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Grizzlies season preview: 7 more predictions

Seven more predictions about the upcoming NBA season.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Check out Part I of Matt’s Grizzlies season preview here.

7). Who will be the 6th best Grizzlies player by the end of this year?

The top five are mostly set in stone. There’s a large gap between the collective resumes of Marc, Mike, Parsons, ZBo, and TA and whoever comes next.

Who is the 6th best player on this team? This is the story of the season in microcosm. Most teams with an established core past or approaching their thirties are in win now mode, but the Grizzlies are in a weird middle ground. Half of their team is at the end of their prime or post-prime, but the other half is on the way up. After several years of abstention, this Grizzlies team has no choice but to play young guys.

Who will step up?

Most people would pick JaMychal Green. He’s older than you think, and has already proven to be a rotation level player. The team ostensibly signaled their choice by inserting Green into the starting lineup to shift ZBo’s higher usage to the bench. I’m not so sure.

Others might take a flyer on Wade Baldwin IV, or the health of Brandan Wright.

{Hrdlicka note: I can’t believe I’m about to write this.}

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

I was a skeptic of his for a while, but my bet is on Jarell Martin. It’s fair that JaM starts over Martin now, but there’s a good chance that Martin surpasses him by season’s end. Green has shown flashes of range out to the ever-elusive-to-the-Grizzlies three point line, and he runs laps around Martin in terms of basketball IQ. But Martin and Green’s numbers were very similar last year, and the more Green played, the less convinced I was that his game merited starter’s minutes.

Neither player is a significant threat to generate blocks or steals, though both have active hands. Their rebound and assist rates are similar, and their FG% at the rim were almost identical.

Eye test time: both players show some ability to guard in space. Martin plays with more force; Green more energy. Martin is unmovable from his spot, though often that spot is wrong; Green is often in the right spot, but sometimes seems overmatched physically.

But here’s the key: Martin is four years younger, and should take a bigger step forward than Green does this year.

What’s more, Martin may fit better with the starters by year’s end. He has miles light years to go in terms of learning how to play, but I’d argue this is his biggest hurdle to playing time, and one that will only be solved with more minutes. Here’s a fun game: watch only Martin when he’s in. You can see him thinking about where to stand, fastidiously shifting his position, making micro-adjustments to the angle of his body and feet. All of this thinking leaves him a step behind. But when this all clicks - IF it clicks - watch the hell out. He’s going to be a monster.

He’s unmovable, either when setting picks or boxing out. Like, seriously, the dude is a brick wall. Where JaM is a pick and pop threat, Martin crashes down the lane with abandon, generating fouls and finishing at an equal rate to JaM at the rim (Hrdlicka note: both players finish at the rim at a slightly below average rate, another reason to be more skeptical of the older Green).

So why might Martin be a better fit? Both players fit the mold of low usage, energy bigs, but Martin will probably be the better rebounder by season’s end. If Gasol is actually shooting threes this year, then the whole geometry of the team changes.

Gasol’s man will be stretched those extra steps away from the rim and the lane will be wide open. If Martin improves his finishing or offensive rebounding at all, he’ll likely be the better player to Green. Green will still have the shooting as a feather in his cap, but he shot just 33.3% last year from deep, so that needs to rise a few points before it can be considered a strength.

So you start Green over Martin because the two are close now, and Green actually knows how to play. In the meantime you quietly gauge trade interest in Green because no matter who you start, Wright and ZBo will still want minutes and you desperately need help on the wing and future draft assets.

8). Players I like more than you do.

Evan Fournier (his five year contract is what he should make over four), Kelly Olynyk (really effective stretch big who is the favorite to receive a wild, massive, insane contract that will kinda be worth it), Dwight Howard (I’m as surprised as you are), Gary Harris (defends both guard spots, just has to shoot a little better), Otto Porter (quietly turning into a quality NBA player), E’Twaun Moore, Norman Powell (gonna turn some heads this year), Willie Cauley-Stein (don’t screw this up Joerger), and Jarell Martin, I suppose.

9). Players I like less than you do.

Kristaps Porzingis (not sold on superstar potential yet, and another year where he probably doesn’t play center as much as he should), Buddy Hield (Pels signed two players who play his position and are better), Allen Crabbe (teetering towards being a negative asset on that contract), Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins (I hate myself that he’s on this list).

10). Most likely to be traded during the season, from most likely to least likely.

