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Four and a Half Men: Role Players Who Will Decide the Grizzlies/Trail Blazers Series

The stars and starters will surely shine in the series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Portland Trail Blazers. However, there will be three x-factors to this first round matchup who will have a huge hand in how this series plays out.

Jeff Green is hoping to entertain the Grizzlies faithful against the Portland Trail Blazers
Jeff Green is hoping to entertain the Grizzlies faithful against the Portland Trail Blazers
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to look to the big names that dominate the headlines when playoff time arrives and believe that those stars will make all of the difference. In the case of teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, dealing with a depleted roster due to injury leads one to think that the offensive firepower of Damian Lillard and All-NBA talents of LaMarcus Aldridge will be heavily leaned on. For the Memphis Grizzlies? The importance of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen is not lost on those who have followed this team during this "Grit and Grind" era.

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There are, of course, others. Basketball is a team game, and while it is often teams led by future Hall of Famers or current superstars who win championships, there are always points in title runs in the playoffs when role players must come through. Recent history provides many examples, like an aging Ray Allen hitting a miracle three to keep the Miami Heat alive two years ago, or Boris Diaw and Patty Mills last season defending multiple positions effectively and draining timely threes. The lead singers will get the praise, but it is these bass line players who will provide the pace and steadying presence in a variety of ways.

Who are these so-called "x-factors"? They are wings, bigs, underachievers, and the under-appreciated. In order for Memphis or Portland to succeed, they must play well when called upon, which will likely be often.


The Underachiever: Nicolas Batum

If you are looking for the "small forward" prototype, Nicolas Batum is your man. In this continuously developing era in which position titles are giving way to skill sets and matchup advantages, Batum is still a prototype of a basketball player. 6'8" with a 7'4" wingspan, a facilitator (7.3 assists per game this season) who can create on the wing with the ball in his hands. He is a potential triple-double threat who can clean the glass as a rebounder (8.9 rebounds a game this season), especially against smaller wings like Memphis will possibly start on Sunday in Allen and Courtney Lee, who can also be a plus defender?

Nicolas Batum's length and athleticism can present a litany of issues for the Grizzlies' offense.

Sounds like a huge problem. Especially on the defensive end, where as Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and others have discussed, the possibility of longer, athletic wings like Batum defending Mike Conley for stretches could create serious issues for an offense dependent on Conley's ability to dribble penetrate and create off of pick-and-rolls. Batum is athletic enough to defend multiple positions and long enough to deflect balls and disrupt passing lanes, all while being in a place with his length to make up for a possible misstep and still contest shots.

While Batum's defensive impact has developed over the years (he posted a career-best 103 defensive rating this season), his offensive struggles are notable. His career-best year as a defender is matched with the worst offensive rating of his career. His 2013-2014 shot chart, the first one below, is vastly different from his 2014-2015 shot chart below it.

batum 13-14

batum 14-15

His ability to finish at the rim is impressive in both seasons, well above the league average. Still, in many areas there was a regression of some sort. Overall, Batum shot 46.5% and 36.1% from three point range in 2013-2014 whereas in 2014-2015 he shot 40% from the field and 32.4% from beyond the arc. He also had his lowest totals in a variety of other categories offensively and overall:

Category Stat Lowest Since/Of
VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) 3.1 2011-2012
Offensive Plus/Minus 0.8 Career
Win Shares 5.2 2011-2012
Offensive Win Shares 2 Career
Offensive Rebound Percentage 2.8% Career
Usage 14.6% 2008-2009
PER (Player Efficiency Rating) 13.1 2008-2009

Batum's offensive struggles shine through in a variety of ways, and despite his defensive growth, it has directly affected his overall impact on the Trail Blazers. If Memphis hopes to defeat Portland, forcing Batum to be a scorer first and not allowing him to facilitate for his teammates must be a priority. Given how Batum is also banged up heading in to this series, his health may play a hand in this as well. Test his knee with dribble-drive penetration and running through picks/screens, and force him to work on both ends of the court.

Due to Wesley Matthews being out, Batum will have to take on more offensive responsibility. This may very well play into the hands of the Grizzlies.


