Memphis Grizzlies 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record: 55-27, No. 2 Southwest Division, No. 5 Eastern Conference
Roster Additions: Matt Barnes, Sampson Carter, Yakhouba Diawara, Ryan Hollins, Lazeric Jones, Jarell Martin (rookie, no. 25), Brandan Wright
Roster Subtractions: Nick Calathes, Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer
SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear Blues
In 2014-15, The Memphis Grizzlies found themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race for the fourth consecutive season. Is this the year that they finally establish themselves as legit title contenders?
The Grizzlies started last season on a roll, winning their first six games and finishing November with a 15-2 record, highlighted by a 26-point comeback win over the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 13. Head coach Dave Joerger continued pushing his "grit n' grind" philosophy featuring a possession-limiting offense coupled with a physical, nearly suffocating defense.
Memphis finished the year ranked No. 26 in pace (92.0) and No. 3 in defensive rating (102.2), according to basketball-reference.com, and this is right where they wanted to be. On the offensive end, the Grizzlies ran everything through star center Marc Gasol, who responded with a career year. Playing the high-low post game with power forward Zach Randolph, Gasol excelled at finding the open man, setting devastating screens for ball handlers, and connecting from the mid-range when the opportunity presented itself.
Randolph had another fine season in his own right, whether scoring in the post, or cleaning up the offensive glass to the tune of 3.2 offensive rebounds per game. Known for his lack of athleticism, Randolph displayed excellent footwork and used his array of ball fakes to create a legitimate low-post presence for the team.
Memphis struggled with spacing issues throughout the season, and without point guard Mike Conley and shooting guard Courtney Lee, defenses would have been able to pack into the paint like sardines. Conley, in particular, was able to punish opposing guards if they tried to help off of him, shooting 39 percent from the 3-point arc in four attempts per game. Lee shot 40 percent from distance in just under three attempts per game. This type of solid shooting was critical to the Grizzlies' success, because opponents were able to virtually ignore shooting guard/small forward Tony Allen if he was more than ten feet from the rim.
On Jan. 12, in an attempt to provide some punch at small forward, Memphis traded Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter for Boston's Jeff Green. Green, an athletic wing known for attacking the basket, seemed to get the team on track after a four-game losing streak, and Memphis won 13 of its first 15 games with Green in the lineup.
Even with their best perimeter defender, Tony Allen, now coming off the bench, Memphis continued to be devastating on the defensive end. Coach Joerger emphasized physicality on defense, and the team was happy to oblige. Coupled with the aforementioned molasses-like pace of play, the defense kept Memphis from coughing up leads all season.
The Grizzlies rolled to a 55-27 record, good for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and a first round match up with the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the Blazers won the Northwest Division, they were the No. 4 seed, though Memphis had a better record, and ultimately home court advantage throughout the series.
The Grizzlies were able to handle a decimated Portland team with relative ease. Memphis' starters performed as expected for the most part, but key reserves Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih stepped up to help seal big wins. Portland was able to win a do-or-die game four on their home court, but ultimately succumbed to the gentleman's sweep.
Memphis then matched up with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semi Finals. While they matched up relatively well on paper, Warriors coach Steve Kerr made the brilliant move of putting center Andrew Bogut "on" Tony Allen in the series. By essentially letting the poor shooting Allen roam free on the perimeter, the Warriors were playing five on four on the defensive end. Coach Joerger was eventually forced to sit Allen for long stretches, which took one of the top perimeter defenders in the league off of the floor against a team that features Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Predictably, the Warriors shot their way to a 4-2 series victory and ultimately, the NBA Championship.
In the offseason, Memphis did little to indicate that they would be shifting gears. First, they drafted LSU power forward Jarell Martin, projected to be a prototypical NBA power forward. Then they added power forward Brandan Wright, who is known as a solid finisher around the rim. Both players should see minutes replacing the outgoing Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes.
Finally, Memphis acquired small forward Matt Barnes in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, reuniting him with the team that originally drafted him. A strong perimeter defender, and just as willing (if not more so) to do the dirty work, Barnes is a much better shooter than Allen. This move was made with the Warriors' playoff game plan in mind, should other teams get the same idea this season.
Everything else looks to be the same. The Grizzlies have had success playing one way, and they aren't about to mess with it by pivoting, even if they haven't quite gotten over the hump.
Is Jeff Green going to be who we thought he was? Capable of making breathtaking plays while attacking the rim, Green tends to ignore his physical advantages and play semi-passively. While Memphis fans were hoping that he was the piece that would put the team over the top, Green performed inconsistently and finished near his career average in points and rebounds last season.
One of the main reasons Memphis made the trade for him in the first place was his theoretical ability to guard power forwards, which would allow Memphis to go small for stretches. Green struggled in the role, getting overpowered by bigger forwards, and struggling to stay on the perimeter without falling for pump fakes against stretch fours. Sharing a position with Matt Barnes (and Tony Allen to a degree) means that if Green is going to have a bigger impact, a decent percentage of his minutes are going to have to come at the stretch four when Randolph is on the bench.
The Grizzlies still feature all of the rest of their usual faces, for better or worse. While they will continue to "grit n' grind," they will likely also struggle with shot creation. Though Barnes will help some in that regard, barring a breakout performance from Green or thirty-year-old Courtney Lee, Memphis will again rely on Conley to bail them out on too many occasions. Their defense is good enough to survive the regular season in the Western Conference even with the offensive struggles, but when everyone ramps it up in the playoffs, the Grizzlies are going to need someone to be the true go-to scoring option, and while they have some very talented offensive players, they don't have a "1a" offensive threat that they can ride throughout May.
Second round and out.