Blazersedge staff writer Chris Lucia will be writing team-by-team previews over the next month as we count down to the start of the 2013-14 season. All team previews can be found right here.
2012-2013 record: 56-26, No. 2 in Southwest Division, No. 5 in Western Conference
Roster additions: Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Nick Calathes, Jamaal Franklin (Rookie, No. 41 overall),
Roster subtractions: Darrell Arthur, Austin Daye, Keyon Dooling, Tony Wroten
Remember Zach Randolph and his 20/10 days in Portland? He had that polished jumper, fearlessness in the paint and ability to finish as well as anyone around the rim as an undersized-but-crafty left-hander. He sure did seem to play defense like it was optional, though, giving up an estimated 112 points per 100 possessions during the 2005-06 season, according to basketball-reference.
That same Randolph now plays over 34 minutes a game for the Memphis Grizzlies, widely considered the best defensive team in the NBA.
Starting at center is the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. He anchors a defense that was top-10 in every relevant statistical category last season, including No.1 overall in points allowed at 89.3. Gasol made his presence felt in the paint altering shots on the defensive end and put in 14.5 points a game to go along with 4 assists on offense, one of the best passing performances of any big man last year. At 28, he's in the prime of his career and should again lead the Grizzlies to another elite year defensively.
Shooting guard Tony Allen is one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders. He does not shy away from defending anyone, and embodies Memphis' blue-collar identity. Allen and fellow starting wing Tayshaun Prince are both capable on the glass for their positions, while Randolph is one of the best rebounders in the league, period.
Point guard Mike Conley spearheads the attack on both sides of the ball, picking up over two steals a game. This puts him in the same class as guys like Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio in that category. Conley's defense last year landed him on the NBA All-Defensive second team, along with teammate Gasol. Allen was featured on the first team for the second consecutive year.
Even though the 2012-13 Grizzlies were one of the best defensive teams in the league, they still got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, due in large part to their sub-par offense.
Memphis rebounded the ball well and proved capable of scoring in the paint behind the post-play of Randolph and Gasol, but outside of that, they were one of the worst offenses in the league. Former Coach Lionel Hollins' slow-paced offensive philosophy valued possessions, but it also made for one of the worst outside shooting teams in the NBA.
The three-pointer is one of the highest-valued shots in the league because of its relative efficiency and effectiveness at spacing the floor. With a tandem like Randolph and Gasol down low, the Grizzlies perimeter players should be having a field day receiving open looks from outside.
Unfortunately, the only player to shoot above 37 percent from outside last season was forward Quincy Pondexter, who only attempted 2.6 threes a game. Conley was below average for a point guard and Prince was just decent from downtown. Somehow, Allen managed to only shoot 12.5 percent on three-pointers.
The Grizzlies front office recognized the need for outside shooting and brought back Mike Miller after a five-year absence. Miller should help stretch the floor off the bench, making 40.6 percent of his outside shot attempts in his 13-year career. Someone else besides Pondexter and Miller will have to step up and hit some outside shots for this team to have continued playoff success, though, otherwise opposing defenses will double-down in the post on Randolph and Gasol, daring Memphis' perimeter players to launch threes at a low percentage.
The bench features the aforementioned Pondexter and Miller, both good for about 20 minutes a game. Jerryd Bayless is the backup point guard, a serviceable veteran of five years who can score but does not shoot particularly efficiently, especially for his position. He distributes the ball at a reasonable rate for a scoring guard, but really should - along with the rest of the Grizzlies' wings - focus on his ability to spread the floor. Bayless connected on 42.3 percent of his outside shot two seasons ago, but that was a lockout-shortened year in which he only played 31 games.
Center Kosta Koufos was brought in from the Denver Nuggets to be an interior presence when Gasol is on the bench. He rebounds well and shoots at a high percentage, and the Grizzlies are hoping he'll continue to show growth in his second season with extended minutes. He's only 24 and his numbers have improved almost every season in his five-year career, so it's not unrealistic for Memphis to expect him to be one of their main contributors off the bench. Big man Ed Davis brings toughness to the rotation and can play either position down low while pulling down rebounds at a solid rate.
Memphis was one of the premiere defensive teams in the NBA last season, and they have the coaching staff and players to put in a similar performance this year. Their offense is going to hold them back again if they can't connect on their jumpers, though. If Conley and Prince can be counted on to hit more of their outside opportunities and Miller upholds his reputation as one of the best shooters in the league, Randolph and Gasol will face less defensive pressure as opposing teams won't be able to collapse on them in the paint as much.
The Grizzlies should make another playoff run this year just based on their defense. If they show an improved ability to hit shots around the perimeter, they could be even more dangerous. If not, well, it doesn't matter how many stops your defense gets if you're not outscoring the opponent. If the Grizzlies want to be viewed as title-contenders, it's up to them to improve their offense and address their glaring weaknesses on that side of the ball. Until then, they probably won't be in the conversation of upper-echelon teams like the Thunder, Heat and the Spurs.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter