After an impressive playoff run which saw them trample all over the L.A. Clippers and a Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder last season, the Memphis Grizzlies entered the 2013-2014 campaign tossed aside like old news. While the rest of the Western Conference retooled in the off-season with shiny new pieces, the Grizzlies returned with a practically intact roster, which many saw as a weakness, projecting them to be on the outside looking in on the crowded playoff race. And for the better half of the season, they did struggle. But now, they’re hitting their stride at just the right time, and another playoff berth seems to be in the cards. Their closest competitor, the Phoenix Suns, continue to crumble under the blazing post-season spotlight and the Minnesota Timberwolves have too much ground to make up in too little time. Even with a tough schedule ahead of them, the Grizzlies appear to be in the clear, which could prove to be bad news for everyone else out west.
The Grizzlies’ slow start was understandable. Without Lionel Hollins on the sidelines anymore, Dave Joerger swooped in to save the day, but as is the case for most rookie coaches, things didn’t go so swimmingly right off the bat. They lost five of their first eight games, giving up an uncharacteristic 100.6 points per contest, and had to adapt to life without Marc Gasol quickly, who, on November 22nd, suffered a knee injury just when they were starting to crawl their way back up the standings. Between the two month period of his injury and return, they hovered around .500, and any hopes of making the post-season seemed like a shot in the dark as the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks generated some distance from Memphis.
Since then, however, they’ve won 22 of their last 30 games and look like their old, terrifying selves again. Only this time, they may be even better. While they continue to wreak havoc on the defensive end of the court, giving up just 1.02 points per possession, a pair of recent acquisitions have led to a major jump offensively. After the Spurs made easy pickings of them in the playoffs by loading up on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post, it was clear that some changes had to be made in the backcourt. (Apparently Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince exchanging bricks wasn’t going to cut it moving forward). Therefore, in the summer, they acquired Mike Miller, and in the first week of the New Year, they traded away Jerryd Bayless and change for Courtney Lee. The result: a jump in offensive efficiency thanks to the presence of some weapons on the wings that they didn’t have when the Spurs were bludgeoning them to death in the Conference Finals.
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As you’ll see in the image below, teams still pay all their attention to the high-low activity of Gasol and Randolph for good reason: It’s deadly. However, now, instead of having Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince waiting in the wings for a corner jump-shot – which still to this day is a spacing disaster – Courtney Lee (a career 38.2 percent shooter from deep) sets up shop. While it’s only a small, $5.2 million addition, it’s a stark difference from the pain and suffering Grizzlies fans had to endure last season when their team couldn’t buy a jumper.
Most importantly, the team is finally healthy and are peaking at the right time. Their defensive rating has been on a decline since the season kicked off (which is a good thing) and their offensive rating has been steadily rising. If anything, Gasol’s injury can be seen as a blessing in disguise. In his absence, players were forced to step up, and while they struggled in that two month period as a team, there was a lot to take away from their development as individuals. In the last 13 games before Marc returned, Mike Conley played some of the best basketball of his young career, averaging 18.6 points, 6.4 assists and 1.6 steals per contest. James Johnson joined the team before Christmas and made a tremendous difference from the get-go. He fit right into the grit-n-grind mentality and provided a nice spark offensively off the bench after he ripped the D-League to shreds with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Finally, backup center Kosta Koufos saw a bump in minutes and made the most of his opportunity as their starting big man. All that extra experience will only help in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies may have dug themselves into a hole when Gasol was sidelined, but a lot of lessons were learnt. Even after a couple of rough months, they’re still on pace to finish with a .600 record for only the fourth time in franchise history. And even if that doesn’t lead to anything higher than a sixth seed, they aren’t necessarily a team that needs home court advantage for post-season success anyway. They’ll happily take the grind house on the road, where they are 19-13 on the season, and play bully ball until they can’t anymore. All they needed was to get their foot into the door and now that it looks like they’re here to stay, they’ll be looking to repeat their surprising post-season success by dismantling championship contender after championship contender with the help of a few new faces. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince will still be able to play their ball hawking defense, but Lee and Miller give them a completely different dynamic offensively by being able to spread the floor.
They’re still gritty. They’re still bullies. They’re still a pain in the ass. Just this time, they’re better, more experienced, deeper and scarier. Why did we ever doubt these Grizzlies?
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats.