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How good can the Memphis Grizzlies become?

Oct 6, 2011, 4:58 PM EST

San Antionio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies provided one of the 2011 playoffs’ most endearing storylines for reasons that went beyond a mere appreciation for the underdog. They won their first-round series against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, sure, but it was the way the Grizzlies won — and the personnel with which they did so — that gave them their undeniable appeal. The Grizz were relentless, audacious, and thanks to Tony Allen, just a little bit insane. The playoff potency of that combination goes without saying at this point, but it should be interesting to see just how far the Grizzlies can climb without any true top-tier prospects in the pipeline. Memphis will be putting their own version of the one-star model to the test over the next few seasons, with their advancement dependent on the collective growth of a number of talented — but sub-elite — contributors.

The Grizzlies were good enough to usher the Spurs out of the postseason, but faltered slightly against an impressive Oklahoma City team. That’s an awesome showing for an eighth seed, but the Grizzlies will no longer be working within the expectations of an underdog club. Memphis has officially arrived, and while their ascent has brought the franchise its first ever playoff series win and an air of respectability, so too will come the weight of all they’ve earned. Wins only matter if a team can win consistently, and the season to come will serve as a referendum on all Memphis has accomplished thus far.

Zach Randolph and co. are certainly up to that challenge; their playoff success was no fluke, and virtually every aspect of their performance against the Spurs and Thunder should be replicable next season. That said, competitive teams do more than simply affirm their initial claims. The next few seasons in Memphis will be defined by the team’s ability to take the next step, a framework that would seem problematic for the Grizzlies on first glance. Memphis is essentially locked into their current roster (with the only exception being O.J. Mayo, who will likely be dealt as soon as possible) thanks to the team’s salary structure, and can’t count on any tremendous internal improvements.

Still, there’s reason to believe in the Grizzlies’ upward momentum. Their avenues toward improvement may not be as straightforward as those of younger, talent-laden clubs, but with a few minor tweaks, the Grizz could be ready to climb into the ranks of the West’s quasi-contenders. Such a climb is hardly a given, but whether or not Memphis can continue to thrive against such lofty expectations depends on a few crucial factors:

Incremental gains across the board

Memphis doesn’t have a star-in-waiting on the verge of a substantial leap, but the majority of the team’s rotation players are inching toward their respective primes. Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur are all 26 years old or younger, and Xavier Henry — an intriguing long-term wing prospect — is just 20. All will see better production in their NBA careers if everything goes according to plan, and while a single player’s modest boost in field goal percentage or rebounding may not seem like much, collectively that group’s gains have the potential to propel the Grizz forward.

Memphis also benefits from the fact that the team’s vets — Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, et al — are still well within their most productive NBA years. If Zeebo keeps rolling, Allen continues to play some of the best perimeter defense in the league, and the rest of the crew develops on course, the Grizzlies could be ready to improve substantially even without a breakout star or a significant addition.

Shot redistribution

Rudy Gay’s shot selection isn’t quite worthy of an intervention, but he still needs to understand that a more conservative offensive role would be the best for both himself and the team. Randolph is the Memphis’ most dominant offensive player, but Gay plays in the most dominant offensive style. It’s all well and good that Gay posted career highs in field goal percentage and three-point percentage last season, but his shot creating ability still isn’t quite profound enough for him to function as an offensive star. Instead, he’s much better off deferring to Randolph and the team concept; Conley, Gasol, and Arthur are capable enough to be trusted with more shots, and only by working in concert with them can Gay maximize his own offensive efficiency.

Randolph is incredibly productive and Gay is an impressive player in his own right, but those two will have to lean more than ever on the cast around them for offensive buoyancy. The road to Memphis’ improvement comes in ramping up their middling offensive performance, and considering that Gay overstepped his bounds a bit in the way he controlled the ball early in the 2010-2011 season, striking a proper balance seems to be the most sensible way to reach that end.

Shore up their inexplicable shortcomings on the defensive glass

Memphis isn’t without their fair share of weaknesses: the Grizz could stand to contest shots a bit better, they could get to the free throw line a bit more, and they could exercise more patience in their half-court offense. Yet all of those limitations are understandable and explainable, while the team’s inability to secure defensive rebounds is a bit more baffling. Despite having a top-10 defensive rebounder (Randolph), another big with strong rebounding numbers (Gasol), and a group of pretty solid positional rebounders, the Grizzlies ranked 21st in the league last season in defensive rebounding rate. Randolph’s boards alone should be enough to vault Memphis toward rebounding respectability, but the team’s risky defensive style has apparently afforded opponents with a chance to dominate the glass. The Grizzlies need to strike that happy balance between generating turnovers and maintaining some semblance of a stable half-court defense, at least so much that solid individual rebounders don’t suffer as an aggregate.

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