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Changing for Good in Memphis

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There are several teams performing better and that are healthier than the Grizzlies. So why should Memphis fans be so excited?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It can be perceived as hyperbole to call the 2-1 start for the Memphis Grizzlies vital. To view victories over two teams potentially outside of their conferences’ respective playoff pictures as huge. To emphasize how great it is that these Grizzlies can overcome tremendous odds and fight back when down by double digits to “find a way to win”.

Some people aren’t as impressed.

Yes, it was just the Wizards. And yes, it was just game three. Everything can still derail, of course. The team has played just 3.7% of its schedule, and they did suffer a loss to a New York Knicks team that theoretically is not as good as the Grizzlies. There is plenty that can be improved upon.

And that is one of the reasons to be so optimistic. This season really and truly feels new...and not just because the schedule says it is. For the first time in a long time, it feels fresh to watch the Grizzlies on the floor. The cloud of complacency has lifted as this roster and coaching staff figures things out together. There is real, tangible, measurable change happening in Memphis, and perhaps this time it is here to stay.

Old Faces, New Roles

Marc Gasol is a three-point threat and is looking for his shot first.

Don’t believe me? Check out the numbers. Marc is shooting better from range (46.2%) than he is from inside the arc (39.1%) so far this season, and that percentage is no fluke. He is attempting 4.3 threes per game, making two of them. Marc Gasol is making more threes per game than Joe Johnson. More than Allen Crabbe. More than Paul Millsap, or Kevin Love, or Draymond Green.

His usage rate is currently 29.3%. If that were to hold, or even fall back to 25% or 26%, it still would be the highest usage of his career, even higher than his All-NBA season of 2014-2015.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The season is still young. But it is a conscious effort to feature a new wrinkle to the big man’s game that will create multiple opportunities for others due to the spacing provided.

Zach Randolph is an early favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Don’t believe me? Check out the numbers. Zach Randolph’s Per-36 stats, according to basketball-reference.com, are absurd. 27.4 points per game on 52.4% shooting. 13.7 rebounds. He is absolutely feasting on bench bigs right now, and is right at home being the featured scorer of the second unit. His defensive woes are more obvious than ever- Washington abused Zach’s defense on the pick and roll- but Sixth Man of the Year is not a defensive award (Jamal Crawford has won it multiple times, for goodness sake).

NBA: Washington Wizards at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It is early. Those numbers are not sustainable (especially his 34.5% usage rate. That will probably go down to his usual 25% or so over time). But can Z-Bo, if he remains healthy (he hasn’t played in less than 68 games the past four seasons and will play less minutes this year in this new role), average 15.5 points and 8 rebounds this season? Absolutely. And Crawford won it last season averaging 13.5 points and 2.5 steals.

Two cornerstones of the Grizzlies, doing things they haven’t done consistently in their time in Memphis. Randolph has come off the bench before, but it hasn’t been as the set Sixth Man. Gasol has taken threes before, but never at this clip and with this level of efficiency.

These numbers are likely not sustainable. But the roles are, and they will continue to grow in to their new places in the Grizzlies offense.

Flashes of What is to Come

The Grizzlies are already dealing with injury issues. Most everyone knows that. But watching the team the last few games, you can see what kind of impact players like Chandler Parsons and Tony Allen will have for Memphis when they finally make their 2016-2017 season debuts.

For Allen, you can see the potential in sets involving Andrew Harrison. The polarizing second year guard out of Kentucky lost his starting spot on Sunday, but he was the first guard off the bench and is still being given plenty of opportunities by David Fizdale, surely in part because of his ability to handle the rock and his size. He is a bigger guard, and Fizdale has used that size in a variety of ways on both ends of the court.

Harrison has helped start offensive sets by setting screens at the top of the key for other ball handlers, be they Wade Baldwin or Mike Conley, creating space for them at the beginning of plays. Allen can easily fill this role- he isn’t as big as Harrison, but he has more strength and aggression. He should be able to set some solid screens and cut to the rim off of these screens. This essentially makes TA a pick and roll/slash player, using his timing and experience to create opportunities at the rim. This use of him is unique, it is new, and it could breathe new life in to his offensive game.

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

In Jarell Martin, the player who took the starting role of Harrison against the Wizards, you see the potential that exists for this offense when there is actually a wing with size and real offensive tools on the perimeter.

Martin can hit threes. Martin has also shown the ability to get to the rim from the perimeter. Teams have left him space to hit the three pointers shown above, but they have also tried to compensate for this newfound range only to have Martin blow by them on the dribble and attack the paint. Jarell Martin is a big “Small Forward”, but in this new Grizzlies offense, it works thanks to his athleticism. If only they had a better player to fill this role...

Oh. Wait.

Chandler Parsons may well take this offense to a place they have not been in this era of Grizzlies basketball, and perhaps ever: the Top-5 in offensive efficiency. Eight Grizzlies have already hit more than one three-pointer halfway through the season, and four of them are “bigs”- Martin, Randolph, JaMychal Green, and Gasol. Adding a player on the perimeter the quality of Parsons will only make teams have more headaches trying to defend the Grizzlies.

If you’re having issues defending Jarell Martin, just wait until Chandler Parsons and his ability to create off the pick and roll comes in to play. Wait until you have Brandan Wright, the other currently banged up Grizzly, on the other end of that, waiting to slam home easy dunk after easy dunk thanks to his elite finishing ability. Wait until you collapse to stop Wright, only to have noted three-point threats Marc Gasol and Mike Conley waiting for open shots on the perimeter.

“Noted three-point threat Marc Gasol”. That is so fun to write.

This Grizzlies offense is a sleeping giant, a couple of healthy players returning away from really taking off.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The defense needs to improve...but Randolph playing alongside the longer Wright instead of a smaller big like Martin or Green should help with that. Harrison and Martin are playing out of role...but if (as always, a big if) the Grizzlies can finally get healthy they will be able to play fewer minutes (Harrison) or play off the bench (Martin) as they should most of the time.

The winds of change are blowing through Memphis. David Fizdale has this team making real adjustments, and there have so far been measurable benefits for a team that needed some wrinkles added to its game. The idea of minutes restrictions and a barrage of three-point attempts are not new to the NBA- they are just new to the Grizzlies. It is OK to be hesitant to accept these changes as permanent, and it is understandable to think things will cool down.

But it is also OK to look to the immediate future as excited as ever about the Memphis Grizzlies. Not for title hopes or playoff pushes, but for the simple fact that this year is really, truly different. For the journey that will take this group of players and their fans places they have never been before, like Sunday night’s three-point display from their Center to defeat the Wizards. To see how this beloved group of players responds to adversity and competition in new ways.

The end result will hopefully be another playoff appearance and perhaps more. But more importantly than that, because of this move away from “the mud” in order to catch up to the modern NBA, these Grizzlies will have finally been changed for good.

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