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Seven questions about the 2016-17 Memphis Grizzlies

On injuries, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, Z-Bo, J-Myke, the bench, and grit and grind.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Oh god, the Grizzlies’ season starts Wednesday (tonight, by the time this posts) and I super definitely haven’t written about all of the interesting stuff that happened this summer. I’m actually rushing to write this now, so let’s just get to it: here are seven questions I have about the Grizzlies this season.

BRO, WHAT ABOUT INJURIES

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Well, we have to lead off with this, since it could make or break the whole season. As significant as it is, I don’t think it’s that compelling a question. Part of that is just the nature of injuries, especially as an outside spectator. Either it happens or it doesn’t, you know? What else is there to say?

The Grizzlies overhauled their medical staff in September, in the ultimate hope that body parts stay attached and proper this season. You can dig into it more than that, even just keep a closer eye on minutes logged and stuff, but I’m no doctor, and moreso than that, watching for health status is just really not for me. I care a great deal about basketball, but I don’t quite care to run Google searches on non-displaced Type II fractures of the navicular bone. Sorry-not-sorry.

The risk is there, and it’s more significant than with most any other team in the NBA. We can acknowledge that, I’ll chop four or five wins off my prediction as a hedge, and then let’s move on to more engaging topics.

Can Marc Gasol return to top-20 status?

Memphis Grizzlies v Washington Wizards Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We already covered health and how booooring of a topic it is, so this isn’t a health question. Gasol’s start to last season was bad, and his slide as a rim protector unnerving. He’s never been a foot-speed guy, so age certainly didn’t rob him of that, but positionally he’s had to be on point right to the millisecond, 2.9ing the key and all. That didn’t happen last season—even before he got hurt, the Grizzlies ranked 16th in defensive efficiency. It wasn’t solely on him, but much of it was.

A growing number of the players Gasol guards can shoot from increasingly further out, which sure disadvantages him, but having Mike Conley and Tony Allen on the perimeter has helped Peak Gasol mitigate that in the past. For better or for worse (I’m neutral, though I lean to the former a little more than the latter), Allen remains in the starting lineup, an All-Defensive man as always.

Gasol has to get his groove back defensively, and beyond health, this is the single most important question facing the Grizzlies this season. For them to be successful, Gasol almost definitely has to be their best player. He’s too important to what they do on both ends for anything else to be the goal.

There’s a bit of wiggle room—if Gasol is going to be jacking three-pointers this season, that could be some brand-spanking-new value. He’s taken them en masse in preseason, which everyone here has always wanted. With any luck, Gasol can shoot them at a reasonable percentage, instead of shot-jacking from the low-30s.

He posted a career-worst field goal percentage last season while taking a career-low rate of shots from right at the rim, within two feet, as well as a career-worst rebounding rate. Threes are funky; conversion at the rim and inside presence will be needed.

Defense is still going to be the most important element in the mix here. Top 20 Marc might just be out of the question at this point, but I’d say if he isn’t one of the 25 or 30 best players is the NBA this season, the (healthy) Grizzlies are about the eighth seed at best. I’m feeling good about a bounce back.

Will Mike Conley lead the Grizzlies in scoring this year?

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Fun fact: Conley has never led the Grizzlies in points per game before. He came close in 2013-14, when he finished second to Zach Randolph by 0.2 points, but every year since the Rudy Gay trade, Randolph or Gasol has topped the leaderboard. The offense ran through the post, Conley was more of a game manager—dictating tempo—and the wings were sort of just...there.

Chandler Parsons is around now, just as the post play is starting to be phased out, and for the first time in a long time, the Grizzlies have a two-pronged perimeter attack. Parsons isn’t an AMAZING creator, but you can put the ball in his hands to initiate some sets and use Conley as more of a scorer.

I think even moreso than with Gasol moving his game out to the three-point line, this is where we’ll see the Grizzlies change the most, with more of their offense looking to set up guard/wing scoring, and Conley is going to be the focal point of that.

By guard/wing scoring, I don’t mean catch-and-shoot stuff, although that probably comes along naturally—and of course, having more shooters has a nice interplay with attacking the paint. But one thing I’m looking for specifically is a set where Parsons either brings the ball up or gets an early pass, and Conley goes off-ball to attack.

This is something that I feel like the Grizzlies have wanted to do with Conley for a while, but the lack of perimeter creators and the emphasis on the low block made it difficult. When they wanted to get Conley off a curl, they had to put the ball in, say, Allen’s hands, and everybody would just kind of stand there awkwardly while Conley did his thing because nobody’s running sets for Allen to score:

Conley is so quick and his floater is so good that he could convert a lot of those chances anyway, but the straightforwardness speaks to how limited their perimeter options were, or could be. That’ll be different with the ball in Parsons’ hands, and the Grizzlies can run more multi-faceted sets with Conley as the main beneficiary. He’ll be able to leak out when Parsons pulls in boards, setting up transition and early offense opportunities, and the Grizzlies will be a much more uptempo team for it this season.

I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like, and how good Conley gets.

Will Chandler Parsons play the 4?

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

Well, the answer is yes, because this is the NBA in 2016 and this is how everybody is going to play. It makes sense on some levels and in some matchups, for all the reasons that small ball works, and also because Parsons is probably better matched up against a bigger player than a faster player, if you have to give up one of those defensively.

Erik Spoelstra was really good with undersized lineups (Joe Johnson and Luol Deng played a lot of 4 last season), and it wouldn’t be a ‘stretch’ for David Fizdale to use Parsons in the same way. You could run a five-out offense with Gasol orchestrating from the three-point line, and hey, wouldn’t that be fun for the Grizzlies?

