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Sorting out the Grizzlies frontcourt

Shouts to the overachievers.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies’ roster is in a pretty funky place right now, with Chandler Parsons only making his debut last night and David Fizdale playing a very careful game with the minutes of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. When they played the Washington Wizards back in October, the Grizzlies started three of their big men (Gasol, JaMychal Green, and Jarell Martin), and Randolph beat out all three of them in scoring with 22 points off the bench. And, we haven’t even mentioned Deyonta Davis or Brandan Wright yet.

That’s a whole lot of cooks in the power forward kitchen.

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

The upshot: the Grizzlies look fairly deep in the front court, which is a huge plus for a team with three starters pulling over $20 million this season, and a huge plus for a team trying to rest its aging stars.

The problem was well-illustrated in Wednesday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, when the Grizzlies gave up 57 points to Lance Stephenson, Buddy Hield, and Langston Galloway. They gave up 57 to the Pelicans’ bench, or, a bench coming behind a starting lineup of bench players.

We’re finding out quickly that playing Randolph and Martin together is a no-go. You just sacrifice too much transition defense, rebounding, and especially rim protection. Dribble penetration has been destroying the Grizzlies so far in this season, which is its own whole issue, but the lack of help defense does no favors.

Martin is deceptively light on his feet (plus, it looks like he dropped a bunch of weight in the offseason), and he’s defending the perimeter far better than I expected, with a few really nice steals in the last few games, but his defensive awareness isn’t all there yet. This isn’t wholly unexpected, but you’d want someone helping Randolph on defense instead of compounding the issue.

Green would be a better bench partner to Randolph (he does, increasingly, everything), but he’s playing too well to bench, especially since next summer is going to be his first ever opportunity to make some real NBA money in free agency. He dropped 21 points against the Pelicans, put clamps on the Anthonys Carmelo and Davis last week, and has made seven of 17 three-pointers (41.2 percent) through six games this season. Get your paper, JaMychal.

Ideally, you can keep one of Gasol or Green (or one of the back-up centers; we’ll get to that in a second) on the floor at all times. So far, it’s sort of hard to tell what the regular rotation would look like in a game that matters (i.e., playoffs), and since the young bigs have been overachieving to start the season anyway, I get the feeling that Fizdale is still very much experimenting. Maybe he’ll bench Green sooner or later, but for now I think the current tandems will mostly stick, which, meh.

BONUS: totally separate from the Randolph-Green synergy, I’d also like to see Martin starting next to Gasol. My guy (circa March of last season when he proved me dead-ass wrong on him) is out here finishing oops, drilling jumpers out to three, and pump faking defenders out of their shoes on close-outs. That’s a whole lot of offensive funk.

It’s hard to say what kind of player Martin would be at his best, but Gasol’s syncopated passing game opens up a bunch of fun possibilities. I do think it’s within the realm of possibility that Martin is a better player than Green by the time the season ends.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

How do Brandan Wright and Deyonta Davis (and Chandler Parsons) fit?

In theory, you solve the rim protection issue by playing an actual center next to Randolph. The Grizzlies have two centers on their bench, although one still hasn’t played a game this season and the other has played all of 34 minutes in the NBA.

Wright is one of the few guys on the Grizzlies’ bench who isn’t too young or too old or too unproven, but in the 12 games he was healthy for last season, it never really seemed like he would fit. You could induct him into the PER Hall of Fame off his Dallas Mavericks tenure, but over there he was playing next to Dirk Nowitzki in Rick Carlisle’s spread P&R system, whereas the Grizzlies offer Z-Bo and mud.

Either way, Wright tops out as an average defender. He’s long and he blocks shots, but he moves awkwardly in space and there’s legitimately a half-decent chance that James Ennis weighs more than him.

Davis is a similar player, and he’s impressed early on in his career, even as a 20 year old rookie. He’s a listed 237 lbs, and the Grizzlies are only paying him $4 million over the next four years (while Wright makes nearly $6 million per year through next season). If he can shuffle his feet and avoid the pitfalls of rookie defense in the NBA even a little bit, Davis is preferable to Wright. Besides, Green might already be a better back-up 5 for the Grizzlies than both players anyway.

Between the minute restriction on Gasol and Randolph and giving Martin some odd minutes at the 3, the Grizzlies can fit five bigs in their rotation. You definitely want to get Martin regular minutes for his development, and if it’s at all feasible in the short term, Davis as well. If that works out, then you can trade Wright to shore up depth elsewhere. If Doc Rivers is still trying to bless up the Grizzlies: Wright for Wes Johnson and a second round pick.

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The potential screwball is what happens with Chandler Parsons, who just made his way back onto the court. Fizdale might also plan to limit his minutes, but I wonder how he’ll factor into the frontcourt rotation. I’m not overly high on him as a small-ball 4, since you’re going to have major rebounding and paint defense woes—and I think small ball is on the verge of becoming passé—but Fizdale comes from the Erik Spoelstra School of Small Ball where probably anyone could work as a small-ball 4.

I guess on the whole, you could live with Parsons as the regular “fifth big” on most nights. It’s not like Davis is going to be a major plus this season, and Parsons is better off defending power players and stretch 4s than quick, ball-handling 3s. It’s just going to put a lot of defensive responsibility upon Gasol and Green throughout a game.

This is what I would like

Martin overtakes Green as the starter (through his own strong play and little fault of Green, but I mean, let’s not get too greedy).

Gasol plays about 25 to 30 minutes per game, Martin and Green 20 to 25, Randolph 18 to 20, and either one of Davis or Parsons fill out whatever’s left of the rotation. Depending on the matchup, you could opt for more small-ball Parsons or more bully-ball Z-Bo, and that’s a nice choice to have.

Trade Wright for a half-decent wing and a second round pick or two. You can stack his contract with Vince Carter’s non-guaranteed deal, or, maybe even trade Green instead to get the jump on his restricted free agency. I think the Grizzlies will be fine trading Wright, though.

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