Andrew Ford (@AndrewFord22): We have hardly gotten into the season, and the Grizzlies are already making my head spin. On opening night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they dug their grave early and were never really close to climbing out. In game two against the Indiana Pacers, the Grizzlies jumped out of the gates fast but allowed the Pacers to climb back into it and probably made it much harder on themselves than it should have been. Sometimes it seems like the Grizzlies are destined to make things difficult forever no matter the roster makeup. After a slow start last season, how much of a surprise is it that the same thing might be happening once again?
Matt Hrdlicka (@theRealHrdlicka): Time is a flat circle, right? I'm surprised with how...lethargic (if that's the right word), the Grizzlies' Big 3 have looked, but I'm not worried about it. Conley has seemed willing to defer to the bigs at the beginnings of games, but he's ventured into the lane a bit more when one of ZBo or Gasol is out. I think there's a general awareness that all it takes is one of these guys having a subpar year for the Grizzlies to be in real trouble, but I see no reason to sound the alarms after two games.
If I'm concerned about anything early on it's these two things:
- Can the Grizzlies put Brandan Wright in a position to succeed?
- Do the Grizzlies have a primary ball handler when Mike Conley is on the bench?
Do you share those concerns, or does something else draw your attention?
Ford: I do share your concerns. It is surprising to me how lethargic the big 3 have looked, because it's not like this is the first game they've all played together this season. I know preseason is a much different, tamer animal, but they had some time to get back in the flow of the game. Right now we just aren't seeing that enough, but like you alluded to, it's not something to worry about yet just two games into the season.
In a perfect world, Mike Conley and Brandan Wright would be working more in tandem than they have in the early going. They've had some nice connections in the pick-and-roll, but not enough to say that Joerger is getting the most out of Wright when he's on the court. You can kind of tie the correct use of Wright in with the second concern you brought up as well, which is the Grizzlies' backup ball handler position. When Conley has been on the bench, Wright hasn't looked nearly as potent as a roll man. Neither Beno Udrih nor Russ Smith is able to change speeds and poke holes in a defense like Conley in the pick-and-roll, and Wright's a guy who needs to be set up to be most effective.
If the Grizzlies aren't going to utilize Wright more in some form of high pick-and-roll, then they have to find a way to get him around the basket without him clogging up space on drives, which is a tough thing to do. It's just that if he's not serving as a roll man, it does the Grizzlies no good for him to simply be floating around midrange, but it could also be detrimental to have him meander in and around the paint because it leaves another opposing big down low to protect the rim. So yeah, the Grizzlies need to figure out how to maximize Wright while not changing the dynamic of the offense completely. I'm not entirely sure how they do that though.
Against the Cavs, when Joerger went for a while without a point guard on the floor, I think that was meant to be a kick in the pants to Udrih and Smith. But I think Joerger knows Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, or anybody else on the roster who is not a true point guard is not the answer to a primary ball handler when Conley is on the bench. I think the Grizzlies are good enough to skate by in the regular season without a really good backup ball handler, but I think the playoffs could expose them in that area much like it did last season. Udrih's defense is brutal, making it tough to play him for extended stretches, and Smith is still so wild at this point in his development. Do you think there is a solution in sight, or is this something that the Grizzlies might not be able to fix given the pieces they have?
One concern I'd like to bring up is the Grizzlies getting beat in transition so much. Pushing the ball against a slow, grind-it-out (gotta throw in something about the grind) team like the Grizzlies not only works, but it's essential because the Grizzlies have proven over the years that they are tough to crack when they have time to set up the defense. I don't know that there is a great counter to teams throwing outlet passes and getting easy buckets given personnel, so I always worry about issues that seem like they truly could be a problem all season.
Hrdlicka: I noticed the transition defense thing too. I didn't track or rewind to see who in particular was getting beat, but I sort of chalked it up to the lethargy of the Big 3 and made a note to pay attention for that.