The Versatile One- Jeff Green

From one athletic wing to another. Jeff Green has gotten more and more comfortable in his new Grizzly skin. Just as Batum posted career worsts in a variety of categories, Green posted the best numbers of his brief time in Memphis in April in a variety of categories:

Category Stat
Field Goal % 45.5%
Assists 2.3
Offensive Efficiency 103.7
Defensive Efficiency 100.8
Net Rating 2.9

He also did a great job in terms of shot selection, as his April shot chart details.

Green April

Almost half of his shots came at or near the rim, explaining the increased efficiency offensively. His improvements defensively have also been noticeable; he has been put on players like Russell Westbrook to slow down their offensive momentum and been successful. It is possible Green is similar to Tony Allen in this way; Tony is certainly a superior defender, but perhaps both thrive when they can worry less about scheme and more about "turning the water off" for a particular player.

Green has been doing these better things as a starter, but with the impending return of Tony Allen there is a good chance "Uncle Jeff" returns to the bench for game one Sunday night. That is OK; Jeff has shown time and again at this point that his major strength for Memphis moving forward as long as he wears the Beale Street Blue is his versatility.

On the offensive end his presence will likely force Nicolas Batum to defend him when the two share the court, allowing for Mike Conley to have more freedom and not have to worry about that length if Portland coach Terry Stotts wanted Batum to defend Conley. If Batum is guarding Green? Jeff has shown the ability to take advantage of mismatches in the post, and what Batum has in length/athleticism he lacks in strength and weight. Jeff Green will have a 35 pound advantage over Batum and may be able to use that size to get Batum in foul trouble and out of his comfort zone.

If Jeff Green comes in off the bench instead of starting, he can potentially feast on a depleted Blazers' bench which does not have the personnel to defend him consistently. Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum are not able to hang with his size, and Arron Afflalo (likely to start for Portland but play with the bench some) would likely struggle with this aspect of Green's game as well. On the defensive side of things, Green must be better at keeping track of his man on the perimeter. Afflalo (40%), McCollum (39.6%), and Crabbe (35.3%) all bring a floor-spacing element to the Blazers offense, something that Memphis (and Jeff in particular) has struggled with throughout the 2014-2015 campaign. Be weary of rotating too hard/quickly, otherwise Portland does have the personnel to make you pay.

Jeff Green is not just "a" x-factor; he is THE x-factor.

Jeff Green was brought to Memphis from Boston in January for these situations. Green is a walking mismatch for Portland, a wing who is too big for them to defend in the post and too explosive to stay in front of consistently on offense. His ability to dribble-drive and penetrate, especially in transition, is invaluable to Memphis, and if he rediscovers his touch from range (18.8% from three in his last five games) and remains healthy (back tightness has him listed officially as "questionable" for Sunday, but he is likely to play), he can potentially be a dominant force for Memphis in this series and hopefully beyond.

Got to get out of the first round first though.


The Battle of the Big "K's" with a Dash of Meyers- Koufos vs. Kaman/Leonard

As the playoffs get under way, starters see increased run/minutes and benches condense down to equal about eight or nine combined, different from the sometimes ten or more players that may get run during a regular season game. Here is how it will possibly line up for Portland and Memphis.

  • PORTLAND- Steve Blake, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Chris Kaman/Meyers Leonard
  • MEMPHIS- Beno Udrih, Vince Carter (likely on a short leash), Jeff Green, Kosta Koufos
The point guard matchup between two wily veterans should be entertaining. Beno has offensive fire power, especially in his mid-range game where his is one of the best in the NBA, while Blake is a capable scorer from beyond the arc. The wing matchup has already been discussed.

That leads to the bench bigs who will likely see the majority of the minutes down low in this series. Chris Kaman is the veteran who has started and played in the playoffs before, so he will most certainly get run. Meyers Leonard, however, may well see some time due to his ability to space the floor (42% from three overall this season). Post All-Star break, Kaman only played two more minutes per game than Leonard did.

While Kosta Koufos seems to be the clear cut big off the bench for Memphis, the Leonard/Kaman combo bring about interesting possibilities. The chart below shows just that.

