Hypotheses in Hindsight
In Part 1 (which you can read here) I tried to provide context to the discussion of success. No picture of this team is clear, no argument airtight. But based on all of the context, I want to suggest the following:
1). Inconsistency is probably not evidence of a higher ceiling. The possibility of a healthy Chandler Parsons is.
2). For this group of players, injuries are more likely than not to continue.
3). The Grizzlies gave a ton of minutes to unproductive players last year, some of whom are likely to improve.
4). The core of this team was two players who still produced at high levels.
5). The Grizzlies actually did improve from the prior year, but this improvement also signals a larger, structural change in “how” the team wins going forward.
6). Implementing the maintenance program, and the under-performance of the lower seeded playoff teams, probably cost the Grizzlies a win or two, but also allowed them to credibly seem as if they had a chance at the four seed that they probably did not deserve.
There are several possible reasons “why” this team was so wildly inconsistent. A first year head coach. Aging players and injuries. The ennui of the regular season. Youth and veteran players intermingling inconsistentmy with the vets struggling to see a meritocracy in playing time decisions.
Perhaps most of all, a creeping frustration in the locker room that there the Core Four had such little help last year.
All of these theories are reasonable. But the simplest reason is that inconsistency is a feature, not a bug, of an aging team. A large gap between the veteran core and the rest of the rotation existed. Aging players tend not to be able to deliver every night. They also tend to get injured.
The next great Grizzlies team
Here’s what I wrote before the season, and it doubles as my relatively simple criteria for grading the season.
So here’s the question the Grizzlies can seek an answer to, with no obstacles in their path. It’s the central team-building question that every team tries to answer: do the Grizzlies have a path to being either a top five offense or defense?
It is difficult to see the outline of the next great Grizzlies team on the current roster, but it is there. The Grizzlies (19th Offensive rating, 7th defensive rating) are within striking distance of the “Average on One side, Elite on the Other” formula that gets you into the periphery of title contention. For reference, the 50 win Grizzlies team that was up 2-1 on the Warriors ranked 13th in Offense and 4th in defense (as an aside, 18.4% of that team’s shots were threes, 29th of 30 teams; this year, that rate is up to 31.6%, 13th in the league). It’s no coincidence that the Grizzlies late season swoon correlated with a decline from an elite (top three) defensive unit, to a merely very good unit.
The floor of a team with Conley and Gasol is still relatively high. Heck, we saw it this year. For the first time in a very long time, the third best player on this team was neither Zach Randolph nor Tony Allen. Of course that is a sign of roster age, but it is also a sign of just how good the two cornerstones are. I don't think it’s been appreciated how little help they had.
Gasol himself suffered a curious, some might say annual, swoon of sorts late in the year. While I don’t know if anyone “knows” why this happened, I think it is important to look at the season as a whole. Gasol added a three point shot. Early in the year, many were wondering if Gasol was playing the best basketball of his career. The days of the offense running through Gasol on the low block might be over, but I don't think that is a bad thing.
Gleaning efficient points from post offense isn’t quite drawing water from a rock, but there are far easier paths. Gasol might find freedom in a focused role: anchor the defense, shoot threes and move the ball on offense. If he does only those things, he will be a plus asset on his contract even as his other skills degrade. Perhaps Gasol will age into the role of “3 & D Center.”
Meanwhile Conley was unequivocally better than he ever has been.
The Grizzlies already have the improvement on the 19th rated offense on the roster. Provided Chandler Parsons can remove the “if” in “if healthy,” then one would think a league average offense is possible. But the key with Parsons is not only getting him healthy, but finding a way to ensure that the offensive improvement he brings is not wiped away by a decline on defense. One can see a scenario where, even with Parsons playing a full season, the Grizzlies are something like 14th on offense, but slide to 11th on defense. This outcome might mean a couple more wins in the regular season, but would actually push the team further away from championship contention (far better to be elite on one end than average on both).
None of the young players really stepped forward, but Andrew Harrison and Deyonta Davis probably have a place in the league. Harrison in particular played significant minutes. He was largely unproductive in those minutes, but it is also very likely that those are the worst minutes he ever plays for the Grizzlies. Said a different way, the Grizzlies backup point guard situation probably improves next year, regardless of whether they acquire a veteran. The question is if it improves enough, and quickly, to take advantage of what might be the last high level season the Grizzlies get from their Core Two.
I’ll have more fleshed out thoughts later, but Conley/Gasol is the core of this team, and I don't think there’s a credible argument to add any other player to this. The fact that this core remains viable means the Grizzlies still have something to build around, or if they choose...
A second path
The Grizzlies have a second path to the next great Grizzlies team. We entered the year unsure if Conley or Gasol – both still closer to the beginning than the end of long, high money deals – would still be positive assets on their contracts. They both unequivocally passed that test.
“Blow it up” articles are all the rage these days, but most conveniently ignore market and ownership realities. I am not advocating the Grizzlies trade Conley or Gasol (for what it’s worth, it would probably be “trade Conley AND Gasol”), but at least the Grizzlies can still expect to command big returns for both players.
We’re not there yet, but I cannot emphasize how important it is that this second path still exists. Marc’s foot injury has been a death blow to the careers of many bigs. Though we knew Conley’s Achilles injury absence was mostly for preventive reasons, if he had shown signs of plateauing at age 29, the back half of the contract would scare away suitors. Instead, Gasol added a three point shot, looked as spry as we could hope for; and Conley had the best year of his career.
Complain all you want about the Grizzlies having $25mm of dead salary on the books. They could have had $80mm, and been dead in the water. No path to win in the present. No path to recoup assets in the future. Just a long terrible death in the lottery, with an unprotected pick hanging over their heads, and no value contracts on the books.
All things considered, I would consider the season a marginal success because both these paths remain. They have a viable core for winning now, or trading in to reboot the franchise. Probably not much different than others think. But what’s more important than whether the season was a success or not, is having clear reasons as to why it was a success.