News flash: Mike Conley has not been himself all season long, and that has led to issues for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Breaking news: Marc Gasol is not quite able to carry the load alone.
Shocking update: Firing your head coach a little over a month in to a season is not conducive to winning basketball games.
All of the above situations have directly contributed to the woes of the Grizzlies as they wallow below .500 for the first time in a long time. It is funny how when your best two players have real issues on and off the court you play poorly.
Beyond that, though, there are other things that definitely exacerbated the issues. Simply losing Conley, firing David Fizdale, and a struggling Gasol do not make a team in contention for the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft lottery. It surely makes them a non-playoff team, but more is going on here. Just as it took multiple home runs, like the Tyreke Evans signing, for Memphis to make the playoffs, it has taken multiple failures to reach this point.
So how did we get here? How did we pull this off?
It is, and isn’t at the same time, all that complex
There is never really a good time to suffer an injury. There are, however, points that are more problematic that others. The start of a season, or right before it begins, would be a great example of that. Memphis had two players, guys who over $18 million combined is tied up in, that this happened for- JaMychal Green (ankle injury in the first game), and Ben McLemore (foot injury month or so before training camp). Their seasons are reflective of their time lost...kind of
JaMychal, after a very good 2016-2017 campaign that earned him quite the raise (but not as much as he hoped for) in his latest contract with the Grizzlies. He wasn’t paid to be a star, but he was paid to be a competent role player who competes at a high level. That hasn’t happened- among players who have played at least 600 minutes, he has the 4th worst net rating (-6, a problem in and of itself with four guys on the team worse than him). His defensive rating (110) is worse than that of Mario Chalmers, and his offensive rating (104) is five points worse than James Ennis III, who is not a starter on this team (but maybe should be). In addition to his various ratings all being career worsts, he is posting the worst PER of his career (12.7), as well as his lowest win shares per 48 minutes (.064).
Your eyes, and the advanced numbers, aren’t lying to you- he is playing poorly. But how much of that is connected to missing important minutes early in the year? We will never know, but past performance suggests it played a role.
Then, there is Ben McLemore. Where JaMychal has had better days, McLemore really hasn’t. He has never posted a net rating better than -8 (he is currently at -14, and that, and this is true, is better than the past two seasons.) He has never posted a PER better than 10.4 (9.1 currently), or a win shares per 48 minutes better than .045 (.02 as of January 8th). One area where he is struggling compared to previous seasons is his three point shooting- he is a 35% shooter from beyond the arc for his career and is, right now, shooting 31.2% from range. Perhaps you chalk that up to the injury and missing camp...and the same could perhaps be said for concepts and a lack of understanding scheme.
But you also can see that, even with McLemore missing camp and never being part of a stable organization, it is possible to say he just isn’t very good, and a big swing and a miss on a contract. They needed to sign Green. They didn’t need McLemore, and his contract is the biggest mistake this front office made this past offseason.
The Never Weres
Grizzlies fans have seen the image above far too often. Two more key contributors, two more players who have a ton of money invested in them (roughly $29 million combined this season), two more sad stories of missed opportunity. Chandler Parsons and Brandan Wright have played less minutes combined (859) than Marc Gasol, Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, and James Ennis III.
Now that the “tank” is “engaged”, the fact that Parsons and Wright are/have been out and Brooks and Deyonta Davis are in has its perks. Davis is getting good run and is showing real potential (+17 net rating in the all-too-small sample size of 298 minutes played), but some of that time has come against end of bench reserves when the game is already out of reach. Wright (+20 in 315 minutes played, .178 win shares per 48 minutes is best on the team) is still the superior player, and if Brendan would be able to play 600+ minutes to this point the Grizzlies almost surely would be a bit better off.
When it comes to Dillon Brooks, his issues have been discussed here before. He is being asked to do far more than he is capable of doing as a 2nd round pick turned NBA starter. His -11 net rating shows that, as does his team worst (besides Kobi Simmons) 7.9 PER and his 2nd worst among players with 800 or more minutes played win shares per 48 minutes (.035). Again, there is a positive to this- he is getting experience he may not have gotten otherwise, and that should pay off in the long term.
But he is outmatched in this role right now. Imagine if Chandler Parsons (545 minutes played, almost half of Brooks’ 1,057) were able to contribute more. Even in his weakened state, his .096 win shares per 48 minutes and 14.6 PER (in addition to his +1 net rating) would make Memphis better than all of these Brooks minutes. Chandler is doing well this year...but he cannot stay on the court. His knees continue to fail him.
But it is not to be. Brandan Wright was supposed to be the team’s good-to-great 3rd big who could push the pace. Chandler Parsons was supposed to be the bridge between eras, the next good-to-great star player of the Memphis Grizzlies. Neither has materialized as of yet...and it looks like they may do so.
That impacts the current state of things as well. The greatest ability sometimes is availability. Neither Parsons nor Wright have it nearly enough for these Grizzlies.
Between Gasol, Conley, Parsons, Wright, Green, and McLemore, you have invested nearly $93.7 million in just this season alone. These are your six highest paid players, and only two of them have played more than 600 minutes. Compare that to Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, and James Ennis III’s combined roughly $7.3 million, all of who have played well over 800 minutes (and in the case of Brooks and Evans well over 1,000) and you see the problem. Those who were supposed to be the best and most consistent players for Memphis, for one reason or another, have not been. Their failures, and all the explanations behind them, have created an imperfect storm of irreparable harm to a roster that needed everything to go right to compete.
But the opposite has happened. It has all gone to hell. Now the Grizzlies and their fans must deal with the realities that this presents.