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Memphis Grizzlies Midseason Questions: Round 2

We’re back for another round of questions: New signings, a center playing basketball like poker, and the power forward of the future

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Check out Round One of Hrdlicka’s midseason questions here.

What are the early returns on last year’s free agency spending spree? – Parsons has yet to appear in more than a cameo...

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

...but the James Ennis and Troy Daniels signings have paid off to this point. I’m glad I was steadfast in my relative support of the Daniels signing. The strategy of filling out the roster with several low buys and draft picks, has yielded dividends. Ennis has been a revelation, a three and D wing who’s making about 3% of the cap. Daniels has been uneven, but has noticeably bought in on the defensive end, allowing the Grizzlies to survive on that end while he’s on the court.

As a note on Parsons, even if his knees are shot and he can’t really work as a shot creator, I think he’s still worth about 70% of his contract strictly as a stretch four. You just slide him down to power forward and let him shoot threes, pass and he’d be fine. Even some below average outcomes for Parsons are still not catastrophic for the Grizzlies, cap wise.

Can Marc Gasol continue to play basketball like poker?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Every time Marc catches the ball at the three point line with a bit of space, I want him to take the shot. Every single time.

But he doesn’t, and it feels like he’s playing poker.

Let me explain: when you play poker, you can be an ABC player. If you get a good hand, you can bet; when you get a bad hand, you can fold. Good players will figure this out. Great players will exploit it and soon have all your money.

Good players will bluff– play seven high like it’s two aces – and great players will know that a good player is capable of bluffing, and when deciding whether to call a bet or not, they’ll factor how likely this player is to bluff. If they bluff roughly 25% of the time in a certain spot, then that is factored into how likely the bet will be called.

The very best players bluff sometimes just to be called, just so other players will know they are capable of bluffing. They want their opponents to put them on a wide range of hands – some good, some bad – when they place a certain bet.

This is what I think of when Gasol catches the ball at the top of arc. He’s mixing his range. He doesn’t want to shoot every time because then defenses will know he shoots every time. He’s driving some times, even when he really should shoot, because with a perfectly mixed range defenses won’t have a book on him. They’ll close out the three point shot knowing he might drive past them. They’ll hesitate to close out knowing he might drive.

Marc is playing poker, and getting reps bluffing, calling and raising. I thought it would be very difficult for him to truly mix his range, become a threat driving the ball from the three point line, but he’s doing it and becoming more comfortable doing it.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This does result in missed efficiency. Left open, Gasol should shoot. If extra defenders come to him, Gasol should pass. Windows don’t stay open against the best defenses, and they get even tighter in the playoffs when you play the same guys over and over.

But Gasol has conditioned himself to play perfectly, and I fear that he is ridding himself of the selfishness trait, an essential trait if the defense just throws its hands up and says “we have no idea what to do with him, so just let him shoot.” This happens in poker when, faced with a high level post flop player, the other guy just starts moving all in pre-flop. He takes away the post flop play entirely by forcing the issue.

It’s not as much fun, and only really works if the other player doesn’t adjust how they play. It would be a shame if Gasol were still pump-faking defenders who aren’t there in game 6 of a series because he can’t play another way.

I hope that doesn’t happen, because high-level players guessing and out-guessing each other, high pressure ballets like the Grizzlies win against Golden State are, in short, a firetrucking treat. Tasked with stopping Gasol late in the fourth and again in overtime, Draymond chose to close out hard on Gasol’s three point shot. Probably the right call, but Gasol raised, driving past him for key shots down the stretch. Gasol played perfectly. In a seven game series though, no single tactic will work, and Gasol will need to be comfortable shooting, dribbling and passing.

I hope instead we go next level: a player like Draymond will figure out how to bluff Gasol back: anticipating that Gasol will fake a three and drive, Draymond can fake a close out and catch Gasol as he puts the ball on the floor, possibly forcing a turnover. This is what happens when the very best players play each other. In the fractions of time before open space closes down, both defender and attacker are working on partial information, and making choices. Any hesitation, wrong guess, misstep will be death.

Will Gasol be comfortable enough to be selfish, and just shoot the shot? Or will he continue to mix his range after the book has been closed. Just food for thought.

Will there be enough trade sellers?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not worried about buyers. In a year where no team is outright tanking, many teams are finding out that a more competitive league means they just aren’t good enough. From Sacramento, to Orlando, to Washington, there’s plenty of desperation.

I don’t know how many meaningful trades will happen though. Some teams should shed salary. Others are out of contention and should flip veterans for future assets, especially with the floor of the tanking race elevated this year.

I credit Atlanta for getting a 1st for Kyle Korver. Had they waited another month to see where they were record wise, more sellers would have entered the market, and they might not have gotten the same return.

Phoenix should listen on Brandon Knight, but will Dallas listen on Wesley Mathews? And will either be willing to take back the requisite salary, some of it toxic, to facilitate a deal?

I don’t think any big names will move – Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Millsap, players of that ilk. The middle of the West and East is so muddled that teams will convince themselves they shouldn’t blow it up, and even bad teams don’t necessarily need to sell to tank. For instance, the Heat don’t need to trade Goran Dragic to get a top 5 pick, and if they can’t get a good return (they probably can, but if they can’t) they shouldn’t trade him.

The names that are more likely to move will be stench guys on decent teams, or good vets on bad teams. Players like Tim Hardaway Jr, Mathews, Lou Williams, PJ Tucker. As such, I think the market for players who can be had for marginal assets will soon be flooded with supply, lowering the return for all teams.

A smart team would sell now, and perhaps buy closer to the deadline.

Now we return to your regularly scheduled Grizzlies-centric programming.

How much does JaMychal Green mean to an elite defense?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, I wrote that this entire season was a search for the path towards the Grizzlies being an elite offense or defense. Halfway through the season, the Grizzlies are top three in points allowed per possession, a result that justifies David Fizdale’s decision in the pre-season to move Zach Randolph to the bench.

Randolph is still a very good player, posting the 2nd highest usage rate of his career – nearly three of every ten possessions, and his rebounding numbers are strong. His overall FG% ticked slightly lower, his finishing at the rim remains high, showing that ZBo can still finish amongst the trees.

I struggle with how “good” JaMychal is. His shooting credentials have yet to be actualized into actual shooting – just 28.8% from three point range until a recent hot streak, and slightly below average (56%) at the rim. He is a decent, if not exceptional rebounder.

And then there’s this lineup data (all numbers are points per 100 possessions):

JaMychal Green on court: 106.3 scored, 104.7 allowed (+1.6)

JaMychal Green off court: 107.3 scored, 107.1 allowed (+.2)

Net: +1.4

But here’s what happens when you add Marc Gasol into the equation:

JaMychal Green with Marc Gasol: 106.8 scored, 104.1 allowed (+2.7)

JaMychal Green without Marc Gasol: 104.5 scored, 106.4 allowed (-1.9)

Net: +4.6

You don’t need me to explain that Marc is more determinative of Grizzlies success than JaMychal. JaM ranks 32nd among power forwards in RPM, behind such luminaries as Gorgui Dieng and Luc Richard yada yada Moute (but ahead of teammates Zach Randolph, 43rd, and Jarell Martin 89th).

These numbers confirm what we all know: JaMychal is a great role player when playing next to a great center, but not necessarily as valuable when not.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

JaMychal is the best kind of player to root for, one who plays hard and with purpose, one who personifies Grit and Grind. His skills are undeniable: energy, some outside shooting (36%, but still a small enough sample that a bad game brings the percentage down), and a big who is competent guarding in space, rotating, and guarding the pick and roll.

Referring back to the on/off numbers above, the Grizzlies are an elite defensive team with JaM, a middling one without. Gasol is more important to the defense, but JaMychal contributes to an elite defense.

Before the season began, I wrote that the season was “about” the Grizzlies becoming elite on one side of the ball. I am becoming increasingly doubtful that the Grizzlies can cobble together an elite defense without JaMychal Green, which is as much an indictment of the Grizzlies other options as it is praise for JaMychal.

Further complicating the issue is Chandler Parsons injury. Hey we should talk about that!

How much will Chandler Parsons’ minutes hurt an elite defense?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t know. He hasn’t played.

Parsons’ various maladies have hurt the Grizzlies from sheer loss of production, but it has really put a damper on their team building. That’s an amorphous statement so let me make it more concrete, because it gets back to the power forward question. The Parsons/Ennis frontcourt tandem intrigues as a possible solution to the power forward problem, but has played just 77 minutes together, leaving it in the all-too-familiar realm of “Small Sample Size Theatre.”

Would this pairing work if, for instance, Memphis matched up against Houston in the playoffs? Would we be comfortable putting James Ennis on Ryan Anderson and hiding Parsons on Ariza? Do we feel comfortable with any of our power forwards guarding the pick and roll besides JaMychal?

In short, not only might this team not be able to trade JaMychal Green because they don’t have a replacement for him, they also might not have a replacement for him down the road, meaning JaMychal might be the hardest type of player to price accurately: a demonstrable role player, who might also be irreplaceable.

Does an emphasis on height and wingspan have more to do with the elite defense than we think?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Working theory: part of the reason the Grizzlies defense has been so good this year is an emphasis on height and wingspan. The Grizzlies do not feature plus defenders at every position. They’ve played Troy Daniels, Chandler Parsons, and a panoply of rookies way more minutes than rookies should play.

But something is working.

The one thing this team has that even prior elite defenses in Memphis did not, is height. Mike Conley/Courtney Lee/Tony Allen backcourts were great defensively, and Tony’s rebounding made them great on the boards, but they were short.

Look at the players the Grizzlies have brought in: Wade Baldwin, Andrew Harrison, Chandler Parsons, Troys Williams and Daniels. None of them are small for their position, and only Daniels is not a plus height wise.

The guy that started me thinking about this is Troy Daniels. In 537 minutes, the Grizzlies have allowed just 104.7 points per 100 possessions. You’d think Daniels would drag the team defense down, but he’s held up “enough” on that end, often hiding whichever opponent wing is the weak offensive link. The Grizzlies most used lineup with Troy Daniels is Harrison-Daniels-TA-JaM-Gasol. Putting Daniels with like-sized players and a switchable four makes transition and pick and roll defense far easier, setting Daniels up for success. More food for thought.

Tune back in for Part 3, where we look at the trade deadline, playoffs, and whether the Grizzlies can keep their team together in the future.

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