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Unpacking the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2016-17 Season: Part I

Answers from the season.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, I asked seven questions about the Memphis Grizzlies:

  • BRO, WHAT ABOUT INJURIES
  • Can Marc Gasol return to top-20 status?
  • Will Mike Conley lead the Grizzlies in scoring this year?
  • Will Chandler Parsons play the 4?
  • How does Zach Randolph as the sixth man play out, and JaMychal Green as starter?
  • Can the bench be good this season?
  • BRO, IS GRIT AND GRIND DEAD

These were broad questions, which was definitely a cop-out move for me to throw up some thoughts about everything entering the season. Now as we exit it, I’m going to do the same, reflecting on the season against my expectations heading into it.

(This is a two-part read, so laying out all of the questions from the start is also definitely another cop-out move. Read what interests you!)

BRO, WHAT ABOUT INJURIES

What I said: “Either it happens or it doesn’t, you know? What else is there to say?”

Still not a very interesting question, just because the forces at play behind injuries and how to prevent them in the NBA are mostly mysterious to us. They’re especially mysterious to me, because I’m really not trying to research transverse process fractures as a regular part of my basketball fandom.

Turns out, transverse process fractures sound really freaking scary, but with all things considered, the Grizzlies escaped the injury bug relatively unscathed this season. They got 70-plus games in the regular season out of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, JaMychal Green, Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Andrew Harrison. Even Mike Conley, Yung Transverse Process Fracture himself, finished with 69 very nice games played.

That’s sensational! The approach could be nitpicked, but the way the Grizzlies balanced rest against winning seemed to work out fine in the end, mostly.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

You know where it went wrong: with Chandler Parsons, which was the bet going into that contract and why he was gettable in the first place, as well as with Allen, which was just unfortunate because of the timing at the start of the playoffs. If you had either guy or, in some impossibly perfect world, both of them, at full health, maybe the Grizzlies would’ve beaten the San Antonio Spurs.

So that part sucks, as does the amount of future success that hinges on Parsons’ knee. That contract isn’t a bet that I’d choose right now, but being tethered to it already, I’m sticking to my guns screaming out NO REGRETS.

This is where we’re at. It’s a happy place overall, and as far as injuries go, the team can worry about that internally because I’m not stressing myself like that.

Can Marc Gasol return to top-20 status?

What I said: “Top 20 Marc might just be out of the question at this point, but I’d say if he isn’t one of the 25 or 30 best players is the NBA this season, the (healthy) Grizzlies are about the eighth seed at best. I’m feeling good about a bounce back.”

I’m not tricking myself into ranking NBA players here, because the number of good ones right now is insane. It’s probably a stretch to say that Gasol was top-20, and even at the weakest position on the All-NBA Team ballot, he’s one of a number of guys vying for that third team center spot. (But you know me. I put him on there.)

I think Gasol was safely top-30, probably top-25, and if nothing else, adequate within the incredibly demanding role that the Grizzlies put him in this season. Adequate is a lame word, though, so I’ll add that he was awesome.

There’s stuff you can criticize. Gasol’s rebounding continued to decline, dropping to a career-worst 10.4% rebounding rate on par with small 4s and athletic wings like Patrick Patterson and Rudy Gay, and somehow also Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo. His defense was very good, obviously, but not of the all-world quality that it used to be.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Most of that is outweighed by Gasol taking on a more well-rounded role in the offense. He posted career-highs in usage percentage and assist percentage (the former does not account for assists in any way), and of course, he hit 104 threes this season (on 268 attempts, or 38.8 percent).

There was one thing that was really weird about Gasol’s season, and it’s not something I can easily forget even if I can’t really find the best words to explain it. He seemed to falter in the second half of the season — especially in March, when the Grizzlies were by far at their worst. I hate to accuse any athlete of giving a low effort, but on a superficial level, that’s what seemed to happen. There was talk on Twitter of some unhappiness behind the scenes, although it’s also not something anybody took too seriously.

The Grizzlies always have their ups and downs, especially in March. I’ll make a mental note of the possibility that there was and could one day still be some drama to be worried about, but I mean, right now, it’s nothing to me. It was fatigue, if I had to blame it on something.

Gasol had a great season, and for a team that pretty much needed good nights from both him and Conley at once to win games, they did the damn thing. Seventh seed, no complaints.

Will Mike Conley lead the Grizzlies in scoring this year?

What I said: “I think even moreso than with Gasol moving his game out to the three-point line, this is where we’ll see the Grizzlies change the most, with more of their offense looking to set up guard/wing scoring, and Conley is going to be the focal point of that.”

For the first time in his career, he did! For another first, he also broke the 20 p.p.g. threshold. Too many guys did that, and in more spectacular ways, for it to garner much recognition, which is the Mike Conley experience in a nutshell. There were 31 players who averaged 20+ points this season, compared to 20 guys last year, and Conley tied Brook Lopez for 29th with 20.5 points.

That’s not really the point, though. The real significance lies in how Conley, and the Grizzlies as a whole, have changed to make the thing even possible. This season was a culmination of Conley’s gradual shift from “game manager,” dictating tempo and feeding the post and whatever else that means, to a true, blue go-to scorer. The relationship between Conley and Gasol inverted: options for Conley to score became the meat of the offense, while post-ups for Gasol were more often the bail-out late in the shot clock.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Everything came together. Dave Fizdale was installed and encouraged Gasol to become a perimeter threat and playmaker, and for his part, Conley upped his own range and efficiency. The pull-up threes are more commonly the hallmark of point guards like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kyle Lowry, which is fine. But Conley’s distance shooting was prolific, and he was already so good at getting to the rim that his game really became complete as a scorer this season.

The only thing I thought we’d see that we clearly didn’t were plays with Parsons as the ball-handler to set up Conley coming off screens and curls. We kind of got that anyway, since Gasol was so comfortable with the ball — the homie Andrew Ford broke down one recurring set that the Grizzlies used to free up Conley as the off-ball scorer we deserve.

When/if Parsons gets right and assimilates into the offense, you’ll unlock more options in those sets — curl Conley off the power forward’s screen on the weak side the same way, but use a Gasol-Parsons hand-off to set it up.

But I’m not going to get too wishful. Mike Conley was everything I hoped for and everything the Grizzlies needed him to be this season. The dude’s game is unquestionable.

Will Chandler Parsons play the 4?

What I said: “Well, the answer is yes, because...“

Trick question! Chandler Parsons didn’t play!

Everything I wrote about Parsons then (the link again, for your convenience) stands now—mostly, I don’t love it. I guess there’s the added caveat that playing power forward will probably make the transition to playing in any capacity easier, if his lateral mobility is shot. If it’s as bad as it seems to be, though, the position that Parsons plays is the least of our worries.

(Bonus paragraph: I wouldn’t consider cutting, trading, or stretch-provisioning Parsons’ contract at all yet, unless it comes with no major incurred cost. I feel bad for that guy, and relatively speaking, I like him as well as what his game can do for the Grizzlies. It probably won’t work out, but as long as we’re here, I’m rooting for him, and against anyone who says he isn’t Memphis enough for them. Grit and grind is more inclusive than that.)

Stay tuned for Part II!

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