How Birdman landed in Memphis
Christopher Claus Andersen, aka Birdman, aka Free Bird, aka Grizzilla, brought his 6'10", 245 pound brand of chaos to Memphis in February as part of the 3-team trade that sent Courtney Lee to Charlotte (sad emoji), Brian Roberts to Miami, and Andersen, P.J. Hairston, and some 2nd round picks to Memphis. Andersen had played lightly with Miami in the final year of his contract, and his desire to play more worked out well for Miami's desire to reduce their salary cap number.
Andersen told Chris Vernon in an early interview that he wanted to be called Grizzilla, a take off one of his old nicknames, Birdzilla. In his first game with Memphis, he put up 4 points, 3 rebounds, and a block in 11 minutes. He hustled around, set picks with gusto, rotated hard on pick and rolls and help-side defense, and generally acted quite a bit like the Birdman of old. It was the last night of those beautiful red Sounds uniforms and Andersen's mohawked, bearded, tattooed persona seemed to shine even more brightly in them.
If the Grizzilla had been able to hunt in his natural habitat - 8-12 minutes a game, hustling and help-side defending off the bench - I suspect there would have been quite a few more nights like that one, and I think Memphis fans' perception of Andersen's success would be different.
Instead, he averaged right around 20 minutes a game for the rest of the season, serving as the starting center and primary big most nights. It's a role he's ill-suited for, especially at this stage of his career, and fans grew tired of seeing him in the starting lineup night after night. While it certainly was frustrating to have a void at starting center that was filled by a piece that doesn't really fit, it's a shame if that's how Grizz fans remember him.
To give a little context - Andersen's best years were 08-09 and 09-10 in Denver. In those two seasons, he averaged 20 and 22 minutes per game and started 1 game. To say it another way, Birdman at his peak was a 20-minute-a-night high-energy bench player. Fast forward 7 years, and a 37-year old Chris Andersen who has fought through multiple injuries is quite simply not able to play the same minutes at the same level, and is certainly not a starting NBA center. Andersen, like the Grizzlies as a whole, was stretched farther than advisable.
I remember one clear example of this. I believe it was either during or just after the Spurs back-to-back in March, in which he played 60 minutes. A Grizzlies shot came off the rim in the direction of Birdman, who was charging toward the rim for an offensive rebound, as he often does. He lept, caught the rebound in flight and continued forward for the putback dunk - only he didn't make it there. He was probably 2 inches below the rim by the time he arrived, so he pushed the ball toward the rim with a sort of an awkward two-handed finger roll. Young Bird would have hammered that home and pulled himself up on the rim. 37-year old legs just don't bounce back the way they once did.
Despite these challenges, Andersen put up pretty close to his career averages in points and rebounds. He's no longer the high-flying shotblocker he once was, but he made a high percentage of his shots, rebounded well, defended well, and positively affected the game for the Grizzlies in general. Andersen had the highest offensive rating (129) and tied for the second-best defensive rating (106) of any Grizzly who played 20 or more games this season, only behind Tony Allen and tied with Marc Gasol. That too is in line with much of his career - his team's net rating when he's on the floor has been +19 or more points per 100 possessions for 8 consecutive seasons.
So, yes, there is obviously a large dropoff from an All-Star caliber center like Marc Gasol to a pure hustle player like Birdman. Also, yes, it makes the Grizzlies much easier to guard for a team like the Spurs, who can double Z-Bo to their heart's content with an offensive non-threat at center. But also, yes, he gave it his all and the team was better when he was on the court.
Final Grade: B
For those reasons, I give Chris Andersen a solid B for his 2015-16 Grizzlies season. He played hard, never complained, and made a positive impact in his time here. He was funny and engaging with media, seemed well-liked by teammates and coaches, and seemed to genuinely enjoy being with fans at MVP events. To admit a personal bias, I've been a fan of his and the kind of reckless abandon he plays with for a number of years. I don't know what's next for the Grizzilla, but I would be happy to see him back on the bench next season - back in his natural habitat.
Seriously guys this man is still signing stuff pic.twitter.com/xmU36xrxWv— #1Team1Goal #Grizz (@brandondevin) March 26, 2016