The days leading up to Memorial Day 2014 feel like so long ago, especially with the amount of NBA headlines, activity, and rumors that have accumulated, and still continue to pile up, since that time. We have watched the NBA Draft shape the future (or reveal the true strategy) of teams who struggled last season. We waited for seemingly forever to finally learn of LeBron's decision to return to Cleveland, analyzing his essay to the point where some experts could recite it verbatim. We learned that a few household names took a big cut in pay to stay with their original teams. The NBA Finals had not even started by the end of May, and we had yet to witness Miami's literal heat exhaustion in Game 1 and its ultimate demise to Gregg Popovich's Spurs. Speaking of exhaustion, we have constantly heard and read the words "Kevin Love," "Klay Thompson," "David Lee," "Andrew Wiggins" (minus LeBron's letter), "Anthony Bennett" (ditto), "Taj Gibson," and "first round pick" so much that even the most casual NBA fan can recall every trade scenario offered to the Timberwolves involving Kevin Love...and I seriously mean all of them, even Denver's sales pitch.
Let's reflect back to those days preceding Memorial Day 2014 - days that took some, or maybe even most, Grizzlies fans by surprise. On May 21, reports surfaced that Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger had been given permission to, and did, speak to Minnesota about their head coaching vacancy. Front office upheaval became known to the public. Grizzlies owner Robert Pera ended up meeting with Joerger, had a change of heart, and...well, who would have thought...Joerger is staying with Memphis for his second season...all in about a four or five day time-span.
Now that news of Love's trade to Cleveland was finally made official (yes, NBA officials, I know it really doesn't occur till August 23...I get it...) and the details have been released, do you think Joerger has contemplated what it would be like to coach Minnesota's roster now? Do you think he would have bolted had he known he was going to inherit the last two number one overall picks? Who wouldn't want to coach Andrew Wiggins, arguably the best combination of athleticism and superstar-potential of this past draft? Now that Minnesota's re-building strategy has been solidified (and, honestly, seems like it's never changed since Kevin Garnett's glory days), does he want to know what it feels like to not have as much pressure to win and coach a young team from the ground up? Here are some key factors to consider when analyzing the overall makeup of both teams.
Point Guard Play: Mike Conley vs. Ricky Rubio
If Joerger wants a point guard concerned with solely distributing the basketball, Rubio might be the guy. He averaged 8.6 dimes last season and carries a career average of 8.1 heading into the upcoming season. Conley only has a 5.6 career average in assists, after averaging six per game last season, which isn't all that bad, especially considering the slow-tempo style of offense the Grizzlies employ. The Wolves' up-tempo style, even more off of opponents' missed shots, provides Rubio ample opportunities to pad his assist statistics. Rubio entered the league being notable for his flashy dishes and ballhandling. However, don't underestimate the importance of Conley's playmaking to Memphis. Maybe his passes don't drop any jaws on a regular basis (and maybe Rubio's passes don't do this much anymore, anyway), but Conley still maintained just below a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. Yes, Rubio had just under a 4.0 ratio in that category last season, and as much as he had to pass to Love last season, that's pretty impressive. There is still a critical area that Rubio is lacking.
Conley can go get buckets, especially when they're needed. At a 17.1 scoring average last season (and the highest season average of his career) and 13.1 for his overall career, Conley has shown that he can create shots for himself just as well as he can create for others. Conley can penetrate and get to the rim, as well as hit a mid-range jumper and catch fire from three-point land. While Rubio might excel at creating for others, his shooting prowess and numbers are inferior to those of Conley. Rubio only averaged 9.5 last season, while carrying a 10.1 career average into next season. He's a career 36.8% field goal shooter, compared to Conley's 44%. Maybe Rubio will work on his shooting while playing for Spain in the FIBA World Cup. But right now, if Joerger wants a point guard with the better assurance of scoring ability, Conley should be his option.
Which option is better for Joerger? This could potentially be the closest race among positions between the teams. Although Rubio has the better assist numbers, it's important to consider the style he plays in compared to Grizzlies' grit-and-grind tempo that Conley leads while still averaging above five a game for his career. Conley definitely has the scoring edge on Rubio. Conley is three years older than Rubio, but at 26, Conley is still working towards (or even possibly at) his prime. Rubio is in a contract year; keep that in mind, as it might be hard for him to consider going back to Minnesota with only potential-talent remaining on the roster, rather than absolute-talent. The last key factor: Conley has significant playoff experience - even in the latter stages of the postseason and against point guards of former champions. Rubio might have looked good at one time against the NBA's best in the Olympics. That was a different time and a different setting. Conley has gone toe-to-toe with the NBA's best point guards in the NBA's most pressure-packed games. Coach Joerger, have no regrets...you gotta go with Conley right here.
Wing Play: Lee/Allen/VC/Jordan Adams vs. Andrew Wiggins & Cast of Past College Stars
Jesse Johnson - USA TODAY Sports
I'm hesitant to put Kevin Martin in this discussion, as his name continued to surface in the Love trade rumors as a Minnesota salary dump on some team. His name has not been initially expressed as being involved in the Kevin Love trade, but given that the Wolves want to get rid of his salary, I will not include him as an asset in this piece.