Vince Carter, JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright, Andrew Harrison, the draft rights to Weng Zheilin, Deyonta Davis, Troy Daniels, James Ennis, the draft rights to Rade Zagorac, {BIG GAP} Wade Baldwin, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Grizz (the mascot), Chandler Parsons, Grind City Media, Robert Pera, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest way for this team to improve is to pair Vince Carter’s salary with JaMychal Green to bring back a wing or facilitate a salary dump. JaM will get paid next offseason, and I’ve written before about that decision and how it impacts the Grizzlies future planning. In short, the Grizzlies can have Green OR have significant cap space in 2018, but cannot have both.

Green is a restricted free agent this summer, and has a tiny cap hold. For a team able and willing to use cap space this year, leaving that small hold on the books allows them to sign free agents first, then pay Green to exceed the cap.

The Lakers have $12mm in Lou Williams and Nick Young tied up for both of the next two years. The Grizzlies could take either player off their hands, though Young would demand the inclusion of some more 2nd round picks.

Spencer Hawes figures to be the 4th center in Charlotte, and a decent bet to opt into his $6mm player option next year. Charlotte has made a slew of small, short term deals recently, and the same swap of JaM and Vince for Hawes and draft assets makes some sense for both sides.

Ditto in Detroit (quietly going to be a luxury tax team for several years), where Stan Van Gundy is openly singing the praises of Aron Baynes and how he should opt out of his $6.5mm player option next year because he’s so very valuable and criminally underpaid.

(Hrdlicka note: I am very, very, very opposed to trading Tony Allen or ZBo. Because I can’t imagine the Grizzlies without them. Because you don’t have Rome without Caesar. But mostly because both of these guys are fun, and sports are fun, and that’s what the corporate types call synergy.)

But if the Grizzlies wanted to go back to “Old Faithful”, Doc Rivers might be willing to attach a distant future 1st round pick for Green and Allen - who would immediately become the best small forward on their team.

There are several paths forward, and recent history has shown us that the Grizzlies opt to be proactive in the trade department.

11). And while we are on the topic of trades, at least a half dozen All-Stars will switch teams before the start of the 2017-2018 season.

One of my macro-theories about the NBA is that we are in the midst of a massive talent redistribution, and things still have a ways to go before settling down. It is rumored that the new CBA will recalibrate the extension process so the incumbent team has a little more home court advantage. That bears watching, and could have a dramatic effect on players like Russell Westbrook whose contracts run for more than one year.

After being in relative stasis for years, team incentives are changing. A few teams at the bottom were fine tanking, but teams like Philly and the Lakers are actually {gasp} trying to win games. Most of the big market teams had spent and traded themselves into oblivion, but the Knicks have their picks now, and the Nets have cap space. Most of the MVP caliber players were locked into contracts (except, of course, LeBron). The flood of new money ended that. Golden State is the top dog now, and the Cavs seem to be the clear number two. Only a few teams that had fancied themselves as contenders can now credibly see themselves challenging that status quo.

Even fewer have great players under contract too much longer.

Time is running out in Clippers-land. I can’t see either DeMarcus Cousins or the Kings wanting their union to continue. Utah has done everything right for a half decade, but Gordon Hayward is an unrestricted free agent and his college coach can offer him a max deal and the inside track to the Eastern Conference Finals. Paul George’s team might miss the playoffs this year (yes that is prediction 12. The Pacers will miss the playoffs. They have one decent passer, two decent defenders, and they downgraded significantly at coach. If the Pacers are good it’s because Paul George won the MVP. Might need to go bet that as a hedge). Hell, everyone assumes that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will both be back as Warriors, but both will be unrestricted free agents, as will CP3 and, probably, Blake Griffin.

The most valuable commodity in the NBA is not flexibility, or draft assets, or even players who outperform their contracts. It’s All-Star caliber players locked into multi-year deals, even if they might be bad deals. Most of the league will again have cap space this summer, and every team with an unrestricted free agent will have to fight a battle to keep their players. Some will fail.

This is the downside risk that nobody accurately talks about. Yes, the Grizzlies could be mutilated by injuries this year, but their talent isn’t walking out the door for free. Continuity was a buzz word for so long, but people seem to have forgotten it now. The Grizzlies core will stand intact for the next four years at least.

Very few teams – not even the Warriors – can say that.

13). Wade Baldwin’s best position this year will be shooting guard.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Grizzlies have said all the right things about Baldwin. They’re not going to rush him. They plan to play him as much as possible with either Parsons or Conley on the court.

I’m skeptical of any rookie’s ability to run an NBA offense, even for small stretches, and even with another creator on the court. But that shouldn’t be the bar for Baldwin this year.

