be a worthwhile package. Memphis gets the sharpshooting wing capable of starting it would love to have while only losing about $2.4 million of its cap flexibility heading into 2015's free agency. The beautiful thing about the Korver contract? It is descending; it goes down in value roughly $500,000 every season until it expires. Value rises as time goes on, making him a potentially trade-able asset down the road.
Another potential trade partner is another bottom-of-the-Eastern-Conference-playoff-picture type of team looking for depth in the front court that can defend the paint.
Memphis loves reclamation projects, right? It is entirely possible that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher will tire of J.R. Smith's antics and will be looking to shop him. Quincy and Kosta may work even without a pick; Pondexter fits more of a role for the Knicks who are likely to want to invest more into Tim Hardaway Jr., and Koufos will enable the Knicks to have a consistent defensive presence alongside Samuel Dalembert. Who knows, maybe they love Kosta so much those Marc Gasol pipe dreams fade away.
What could make this deal not work? Smith has a "Trade Kicker" clause in his contract that may cloud up any trade if he chooses to not waive it, as well as a player option for next season that would take away some from that cap space in 2015 (about $3 million worth). If that works out, however? Smith would provide an upgrade over Quincy's potential contributions.
Koufos will impact the Grizzlies somehow this season, whether by staying with or leaving the Bears of Beale Street moving forward.
Just because a player is not constantly on the minds of a fan base does not mean that their presence isn't important. Jon Leuer, Courtney Lee, and Kosta Koufos will all have a major effect on where the Memphis Grizzlies go this season, whether it is by starting, taking on a larger bench role, or potentially being shipped out of Memphis. Their 2014-2015 performances will have a hand in the greater headline of the success or failure of the upcoming campaign.