Though the holidays are fast approaching, there were a handful of responses to my call over the weekend for column topic suggestions from readers. Look for some of the other ideas to appear in future columns, and we'll probably try another reader's choice later in the season. For now, the winning suggestion comes from Kyle Larson: "huge blazer fan, but would love to hear more about the remarkable climb the grizzlies have made this season. especially since your system predicted it."
Fittingly, the turnaround started in Houston. Beginning with a column during the preseason, Basketball Prospectus has made much of the contrast between the Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies, division rivals who have been on separate paths since Memphis sent Shane Battier to Houston for the rights to Rudy Gay in the summer of 2006. On the night of Nov. 11, that comparison dramatically favored the Rockets, who stomped the Grizzlies 104-79 to drop Memphis to 1-8 on the season.
A funny thing happened on the way to the lottery, however: The Grizzlies turned into a competitive team. Memphis won its next three games against weak competition, kicking off an 11-7 stretch that has brought the team within shouting distance of a .500 record. The run was punctuated by Sunday's home win over the Denver Nuggets behind 32 points and 24 from Zach Randolph.
The Grizzlies, averaging 105.3 points per 100 possessions through Nov. 11, have improved their Offensive Rating to 111.5 since then. The improvement has been even more dramatic on defense, where Memphis was torched to the tune of 118.6 points per 100 possessions during the 1-8 start but subsequently improved to within shouting distance of league average with a 109.6 Defensive Rating. The turnaround coincides almost perfectly with the arrival of Jamaal Tinsley in Memphis, but it seems hard to believe that a backup point guard who has yet to play more than 20 minutes in December could be responsible for such an enormous change of fortunes. Whatever the reason--getting away from the distraction of Allen Iverson or simply a young squad coming together--the Grizzlies have been an entirely different team.
Memphis' marquee offseason move, the addition of Randolph in exchange for the expiring contract of Quentin Richardson, has played out exactly as the Grizzlies hoped. Randolph has been able to rehabilitate his reputation, in part by playing a more intelligent brand of basketball but also possibly because he was never quite the millstone he was made out to be during his time in New York and with the L.A. Clippers.
Because of his limitations, it's hard to see Randolph being a core piece of a highly successful team, but he's certainly an upgrade on the power forwards Memphis has run out since trading Pau Gasol to the L.A. Lakers. Randolph has posted a True Shooting Percentage slightly better than league average while using 24.1 percent of the team's possessions. There's value in that to a team that previously struggled on offense. Randolph has even developed a nice rapport with Marc Gasol, belying his ability to create for teammates when he is so inclined.
Randolph has also figured prominently in the Grizzlies' biggest strength, their work on the offensive glass. Memphis is pulling down 33.4 percent of its own misses, tops in the league by a mile. Just two other teams (Detroit and Philadelphia) are better than 30 percent in offensive rebounding. Randolph leads the league with 4.6 offensive boards per game, relentlessly attacking the glass and overpowering smaller defenders.
The second chances are one example of how the Grizzlies have been able to create baskets without assists. As expected, Memphis' rate of assisted field goals (.482) is last in the league, though the situation is not quite as dire as it was made out to be last summer. The Grizzlies are not far behind several other teams. Thanks to putbacks, Randolph's scores in the post and isolations for wings Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, they have been able to put together an above-average offense without the benefit of a lot of assists.
Instead, the more problematic Memphis weakness is a lack of outside shooting. Only Chicago has made fewer three-pointers, as the Grizzlies both shoot a low percentage from beyond the arc (31.1 percent, 24th in the NBA) and attempt them as infrequently as any other team. That's why Memphis, despite ranking eighth in the league in two-point percentage, is slightly below average in terms of effective field-goal percentage. The Grizzlies have gotten a boost lately from Mike Conley shaking out of an early shooting slump to knock down an even 50 percent of his three-point attempts in December (he's shooting 55.2 percent from the field in the month).
Defensively, Memphis has made massive, massive strides in the last month. Credit coach Lionel Hollins with molding a decent defensive unit out of a group lacking in defensive-minded players in the starting five. While the bench is stronger defensively on paper with rookies DeMarre Carroll and Sam Young, the Grizzlies' starters have been just as good on D. In the early going, Memphis was destroyed by opponents from outside. They made 42.7 percent of their threes during the 1-5 start. Since then, the Grizzlies are allowing just 33.6 percent three-point shooting, better than league average. The defense could get stronger as No. 2 overall pick Thabeet continues to learn how to apply his dominant shot blocking (he's rejecting 8.4 percent of opponents' two-point attempts, tops among players with at least 200 minutes) and earns more minutes.
The biggest issue for Memphis remains the bench. The starting five has been very effective as a group, outscoring opponents by 4.6 points per 48 minutes when on the floor together according to data from BasketballValue.com. That means that lineups with even one reserve have been outscored by 7.4 points per 48 minutes.
The difference is almost entirely on offense, where the loss of Iverson has proven costly because the Grizzlies have no go-to scorers coming off the bench. Adding Tinsley has helped somewhat, but Chris Herrington of the Memphis Flyer notes Hollins has been forced to turn to rookie second-round pick Sam Young as his top reserve scorer, which simply isn't the right fit for Young and his 48.3 percent True Shooting Percentage. That's why the rumors linking Memphis to former Houston guard Von Wafer, recently released by Olympiakos after neither side enjoyed their Greek wedding, make so much sense. Wafer could sop up those second-unit possessions and would provide additional shooting. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports that Wafer is expected to sign with the team today.
With an improved bench, could the Grizzlies make good on SCHOENE's surprising projection of a playoff run? The biggest obstacle remains the depth of the Western Conference. Memphis would be just a game out of the eighth playoff spot in the East, but still sits tied for 12th in the West. Already, a team that has played very well will have to miss the postseason in the West (if the season ended today, it would be Oklahoma City, which has a positive point differential against one of the league's more difficult schedules). That's not to mention Sacramento, ahead of the Grizzlies in adjusted point differential over the course of the season, and teams like the L.A. Clippers and New Orleans who can hope to play better as they get healthy. No, the playoffs remain an unlikely reward, but Memphis can feel good about being competitive again after three years in the NBA's wilderness.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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