Also, I really want Russ Smith to be good, but life is just so hard on tiny guards. You don't learn how to finish in the lane unless you play, and he just isn't good enough right now. I really hoped he'd try to turn into Patty Mills - a guy who just runs all over the place, with and without the ball, and jacks threes - but that is just about the opposite of what Russ Smith wants to do. Smith can't play next to Conley either, unless you're prepared to make serious concessions on defense. As for Beno, he gives Memphis bench units some vital shot making, but there isn't a clean path to offensive efficiency if your point guard is pulling up from mid-range after zero passes 25% of the time.
But Wright, on the other hand, offers a very clean path to offensive efficiency. However, like you said, you have to contort the rest of your lineups around him with good ballhandlers/playmakers, and enough shooting to force the defense to choose. If you can do that, you have a unit that can give you top ten offensive minutes.
The problem, of course, is that the Grizzlies have a dearth of both. Conley-Lee-Barnes-Green-Wright is the paciest and spaciest the Grizzlies can go, and I think that lineup would score at a top 10 offensive rate, but that also comes with defensive tradeoffs, and how many minutes do you really want three of your top four players on the bench? I wrote about this in my Season Preview piece, but Conley-Lee-Barnes-Wright-Gasol functions as a diet version of the Clippers base offense that has led the league in points per possession the last two years.
The problem is when the Grizzlies try to play Wright next to Randolph. Can you craft a functional offense or defense when both your front court players (though vastly different) thrive in the same space, and when neither is a bona fide rim protector or stretch 4 defender?
I'm willing to be talked into Wright's defensive credentials. Generally I see him lunge on the perimeter, and in Dallas I was never impressed with his rim protection (the stats were also very luke warm on him), but I didn't watch him a ton there, and you might have a better feel of him there. Do you disagree with me on Wright, or Wright/Randolph pairings, and maybe in a more general way, if you were Coach Joerger, how would you balance the tradeoffs your roster gives you?
Ford: I don't disagree with you on Wright defensively. His rim protection, or lack thereof, is frustrating because his length is perfect for altering shots. The problem with him is timing and positioning. If a guy dribbles right into him, then he can obviously just use his length to block a shot. But he gets caught in no man's land around 12-15 feet too often, and I think his instincts are average at best when it comes to timing his blocks.
On the perimeter, I might not have as much of a problem with Wright as you, mostly because I think him lunging — at least on pick-and-rolls — was at least partially a product of the Mavs' defensive scheme. He'd hedge high on screens, stick an arm out in a weak swipe attempt, then scamper back to his big because that was often the coverage. I like him fine on the perimeter, but I do think he needs a good guard to team with in pick-and-roll coverage since his positioning isn't great and he's slow to commit to a coverage if the ball handler rounds the corner. Overall though, I generally see him as fine on the defensive end. He's neither really good nor really bad, so he shouldn't kill the Grizzlies if paired with a more traditional rim-protecting big like Marc Gasol or JaMychal Green.
While I don't love the thought of Wright playing next to Zach Randolph a lot because of the deficiencies the pairing has defensively, I do think there are ways to make it work from an offensive standpoint. Namely, Joerger could get creative and have them set stagger screens at the top of the perimeter where one of them (probably Wright) would roll and the other would pop to the free throw line extended area.
Also, horns wouldn't be a bad look to put them in to maximize space. The Grizzlies already like to use the set for Randolph and Gasol with a lot of dribble hand offs between one of the bigs around the elbow and a wing circling up from the corner. That way, you can get into a little two man game on one side and have the other big squared up ready to shoot from 15-17 feet if a kick out comes because the defense sinks in and overplays the middle of the floor. What I just said is probably too technical to explain with just words, plus the Grizzlies can't just continually run a couple sets when Wright and Randolph are paired together.