Koufos Kaman Leonard
Age 26 32 23
Height 7'0 7'0 7'1
Weight 265 268 245
Season Minutes Per Game 16.6 18.9 15.4
Games Started This Season 3 13 7
PER 14.2 17.3 14.8
Offensive Efficiency Rating 103 103 117
Defensive Efficiency Rating 99 101 102
Net Rating 4 2 15
Rebound % 18.10% 18.50% 15.80%
True Shooting % 53% 53.70% 63.10%

The offensive numbers for Leonard are staggering, considering the perspective of him among Grizzlies fans does not seem to match reality. Memphis should not be surprised when Leonard hits three point shots or scores efficiently in this series; he has an entire season of doing it under his belt, and his strengths offensively are what Grizzlies fans had hoped to see from Jon Leuer. His shot chart has a heck of a lot of green:

Meyers Shot Chart

Very good just about everywhere, especially around and beyond the break to the right.. Spacing is available with Leonard on the court.

Leonard's defense, while certainly not to the level of a Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos, or Robin Lopez, is not as terrible as it is made out to be. While you would expect Marc or Zach Randolph to abuse young Meyers, Kosta Koufos' limited offensive skill set in the post makes that advantage mean less. Kosta will have to be effective in the pick-and-roll to truly take advantage of Leonard.

In addition, the fact that Leonard can shoot so effectively will force Koufos (if defending him) away from the paint, taking away what makes Kosta so effective as a defender, his ability to protect the rim. Opponents shot 8.6% worse from six feet away and in with Koufos defending them, and while Kosta did well defending the three as well (shooters were 3.5% worse from range while being defended by Koufos), the scheme of Memphis' defense is built around help via rim protection. A potential issue.

Unless of course, you counter a spacing big with putting a stretch four type like a Jeff Green on Meyers Leonard.

Here is another case where Mr. Versatility can create havoc for Portland; say the Trail Blazers opt to create space for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to drive and dish by playing Lillard/McCollum/Batum/Leonard/Lopez. Defensively, having Lopez out there makes this lineup more viable, and in the 45 minutes they've played together (granted not the largest sample size) they have a 20.4 net rating, including a 98 defensive rating. If Kaman, who has guaranteed opportunity at minutes (a la Vince Carter), struggles, this lineup is more likely and could hurt Memphis defending space.

Meyers Leonard is indeed what Grizzlies fans hoped Jon Leuer would be.

Unless they counter with a possible Conley/Courtney Lee/Tony Allen/Jeff Green/Kosta Koufos kind of lineup. Green at the "power forward" position negates Leonard's shooting to an extent and does not take away from the rim protection needed from guys like Kosta Koufos. In addition, part of Green's issue defending on the perimeter is potential driving threats and not positioning himself well. This would be easier for him to do against Leonard.

The fact that the Blazers have two legitimate bigs with different skill sets to throw at Memphis could make things interesting. Whether it be Kaman at the rim and in the mid-range or Leonard from deep, the Grizzlies must be aware of them at all times and make them work hard defensively, especially Leonard, forcing him to prove he can hang with with the Gasols and Randolphs of the world when in those situations.

Dave Joerger also must be sure to counter any lineups from Portland with ones that can make the Trail Blazers pay for having a 7'1 248 pound "stretch" big.


Stars will always draw the most shine. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge could easily drop 70 points combined in a game at any time if not kept in check. The three "Grizzly Kings", Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley, could do the same themselves. Tony Allen can impact a game defensively in a variety of ways and his chemistry with the other Grizzly stars leads to improved offense. These are key story lines heading in to game one Sunday night.

But other characters that maybe do not shine as brightly can, and likely will, make a similar impact. Whether it is Nicolas Batum's offensive firepower (or lack thereof), Jeff Green's versatility, or the front court battle ahead NOT involving Gasol, Randolph, or Aldridge, these key role players will have their say in how this series eventually plays out. Memphis has always been more about the collective than individuals, and they must find their way through the Blazers' stars, schemes, and roster in order to continue their pursuit of something "greater".

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