But damn, like we covered earlier, y’all better hope Gasol gets back to peak form if you want to use Parsons at the 4. I understand the whole style shift away from “we in the mud” ball to Warriors ball that the Grizzlies are trying to pull off, but I think you could be running the risk of trying to change too much too soon.

Rebounding has always been one of the Grizzlies’ strengths, and even though Gasol’s numbers were never great, he boxed out his man diligently and Randolph cleaned up. It worked. But Parsons averaged 4.7 rebounds last season (5.7 per 36) and Gasol was down to a career low 7.0 boards (7.3 per 36). Small ball or not, I don’t think that’s going to get it done a whole lot. A single athletic, dominant rebounder might punch holes into this frontcourt.

Defensively, Gasol at his best can defend the rim well enough on his own, but draw him away and Parsons isn’t giving you a whole lot on help D. There are ways to keep Gasol around the rim, but you’re still going to have to give up something. The hope, I suppose, is that you can make up the difference on offense, but I’m sorry if I don’t have the most faith in the MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES being able to make that trade-off.

Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, and with selective enough use, Parsons at the 4 is probably an effective look. But I imagine most times, sticking with Randolph, JaMychal Green, and Jarell Martin will do. Make use of all that power forward depth! Speaking of which...

How does Zach Randolph as the sixth man play out, and JaMychal Green as starter?

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

This is such a fun thing, because Z-Bo is going to tear through opposing benches and JaMychal Green is a spry 26 year old on the rise starting for the Grizzlies—when does that ever happen?

I think Randolph wins Sixth Man of the Year if Jamal Crawford doesn’t. My first thought when the Grizzlies announced the lineup change was of this article at Washington Post’s #fancystats blog, where Seth Partnow busted out the numbers to show how much more efficient post scorers were against second units than starters.

In those late-first/early-second quarter stretches when coaches start subbing in their bench, a good post scorer can be like a workhorse running back, where you can just feed them the ball to clock in safe, efficient possessions. Switchy P&R defenders and big wings are supplanting stronger 4s at the power forward position, and that’s how Randolph eats.

(Just gonna sneak this in over here, but part of the reason I don’t wanna see too much of Parsons at the 4 is because I think the power big man is going to make a bit of a comeback this season. Boogie, Favors-Gobert, the Towns-Porzingis-Jokic generation, Jonas Valanciunas who I picked for MIP, and of course, Z-Bo...)

I’m also feeling good about Green, and his game can go a million ways from last season. Does his outside shot improve? His power/mismatch scoring? He was already effective off energy plays last season: running the floor, hitting the boards, and sneaking in on basket cuts for dunks or putbacks. The Grizzlies are getting that, and a half-decent midrange jumper. Anything else is gravy.

If Green falters, Martin is right there for a look. Power forward is about the only position where the Grizzlies have both depth and upside. It feels like a can’t-lose.

Can the bench be good this season?

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

Power forward aside, the bench looks like it’s going to suck this season. That’s the casualty of investing all of your cap flexibility on Conley and Parsons. There are two rookies at point guard; two mystery boxes, a specialist and a 39 year old at the wing; and Brandan Wright at center, who is much better in a spread pick-and-roll system than anything the Grizzlies did last season.

The worst version of this bench probably features the young guys (Wade Baldwin, Andrew Harrison, James Ennis, and Troy Williams) playing like young guys. In the context of this bench, Vince Carter and Troy Daniels are reliable, even if only for a specific few things. In a perfect world, Daniels is a 10-to-15 minute guy at best, and Carter doesn’t need to be a rotation regular.

I already wrote about Ennis, who I think shows out this season as the Grizzlies’ best bench wing. TL;DR — he’s a high motor guy with athleticism, nice size, and (probably) a three-point shot. Baldwin seems like a fine bet as far as rookie point guards go, even if that’s an exceptionally low bar to clear. After that, I don’t like Harrison and I haven’t watched Williams (miss me with preseason ball), but hey, if they pan out, that’s great. For now, I’m not counting on it.

Wright played his worst ball next to Randolph last season, so hopefully, that’s not a lineup configuration that sees the floor too often. They just don’t fit together, one being a post bully and the other a dive man.

Maybe Fizdale can take out Gasol early in first quarters and play Wright in his place, next to somebody like Green or Parsons who can space the floor. (Conley, Allen, Parsons, Green, and Wright would be a killer fast-breaking group.) Then you can follow that up with the good old Randolph/Gasol frontcourt. Hell, even Randolph/Martin would be better than Randolph and Wright, and that sneaks in minutes for Martin.

Anyway, I’m just spitballing now. With all of the young guys on the bench, the upshot is that it can work out, and these Grizzlies are better off long-term with a mini D-League team at the end of their bench anyway. Maybe the best thing that could happen is that the Grizzlies trade one of their excess bench bigs (say, if Martin can overtake Wright on the depth chart) for a stopgap or a better fit where they need it.

BRO, IS GRIT AND GRIND DEAD

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

No, and you thought wrong to ever think so. Grit and grind was never about the post play, or at least if it was, it was only so because everybody said it could never work. Grit and grind is about trying your damn hardest even when they tell you that you can’t win! Grit and grind is about effort and fuzzy sentiments and rooting for the underdog.

Grit and grind is about being weird and honestly kind of corny when you have to talk about grit and grind, and grit and grind was apparently about Matt Barnes’ headassery being reflective of the “tough guy” culture, which, what the hell even, so clearly we can redefine this whole thing on the fly, so grit and grind is still kicking strong because the Grizzlies paid out $247 million to two players this summer to keep the thing alive and moving forward even when the world cried regression to the mean every year for the last five years, and somehow again this year.

The Grizzlies are winning 50 games this year. Thanks for reading.

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