As a guy with grit and grind fatigue, I'd love to see the Grizzlies have several solid floor spacers on the court at the same time, but I do think the Grizzlies' best path to a championship given the current roster setup is through hard-nosed defense and slowing down the pace to glacial speeds. They still lack the tools to beat the best run and gun teams at their own game.
Plus, how do you justify having Randolph and Tony Allen on the bench for really long stretches of time given what they are being paid and their importance to team chemistry and morale? That puts Joerger in a tough spot, but I do think he could manage the rotations better by being more willing to try new things like the Conley-Lee-Barnes-Green-Wright combo you mentioned. At the very least, try it out for four or five minutes in a regular season game to see how it works. If he doesn't experiment in the regular season, then it might be harder to come up with much-needed solutions when things bog down in the playoffs.
I think the best way to balance the trade offs your roster gives you is by analyzing the sum of the parts and deciding what your team is best at and what gives your team the best chance to win on any given night. As I mentioned earlier, I still think that's a slow, grind it out offense combined with excellent rim protection centered around Gasol and above-average wing defense that should now only be bolstered by the addition of Matt Barnes.
Do I think that Joerger adhering to what probably makes the Grizzlies the strongest team means that they will be good enough to contend for a championship? I don't know. But until this organization is no longer limited by sort of being forced to play two traditional bigs together because of a couple factors, it will be difficult for Joerger to retool the offense to be more balanced like you can tell he desperately wants to.
All of that is probably just a long way of saying I don't know exactly what Joerger should do unfortunately.
Is there anything else that has stuck out to you so far, or is there anything in particular you are looking forward to seeing as this team's identity takes its shape in the first few weeks of the season?
Hrdlicka: Your "I don't know" sounds like a "no" to me. I don't think the team can win a championship either, but they've used all of their draft resources to acquire talent already.
I think Joerger is searching right now for the right combos, and what he can "get away with". I'll be watching the following things:
1). Will Matt Barnes start to get the most minutes on the wing (even if he's not starting)? I love what I'm seeing from Barnes. He runs, his hands are active, he commits touch fouls 30 feet from the basket, but he's so smart on offense and defense, and he fits so well with the other starters.
2). Can JaM Green shoot? You wouldn't think he can, but he ends up in all these wide open spots and is pulling the trigger confidently. He really reminds me of a less rim-protect-ey Amir Johnson (I had to throw a comp in just to raise your hackles).
3). Will Joerger continue to sneakily taper the Big 3's minutes? Conley has been coming out really early in the 1st quarter, in an effort to stagger his minutes with Gasol's. Meanwhile ZBo played under 30 minutes in the 2nd night of a back to back game that was in doubt until the final minute. The opening night blowout depresses these totals a bit, but no Grizzly is averaging more than 31 minutes through two games. I love this minute distribution, but it will also necessarily mean losing a few games along the way. Will this continue, and can it cost Memphis seeding?
Ford: *cringes at the mention of player comparisons* I actually don't think that's a bad comparison from a skill set perspective, and if JaMychal Green can bring even a portion of what Amir Johnson brings to the court, that's a win for the Grizzlies, seeing as Green is the fourth big in the rotation.
I hope Joerger's tapering of the Big 3's minutes continues, because I think it's the best way to handle your stars' minutes in today's NBA if you have the depth to do so. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph now on the wrong side of the age curve (Gasol barely, but still), it makes sense to play them less and risk costing the team several more games and seeding so that they can be healthy and rearing to go come the playoffs. I think seeding can be important, but I also think the Grizzlies are uniquely positioned to give any team they face in the playoffs a lot of trouble. Plus, given the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, does it really matter who the Grizzlies draw and in what order? It's going to be tough as hell no matter who they play, because every team that makes it in will be pretty darn good.
Exciting times await, and there are still many important questions that remain to be answered about this iteration of the Grizzlies. It's a long sled ahead though, so for now let's sit back, enjoy, and hope the Grizzlies start to get things settled sooner rather than later.