Instead, change his role to a 3&D specialist who brings some bonus ballhandling skills, and suddenly you have something. Baldwin can help shoulder some of the defensive load from Conley, allows him to guard the lesser offensive player (think: OKC shooting guards instead of Russell Westbrook or Victor Oladipo). If Baldwin can offer some defense with slightly below average three point shooting AND can attack a closeout, that is a wonderful player that has been in short supply in Memphis during the Grit and Grind Era.

14). Predicting the Grizzlies record is foolish, but low estimates are closer to the truth.

I tweeted this right after free agency.

It’s still true today. As I mentioned in Part 1, the Grizzlies could be perfectly healthy, and simply hold players out for health maintenance reasons on back to backs. This will result in some losses. The difference between four starters and their backups is alarming. Z-Bo as the nominal 6th man is the only established bench player, but one wonders if that role lasts only as long as the Grizzlies win.

If you were to simulate this Grizzlies season, I suspect they would win less than 46 games more often than not. Said another way, if the Grizzlies’ mean win total is 46, their median is lower than that.

There are just so many question marks. Can any of the young guys play? Can Fizdale coach? We know he’s good at recruiting, and at managing personalities in the pre-season, but what happens when the chips are down? Will Parsons’ knees, Wright’s knees, Adams’s knees, Marc’s foot, Mike’s foot, Tony’s body, ZBo’s butt (j/k, ZBo’s butt doesn’t get hurt) last for 82 games?

Health is a central question to this season, but it’s far from the only question. And, if I’m being honest, it’s by far the least interesting question.

The Grizzlies draft pick is top 5 protected, a bar so low that the pick will transfer almost regardless of how the team finishes. Tanking to keep the pick isn’t part of the calculus.

On the other end of the spectrum, a championship appears the longest of shots.

So questions of a championship, or favorable playoff seeding, or building for the future around a high draft pick are all moot. The Grizzlies will finish somewhere in the league’s amorphous middle. Some might look at this as a pre-ordained season, one with little drama, little upside, little reason to tune in.

What game do you watch? With no reason to tank, and little reason to “go for it,” incentives on both ends of the spectrum have been removed. In their place, the Grizzlies can put on their lab coats and experiment at the exact time that their roadmap for success has exceeded it’s expiration date.

So here’s the question the Grizzlies can seek an answer to, with no obstacles in their path. It’s the central team-building question that every team tries to answer: do the Grizzlies have a path to being either a top five offense or defense?

For years, Grit and Grind was defined by generating extra possessions and playing suffocating defense. Is that formula possible with this roster? If Tony is still an elite stopper, if ZBo can maul backup bigs with ZBounds, if the Grizzlies can find 48 minutes of rim protection, if another wing defender steps up....

What about top five offense? If Gasol trades enough shots worth .85 points for shots worth 1 point, if Conley has more space to operate, if Parsons can be the secondary creative force, if the Grizzlies can get 48 minutes of competent point guard play without stretching Conley too thin, if Ennis or Harrison or Daniels or Vince can hit league average threes....

Right now, I struggle to even approach an answer. But that’s what the season is for. It’s not about wins and losses. You can win 45 games without being an elite offense or defense. But every team should be building towards that goal, because that’s how you win a championship. Discovering the path towards being an elite offense or defense is what this season is about. Right now, I can’t tell you which they’re closer to.

What is the identity of this team; what’s their strength? What might they look like in three years? How will they win?

We need to start answering some of these questions, because that is what’s next, because questions that stay questions eventually become their own answers. We could look up in May and the sixth and seventh best players on this team could be Jarell Martin and Wade Baldwin. That could happen. Deyonta Davis could be the long sought-after big capable of playing both next to Gasol, and manning backup center minutes.

We could look up in seven months and moving ZBo to the bench was a minor blip from the beginning of the season that we barely remember (Hrdlicka note: remember last year).

This is unlikely, but the Grizzlies could be the three seed. This means that everyone stayed healthy, but it also means that the Grizzlies found their road map ahead of schedule, and that, not health, would be the true story of the season.

My hope is we look up in seven months and see the outlines of that plan, whatever it is. The Grizzlies can find the road map to the next great Grizzlies team in the rare season with neither a win-now directive, nor a reason to tank. They can plan for the future without the fear of losing an integral piece of that plan as a free agent. The core of this team is locked in, and so are a half dozen young guys.

The road map to the next great Grizzlies team will be different than Grit and Grind, because the players are different, because some are older, and others are gone. What will that team look like? I wonder how much of that answer we’ll have in seven months.

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