The Western Conference has gotten even tougher, somehow.
Since the season ended, the Golden State Warriors refortified their core and look ahead to another year of possible dominance and championship aspirations. The San Antonio Spurs not only kept their championship window open with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, they extended their opportunity to compete for NBA titles with re-signing Kawhi Leonard. The Los Angeles Clippers convinced DeAndre Jordan to come home while adding Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce, the Houston Rockets solidified their role players and Oklahoma City has a new coach and a healthy Kevin Durant returning once training camps get started in October.
The Memphis Grizzlies made improvements too, of course. While their draft-day activity was built for the future, their other moves were more focused on the present. Acquiring Matt Barnes for essentially the rights to Janis Timma and signing Brandan Wright to a 3 year, $18 million deal when Enes Kanter is signing long-term max contracts with the Thunder qualifies as a winning off-season. Oh, and signing Marc Gasol to a long-term deal certainly doesn't hurt either. The Bears of Beale Street are deeper, better equipped to shoot the three than they were against the Golden State Warriors in May and now have an athlete in Wright who can add a wrinkle to their front court play.
But it still may not be enough.
Those teams that were listed above all have legitimate claim to being better themselves as teams for a variety of reasons, whether they be addition through trade, health or free agency. In the case of the Warriors, growth via experience is a worthy reason to assume they will be (and rightfully so) the favorites to make the NBA Finals out of the hellacious Western Conference. Add on the possibility that Dallas will play with a chip on their shoulder after the DeAndre drama and that New Orleans, Utah, the other LA team (the Lakers?) and Minnesota may all be considerably better next season and the Grizzlies are in for an even more difficult road through the West.
Because of these developments, the call for "one last move" has grown among Grizzlies fans. Memphis' front office seems to agree that a move should be made; preliminary calls have been made as to what it would take to get Danilo Gallinari from the Denver Nuggets or Joe Johnson and his insane contract from the Brooklyn Nets. Both would certainly add offensive versatility and the ability to score on their own to Memphis, and therefore exploring such deals is certainly worth the Grizzlies' time. Jeff Green underachieved in his time last season as a Grizzly (mostly because of an awful postseason run- 7.9 PERs don't help your cause) and his $9.45 million contract for next season makes moves for bigger deals possible. Throw in a Courtney Lee, or a Vince Carter, and the unguaranteed contract of a JaMychal Green and perhaps a deal could be struck.
Unfortunately, talks with both the Nuggets and Nets have been shelved because...outside of those less-than-ideal pieces, Memphis has little else to offer teams without either weakening their roster more than it is worth (moving Courtney Lee, a capable three-point shooter, seems counter-productive) or parting with a member of the "core four" (likely either Tony Allen or Zach Randolph, who are both much more valuable to Memphis than to any other team and the Grizzlies will likely not get close to equal value back.) The Grizzlies are caught between a rock and a hard place; they have that continuity that is so valued by so many teams in the NBA that leads to consistent success, but they are in a place where, outside of fringe changes and improvements, they are who they are- beautiful, fan favorites, but likely fatally flawed.
A trade just may not be in the cards.
But before you jump...step away from the ledge; it's going to be OK.
But this team lacks offensive efficiency!
Sure, there is validity to this. Shouting at the sky for a shooter is all well and good, and Matt Barnes is indeed a shooter, but who outside of Mike Conley can consistently create for himself off the dribble? The Grizzlies are reliant on others setting them up for baskets, and when it all breaks down and a bucket is needed, sometimes the personnel of Memphis just isn't there to score in those spots.
Does this mean a trade is needed? Not necessarily. Versatility is in the eye of the beholder, and all squads are flawed. Memphis' flaw is in that they have little experienced creativity on offense, but that can be countered through using personnel in new and different ways. An aggressive Mike Conley off of multiple screens here, a Beno Udrih/Jeff Green or Brandan Wright pick and roll there, a Marc Gasol who is able to get more touches in and around the low post and space can be found in several areas.
Speaking of the newest Grizzly, Brandan Wright is and should be a fun new piece for Dave Joerger to use in a variety of ways. Our very own Andrew Ford did a great job breaking down various ways Wright attacks the rim and creates (there's that word) offense that the Grizzlies haven't had, even with Kosta Koufos the past couple of seasons. New sets and screen patterns are possible with Wright in the fold, and this will be a welcome change of pace if followed through on. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course; Conley Pick & Rolls with Wright with Gasol on the elbow also could open up more lanes for slashing Tony Allens and shooting Courtney Lees and the like.
And this is all without even mentioning Jordan Adams, who may well be capable of providing such layered scoring skills but just needs opportunity. If he cannot defend consistently (he showed issues keeping players in front of him in the Orlando Summer League), he may never get that opportunity. Make no mistake, though, Adams can get buckets, and the Grizzlies could desperately use more buckets. Hopefully he gets a good long look in camp.
OK fine, but they aren't athletic! Have you SEEN the Clippers and Warriors lately?
