I can't stop watching the Memphis Grizzlies' bench this year. There have been more pressing issues to worry about in the early season, but of all things, I keep coming back to the second unit. It's a completely different look from any other Grizzly look we've looked, one that potentially points to the new direction of the team once they move on from Zach Randolph.
But first of all, we have to talk about why this new look is confined to the second group of guys, and why the Grizzlies haven't traded Randolph yet. That's what everybody else is talking about right now, with the team reeling from three blowout losses by a combined 99 points.
Is the current era of grit and grind over? Has the league passed by roster foundations that inherently limit its own ability to space the floor? Do the Grizzlies have to trade for a new forward that can play ball with everybody else's stretch 4?
I'll stop you there. Those are valid questions, and there are valid issues in the team's 3-3 start. Offense has been a slog and Marc Gasol isn't protecting the rim, or doing much of anything really. Nobody's playing well, and when the Grizzlies are down by 20 points, well, 20 becomes 30 becomes 50 real quickly.
It's November 6th. Teams have slow starts and even midseason slumps. If the Grizzlies hit this rough patch in February, they'd get the benefit of the doubt. There's no reason that shouldn't apply here, under just a six-game sample size. That's not to say problems aren't real, or that they'll resolve themselves without a doubt. It's only to say that we don't know.
What we're seeing right now clearly isn't the team's best players playing at peak capacity. Maybe Gasol just needs to work his way into game shape, and maybe Mike Conley just needs to settle down with the ball in his hands. This might just be another season like 2013-14, where the team doesn't hit its stride until January or February.
Of course, the playoffs are a different argument, since the Grizzlies have never beaten July. I could turn to Chris Webber's argument, from yesterday's fantastic sit-down with Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer, that you worry about getting to the playoffs first, after which luck with injuries and matchups may prevail. Essentially, a re-hash of the five percent theory worded by Daryl Morey and applied by Zach Lowe to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks' championship run.
But heck, with this team, I'm happy as long as they're putting up a good fight. Nobody fights like these guys at their best (no matter what 'their best' is), and it's way too early in the season to say they won't get back there.
End of rant that was totally too long. Better here than Twitter, though, which is an actual hell as I write this.
All of that is the long-winded version of why I don't think the Grizzlies will trade Randolph until the worst actually comes to fruition and this team completely collapses in on itself (so let's say like two more months of this shit). It's also why the Grizzlies have stuck with their outdated approach this long.
See, I think what the Grizzlies would really like to do is modernize. No surprise there – every other team in the league is doing it. Floor spacing, side-to-side passing, player versatility. That sounds nice, and I feel like a team like that is the team that Dave Joerger was meant to coach. Basically, if they could pick their direction right now, they'd be Golden State Warriors wannabes. That's definitely the right thing to be in the NBA right now.
But when you have Gasol and Randolph as indispensable (or close to it) members of your core, there's no way you're going to be the next Warriors. In a sense, they've blocked the Grizzlies from chasing that.
Of course, that's totally reasonable. There's no guarantee that you become the great thing just by trying to. I would've been pissed if Randolph was traded in the summer before knowing for sure that this iteration of the Grizzlies had run its course, and nothing's changed yet.
That's why all the sexy modern basketballing has been applied to the bench, albeit on a budget. The guys we're talking about aren't actually special (this bench unit isn't some kind of secret weapon) and there aren't actually any shooters there, definitely not with Jeff Green and Matt Barnes shooting a combined 23 percent from three early.
But damnit if the Grizzlies aren't trying their very hardest to strike a greater balance of spacing, passing and two-way goodness where they can. Replacing Kosta Koufos, a beefy rim protector, with Brandan Wright, a supremely efficient rim-roller that gets you by on defense, has been symbolic to me in this sense. Part of Green's now-and-again revival as a decent pick-and-roll playmaker is influenced by having Wright, the best lob target in the NBA this side of DeAndre Jordan, flying down the paint.
It's not just him, though. Look at this:
That spacing, with just one guy even close to the paint, is like water for a parched Grizzlies observer's throat. It's a total mirage – teams don't care about Green or Barnes or JaMychal Green from distance – and this all-bench unit has a -11.7 net rating. JaMychal doesn't even have the credibility to play out there that much, spending more of his time in midrange or the paint.
But the point here, especially while working with a small sample size, is about what the Grizzlies are trying to do more often: play open-court basketball with a group of players that can keep the floor spread on offense and keep up on defense. It's a rewritten edition of grit and grind, one that removes bruising post battles from its core tenets to double-down on attitude (Barnes) and effort (JaMychal).
We should talk more about JaMychal providing value from the bench, because he's really the only Grizzly to consistently overachieve this season. I can't believe I'm saying this, but he's everything I wish the rest of the team was right now: a hard worker, showing up every night doing the best he can within his game (and then some) to make up for whatever skill deficiencies exist.
Part of that is just the nature of being a 25 year old sophomore in the NBA fighting for his worth in the league. JaMychal is experimenting with the corner three and flashing a post game, little things he's added because a fringe prospect like him won't stick as is. Mainly, however, when I see him flying in for rebounds and hauling ass up the court, a little part of me wishes Gasol and the other guys would show up with some of whatever JaMychal's drinking more often.
Somehow, JaMychal has become the work-in-progress prototype of what the Grizzlies really want: an energetic, mobile power forward who can do the big man work but also play the perimeter on both ends. That kind of player, who can rebound, shoot, switch and protect the rim a bit unlocks the modern playstyles that every team longs for, including the Grizzlies. Such a player would raise this team's ceiling right up to contender status. (JaMychal, right now, is just the skeletal version of that player. He won't be Draymond Green any time soon.)
Z-Bo mans the power forward spot right now, and it's his to keep for a bit longer. Gasol, Tony Allen and even a Courtney Lee shooting 21 percent from three have earned their keep for the foreseeable future, too. There are still strategical things they can do to help themselves get right: run more Conley-Wright pick-and-rolls, test the two-way viability of a Lee-Barnes wing pairing.
That's why the basketball style we're seeing from the all-bench lineup is applied to just the bench, and why Randolph hasn't been traded for whichever NBA player is JaMychal's best case scenario (or a better version than that, with any luck).
The Grizzlies are on the cusp of a new era, but as of November 6th, 2015, it's not time to turn the page yet. For now, I'll keep my eyes fixed to the bench, at least until the starters get right... or don't.