After the Grizzlies' historic upset of the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, there was a huge sense of optimism heading into the following season about Rudy Gay, who had been sidelined by injury during the postseason as well as the dramatic stretch run to make the playoffs. Just looking at the roster, it seemed clear that the missing piece of the puzzle was dynamism: some combination of shooting, athleticism, play-making ability, and, ya know, jumping. And Rudy was coming back to deliver all of those things and more.
Having a team built around the contributions of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley is great, but it plays tricks on the mind. Sure, the Grizzlies are anomalous in just about every way within the modern NBA, but their lack of dunking has always seemed particularly jarring. It's not as if it matters (hint: it doesn't matter), but it feels like something that needs to be addressed.
Rudy Gay was, and continues to be, a good basketball player. But in 2012, the Grizzlies were staring down the barrel of a salary cap crisis, and it was exceedingly clear to most that the future of the organization would be built around Marc, Zach, Mike, and to a lesser extent, emerging local folk hero Tony Allen. While Rudy's return to the team certainly injected a bit of dynamism back into the team, the logic around the move to trade him made sense: he was too ball dominant, too inefficient, and his touches disrupted the flow of an offense that ought to be moving through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
The small forward position on the Grizzlies was always best suited for Shane Battier, the beloved former Grizzly who returned for the magical 2011 playoff run. The OG 3-and-D wizard, Battier was basically the anti-Rudy; a super-efficient, heady, deferential player who could drain a shot when it mattered most (and who'd never be mistaken for an athletic prodigy). For years, the team tried in vain to transform lesser players into some approximation of Battier (Vince Carter, Mike Miller, Quincy Pondexter, Sam Young). This was usually abandoned in short order, and an additional shooting guard would be paired with the starting Mike Conley-Tony Allen backcourt (Courtney Lee, Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, etc.) in lieu of a traditional small forward. Of course, the longing for offensive dynamism and athleticism persisted even throughout this unprecedented run of success, both in the front office and in the minds of fans (I know people who still haven't forgiven the team for letting James Johnson walk).
Enter Jeff Green, the subject of today's preview.
If you're reading this, you're almost assuredly aware that Green's acquisition was the subject of some healthy debate last season. He was dubbed "Rudy 2.0" by a great number of people who write and talk about the Grizzlies, and whether that was meant as a slight or a compliment, the numbers certainly bore out the comparison. It was always my hope that Jeff could be "Rudy Light"; in other words, I was optimistic that he could bring some of Rudy's skill and athleticism with a slight increase in efficiency and a much smaller role. And while Jeff Green was kind of a disaster last season, that's basically what he did.
(Stats courtesy of NBA.com)
The stats above were exclusive to Rudy and Jeff's time in those seasons as Grizzlies, and as evidenced, the "Rudy Light" title fits Jeff pretty neatly. Better shooting percentages, the usage is down significantly, and the pace improved, reflecting the fact that Jeff generally wasn't a ball stopper on par with Rudy. And yes, like our Golden Boy Battier, Jeff also shot the corner three pretty damn well. Take a look at these comparative shot charts.
(Charts courtesy of NBAsavant.com)
Could he have taken a lot more of those stunningly-to-the-point-that-I-went-back-and-triple-checked-those-numbers efficient corner threes last season? Sure, but overall, his volume of shots and and effectiveness whenever he didn't shoot contested mid-range J's is exactly what even the most skeptical of Jeff Green haters would have taken in a heartbeat. But Jeff Green did not help the team last year. I was firmly in the pro-Jeff camp when the Grizzlies traded for him, but if you followed the team closely last year (or even just witnessed his disastrous post-season campaign), there's simply no argument to the contrary. So how could the team get exactly what they were looking for with Green, and still have everything go so very, very wrong? In a word: Defense.
Now, a lot of this has to do with the fact that Tony Allen and Green didn't spend a whole lot of time on the floor together, and Tony Allen's contribution to the Grizzlies' overall defensive performance is well-established. But for a team that won 55 games to have a guy on the floor 63% of the time with a net negative rating is, well, kind of remarkable. Especially considering that the stats show he was a pretty decent offensive contributor.
Jeff's never been known as a defensive stalwart, but neither is he Jeremy Lin, nor Enes Kanter. When you watch him play, he definitely looks engaged and committed on the defensive end. And here is where I think there is cause for some sliver of optimism for Jeff Green this season: great NBA defense can only be measured as the sum of its component parts. It's not as if Green doesn't have the skill set necessary to be an average NBA defender, and I don't think many people are arguing that he's awful on that side of the ball. It's very possible that he simply didn't grasp the intricacies of playing within one of the most lauded defensive systems in recent memory. That doesn't simply happen overnight for every player, and considering that the guys he's playing alongside have been together for essentially an eternity in NBA years (TA joined the team in 2010 - that is an insane amount of time for 4 guys to play together in this league), there was pressure to learn cues and shorthand that might have been honed before the first iPad was released.
I'm not excusing Green's lackluster performance last year, but like Rudy Gay, he's simply not a bad player. On the contrary - and I don't mean to be controversial just for controversy's sake - I think Jeff Green is a good basketball player. I also think that a full training camp and offseason with the coaching staff has the potential to turn this thing around in a very big way. The Grizzlies don't play like anybody else, so it just makes sense that actually learning how to play with the Grizzlies could have potentially huge benefits for a talented player like Green.
Happy training camp, Jeff. You got this.