Other teams have some impressive pieces there for sure, but is one trade of one of the most athletic wings on the roster going to fix this issue? Probably not...and it isn't like an oft-injured Gallinari or aging Joe Johnson solves this particular problem.
Meanwhile, ask yourself something...who, after Brandan Wright, is Memphis' next big off the bench?
JaMychal Green? Maybe, but seems unlikely he gets big minutes considering he has similarly sized better players ahead of him.
Jarnell Stokes? He may well not be with the team in November, but if he is he will likely only see spot minutes considering the team just drafted Jarell Martin.
Speaking of Martin, he has potential as a face-up four with combo-forward potential. Jarell is raw with regard to basketball IQ and ability but talented and room to grow and learn...a perfect type of pick to send to Iowa with the Energy for a season for development.
So that leaves...
You guessed it. Jeff Green.
And less obviously...Matt Barnes.
Now those options may not set the world on fire (Barnes is undersized and Green is...well, being Green is enough for more and more fans) but both are more athletic than Zach Randolph, both have played the four position before and both add something that Zach does not. Green is excellent in transition, and Barnes provides floor spacing as a true "stretch four."
...OK, that last one may be a train wreck, but you get the idea. The possibilities are open and endless, and Coach Joerger has a lot of options to get the offense out of "the mud" by pushing tempo in spots where Zach Randolph and (to a lesser extent) Marc Gasol are on the bench. Defense may struggle some at times as these rosters are tried, but the offensive opportunities are worth exploring.
Sure, that could work I guess...but this team is old, and has guys who are used to starting! Good luck juggling all that, Joergermeister.
It's a fact that they are old, and time may well have finally come for the Memphis Grizzlies, but guess how old the average age of the supposed contender-in-waiting San Antonio Spurs are..
They boast an average age of 29.5 between 14 players currently on their roster according to ESPN.com that have jersey numbers.
Between the 16 players currently on the Grizzlies' roster (not counting Nick Calathes)? 27.8. Say Andrew Harrison, the youngest Grizzly at 20 years young, is the one man out as the roster gets to 15?
28.3. A whole year below the Spurs. Yes, the Spurs have Gregg Popovich and their elder statesmen are potential Hall of Famers. But for one of the teams considered to be a real "contender" heading in to next season is older than Memphis overall. How important is that really?
That ego management "problem"? Shouldn't be an issue. Dave Joerger has had plenty of practice at this point working with this eclectic crew of Grizzlies. That locker room is an intense one to be sure, but they are tight-knit at this point, more of a band of brothers than a random assortment of teammates. Matt Barnes, Brandan Wright and Jarell Martin are entering in to as stable a team as there is in the NBA.
Worried about starters? It wasn't a problem last season when Jeff Green went to the bench willingly last season, and assuming he is willing to do so again he will have company. Whether it is Courtney Lee, Tony Allen or Matt Barnes he will be joined by a player who started at least 41 games last season. Tony Allen was the low man on that totem poll, with Barnes, Green and Lee all starting 70 or more games in 2014-2015.
Green's starting was more because of injury of course; as mentioned before, Jeff was willing to go to the bench. Perhaps Jeff gets paired with Barnes or Lee off the bench, allowing for Allen to start and still play alongside another wing player who can space the floor. Maybe Allen and Green come off the bench together but play with an assortment of athletic/shooting players who offset their floor spacing issues.
Regardless of the choice (and Joerger would be wise to give spot-starts to all, including Brandan Wright, allowing his aging core to rest more consistently), two guys will become second-unit players after having been starters the year before and earlier in their careers. That should make the possible cut to the ego hurt a little less, and the Grizzlies' bench that much more dangerous.
Make no mistake; the Western Conference is hell.
It will continue to be extremely difficult to get out of, and Golden State/San Antonio/Los Angeles (Clippers)/Oklahoma City/Houston will all lay claim to being "the best team in the West" at some point in the season. The Memphis Grizzlies could win 53 or 54 games, a successful season by most definitions, and be the six seed, on the road to start the playoffs against another Western juggernaut.
What else is new?
Every single season Memphis has come across these teams. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. But every season since this "Grit and Grind Era" began, the Grizzlies went in to the playoffs better than they were the year before. Still flawed, but improved, and as the West has grown so have the Grizzlies.
This year will be no different, even without a trade. Memphis is deeper, more athletic, and has more potential for lineup versatility and opportunity for offensive creativity. The rest of the studs in the West, while impressive, all have possible issues themselves. Golden State is the defending champion but had great luck with health that may not repeat, San Antonio's key players are another year older, Los Angeles seems to be "shook" by the Grizzlies, Houston is essentially the same as last season and Oklahoma City, while talented, has a new coach and health concerns of their own. All of these teams are flawed to some extent. With a little luck and good health, this Grizzlies team, as built, can get to the NBA Finals.
A trade? By all means, pursue it. It is a worthy venture. If it fails? Take a breath, count to ten and take solace in knowing that this team is in a place to make another successful run to (and potentially through) the playoffs.
Trade or no trade, Memphis will be OK.