With the Grizzlies' wings, you have a streaky, yet dead-eye shooter in Lee. Allen plays the role of shut-down-the-opponent's-best-player defender, a role he has relished and mastered in his time with the Grizzlies. Carter's rejuvenation carryover remains to be seen, but given last season with the Mavs, he has brought an upgrade to the small forward position and excitement to the Grizzlies' fan base. Although his summer league scoring stats were admirable (14.8 ppg, 95% from the charity stripe), there is hope that Adams' all-around game will develop to coincide with the scoring threat that he will be off the bench. The sum of these parts adds up to the essential balance needed to compete amongst the top teams in the West, especially with the half-court style utilized by Memphis so often.
Wiggins is such an enigma at the moment, without having stepped on an official NBA court during the regular season. He had two monster-scoring games at Kansas and showcased tremendous athleticism while guarding opposing team's best wing players, drawing early comparisons to a Paul George-type of player. Will he realize his full potential in the Minnesota environment? If Garnett could only lead Minnesota as far as the Western Conference Finals, while Love couldn't even get to the postseason, what can we expect Wiggins to accomplish...if we should even consider him that same type of franchise leader? He might actually have just been thrust in that role now, even without us knowing the answer to those questions. Would Joerger feel comfortable placing the fate of his coaching career in the unknown development/potential of Wiggins?
The Timberwolves' overall list of wing players looks like a Who's-Who of past college stars...none of whose pro fame has materialized...yet. Budinger might be the best returning talent of this group at this position, yet he's still not an overwhelming choice by any stretch. Brewer has a unique combination of being able to defend the opponent's best wing player yet also being one of the best basketball cherry-pickers (Congratulations, D-Wade...you win the true award), as he benefited from many Kevin Love outlet passes that led to dunks. Shabazz...well...I guess he did average 16.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg in Summer League...but I'm still waiting on his Adidas commercial they supposedly have been working on since his high school days. I will never question Zach LaVine's athleticism or ability to finish at the rim. Can't wait to see him in the Slam Dunk Contest in February!
Which option is better for Joerger? This isn't as difficult as the point guard debate. Experienced balance trumps college-hype-turned-mediocre-talent. There could still be a potential breakthrough at the wing spot within the Timberwolves group. And any coach would love to have a talent like Wiggins on their team. But, as of now, the safer and surer bet is the Grizzlies' band of wing players. If multiple guys play their games at a high level at the same time, the West should be on notice.
Post Play: Gasol/Z-Bo/Kosta/Stokes vs. Pekovic/Anthony Bennett/Dante Cunningham/Gorgui
(Photo credit: Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)
If another rumored deal comes to fruition involving Sixers forward Thaddeus Young, then the Wolves' case in the post area would improve. It still couldn't touch the physical mammoths controlling the paint in Memphis. You won't find a version of "stretch" forwards with the Grizzlies. And even if Cunningham provides this stretch semblance for Minnesota, he would not last long guarding Z-Bo or Gasol in the paint. All opponents dread facing Gasol and Randolph together. Koufos has been a good addition to this group, and Stokes has the ability to enhance the Grizzlies post play by doing what he always does best and what the Grizzlies emphasize: control the area below the rim and dominate the glass.
Maybe Bennett's flashes of optimism during the summer league (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) are true pictures of what's to come for his career. If so, and by playing alongside his Canadian buddy Wiggins, it's possible we should just disregard his first-year waste of a season. Then again, maybe it wasn't necessarily a waste as he learned to adjust to the NBA life and style of play. Still, Joerger would be putting a large portion of stock into the resurrection of his career...stock he may find might ultimately lose all of his money.
Pekovic is a solid post presence in his own right, but not of the pedigree of Gasol and Z-Bo. There is potential with Deng, and he was a great shot blocker at Louisville two years ago, affecting the game at the defensive end constantly. But again, who knows if these guys will ultimately pan out.
Which option is better for Joerger? This is the easiest question to answer. When you have Gasol and Randolph on the same team...who have been through the wars...who fought many post battles and succeeded...and who have won together for so long...why go against that? Why leave that? They are the foundation that everyone else revolves around. Teammates fit roles so that Marc and Zach can operate and dominate at the high post and in the paint.
I think it's fairly clear to see that it all worked out in the end. Sure, coaching Andrew Wiggins might be an interesting and fun project to undertake. There is talent that needs good coaching on this Minnesota team. If the Wolves make the postseason this season, then they will be labeled the "team to watch" in the following season. Joerger may reflect back on that Memorial Day week's decision if that occurs and wonder what might have been.
But, you know what, Coach? Your Memphis team is already there and has already been there. No worries and wondering about "potential" in Memphis. The Grizzlies already have the right players for the right system. A title continues to remain bleak and uncertain in Minnesota; the time for a title is now in Memphis.
Welcome home, Coach. Glad to have you back.