Was the 2016-2017 Grizzlies season a success?
Immediately after its completion, the season was dissected, its vitals examined and argued over. The cause of death was universally agreed upon - they just weren’t good enough. But there was far from a consensus as to whether or not being good enough was, in itself, good enough. My aim is to both challenge that immediate post-mortem, and to answer the question of success with a different set of criteria.
If you’re looking for me to plant a flag strongly on one side of the line or the other, this isn’t the article for you. The season was a weird one; enough evidence exists on both sides of the argument to paint whatever picture you want. What I’ve found problematic is not whether the Grizzlies were successful, but the evidence people have used to support their opinion, most of which ignores context. Let’s fill some of that in.
High variance leads to...high variance
Before tackling the issue of what “success” is for this team, I think it’s important to note that this group was purposely constructed to be high variance. High risk, high reward. Instead of spreading money equally in free agency across several areas, the Grizzlies consolidated their money on the best available talent, and tried to plug other holes - backup point guard, depth on the wing - with a mix of draft picks and unproven, bargain veterans.
This is the correct strategy regardless of where you are in the winning cycle, but even more so when your team has an aging core. Maximizing the last “best years” of your best guys by bringing in the best available talent in free agency, regardless of health, might lead to a bad signing, but it raises your ceiling and that’s absolutely the correct play.
Gambling is not a virtue in and of itself. Justifying a risk by saying the team needed to take a risk is tautological (Ed. Note: for those who, like me, need to look that up -KY). You don’t justify buying lottery tickets because you’re unhappy making minimum wage. The lottery is a bad gamble, irrespective of your need for more money.
Before the Conley extension kicked in, the Grizzlies had a one-time chance to bring in the best high dollar talent possible, at the exact moment when their perceived window started to close. Chandler Parsons had all the skills - shooting, ball handling, and height - making him not only the best available talent, but also the perfect fit.
To say that gamble didn’t pay off would be an understatement. But would the team be better off if they had spread that money over a backup point guard and a wing, say, Jeremy Lin and Joe Johnson (it’s debatable that Lin, who has ties to the Nets and wanted to start, would even sign)? Possibly, but you win a lot of basketball games on the backs of singular talents. Capturing them is hard. I think the fairest assessment of the Parsons-saga-to-date has been: good process, bad results.
Hey, speaking of wins
For some, forty-three wins seems like a failure when compared to the forty-two wins of the injury-riddled MASH unit from the prior season. One would expect to improve by more than one win when your two best players play the majority of games, and you aren’t signing guys off the street. When you compare the last two seasons to the fifty plus wins from the Halcyon Grit and Grind teams, it’s easy to assume this team is trending downward.
In opposition to that trend, taking the Spurs to six games, particularly for a team missing both of their presumptive starting wings, seems like a victory, if only of the “moral” variety. With a grindy nod towards the narrative arc, even these later era GnG teams have something in their DNA that refuses to yield without scratching and clawing to the bitter end. But should losing in six games instead of five carry such weight? That argument depends upon Marc Gasol making a single game-winning shot. Would the entire season have been a failure if he didn’t make that single shot?
Complicating both of these arguments, the Grizzlies went 7-2 in a nine game stretch that Conley missed BUT ALSO went 2-3 against Nets and Lakers AND ALSO went 3-2 against the Cavs and Warriors. We shouldn’t ignore the losses to the Lakers and Nets (and quite a few other lottery teams) but count the two wins against the Spurs in April.
Will the real Grizzlies please stand up?
One line of reasoning that I will never understand is that because the Grizzlies had a good record against the best of the best (Cavaliers, Warriors, Rockets), that signaled this team was probably better than they were. Maybe this is a modulated way of saying the players had checked out during the stretch run, and losses were a sign of negligence. Maybe that is the case. I’m not good at that type of extra-curricular analysis.
I want to suggest that all games matter. The wins in the playoffs and the losses to the Lakers and Nets. I think a fairer assessment of this team is that for years they could fall back on a superhuman defense to get a stop when they needed it. When a double digit lead melted to four, they could turn the water off for three straight possessions, and Conley/Marc/Zach would do their thing on the other end, and they would win by eight.
That’s no longer the case, which is to be expected for an older team that has won the same way for seven years.
With a top heavy roster; with a paucity of proven players; with a point guard coming off a minor Achilles injury nearing the end of his athletic prime; with a center coming off a potentially career altering injury; with the biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history doing the opposite of contributing to winning basketball; with a first year head coach; with four rookies, two of whom would man the backup point guard position, the Grizzlies had the largest win variance in the NBA.
Analysis of the Grizzlies season should start from understanding all of this context. Reverse engineering success from forty-three wins and a first round exit will tell any story you like.
Consider also that the Grizzlies made a concerted effort to limit minutes and games played this year. It’s difficult to draw straight lines between minutes played and some combination of productivity (or the lack thereof), injuries, and wins. Still, I don’t think it’s outlandish to suggest that not playing your best players as much as possible is better for their health in the long run, but costs you wins in the short run.
A difficult test case is Marc Gasol, whose 34.2 mpg was roughly in line with previous seasons, even though there was a commitment to limit his minutes in spots. He sat out eight full games, and in prior seasons, he probably played most, if not all of those.
The oldest player in the league, Vince Carter, had his healthiest season as a Grizzly. Especially early on, there was an emphasis on a large rotation.
I don’t mean to suggest the Grizzlies were perfect in this department. Injuries didn’t magically disappear, and the organizational commitment to rest seemed to waiver most when a losing streak hit. Perhaps most frustrating to some fans, the criteria was opaque. Why did Parsons, who was clearly hurt and clearly unproductive, continue to play, only to get re-injured? Why was Marc held out of some games, but then would play heavy minutes in other back to back situations? I’m not one who equates a lack of a transparent structure to a lack of structure itself. Teams are incentivized to share as little information with the public as possible, not the other way around.
The fairest assessment of the Grizzlies’ commitment to managing minutes is that, while sometimes messy and wavering, there was an actual commitment to limit minutes.
Said in a much more reductive way: if the organization has made a conscious decision to prolong careers by shaving minutes here and there, and if that perhaps was the difference between 45 and 43 wins, should we not at least factor that into how we grade the season?
The West ain’t what it used to be
One factor that reflected on the Grizzlies’ success this year was how they’ve changed within the larger context of the Western Conference. The top of the West is better than it’s ever been. The Warriors are maybe the best team ever assembled. The Spurs remain the Spurs. The Grizzlies are further from the top than they’ve been in recent memory, but so is most of the rest of the West. After those two top teams, there was a serious drop-off in talent. The rest of the playoff teams in the West were a mix of flawed teams featuring one superstar, teams starting their ascent, and teams on the decline. The bottom of the West – teams like the Pelicans, Timberwolves, and Nuggets – has a lot of talent on the come up that has yet to be realized.
If you were to throw the 2016-2017 Grizzlies team into the West from three years ago (or almost any season from recent times), they would not have made the playoffs. They simply were not good enough.
Part of the reason the Grizzlies were able to sit guys late in the season and still comfortably make the playoffs - or make the playoffs at all - was because the Trail Blazers disappointed, the Nuggets and T’Wolves weren’t ready yet, and the Thunder were still within striking distance.
My general sense is that if, say, the Blazers were slightly better this season, then the Grizzlies would have maybe won a few more games. Would winning 45 games, but being the 8th seed be more “successful” than winning 42 and the 7 seed? 47 wins, but missing the playoffs entirely? These are the questions that poke holes in the logic of judging this season based on wins.
Juking the stats
Earlier we talked about how forty-three wins might seem underwhelming, but here’s a last little nugget to consider: for the first time in a very long time, the Grizzlies did not dramatically outperform their Pythagorean wins (a measure that extrapolates wins based on point margin). Based on how many more points they scored than their opponents, the Grizzlies actually “were” a forty-two win team that won one more game than they “should” have. For reference, the last time the Grizzlies did NOT outperform their point difference by more than four wins was the 2012-13 season, when they had the point differential of a fifty-four win team that actually won fifty-six wins.
As a tangent, this probably has more to do with marginal wins being harder to capture the more games you win than anything else. Since Z-Bo and Tony Allen arrived in Memphis, the Grizzlies have outperformed their expected wins by at least two wins with one exception. Last year.
If there’s cause for disappointment, it’s this: the Grizzlies are no longer a demon to math. Being a demon to math is fun! One can think of a number of reasons for this, but I don’t believe that it was because Tony Allen and Z-Bo played less. Tony Allen played the second most minutes of his career (!), and Z-Bo (though his minutes continued to decline by about 250 from the previous season) got the most shots of the last three seasons.
My hunch is the decline in “outperforming” is three-fold: a) further decline in performance from Tony and Zach – the most unconventional, hardest-to-quantify players on the roster; b) playing young, unproductive players that hurt team cohesion on both sides of the ball; and c) a general move towards being a more “modern” team. It might not be that the Grizzlies have given up a hidden edge, but that the math just fits them better now.
But hidden in this number is a sign of actual improvement. In 2016-2017, the Grizzlies were expected to win forty-two games, but they improved markedly from the 2015-2016 Grizzlies, who were expected to win just thirty-five games. The actual 2015-2016 win total, forty-two, was lifted by something like a half dozen buzzer beaters, some of them (a Matt Barnes three-quarters court heave; a Chalmers floater just inside the three point line) made math very, very unhappy!
Likely the Grizzlies’ formula of outperforming their point differential was starting to fail in 2015-2016, and luck happily intervened. Either way, the 2016-2017 Grizzlies did improve dramatically from the prior season.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming tomorrow!